When Geelong lost to Collingwood in Round 19 last year its skipper Matthew Scarlett thought it was something the Cats had done: “We were despicable”, he exclaimed.
Immediately after the Preliminary Final, however, he realised it wasn’t his team’s fault. Its time was up.
Collingwood descended on the MCG like a plague of locusts upon a cornfield, stripping the Cats’ carcass in 120 minutes, as if four seasons of greatness had never existed. “It felt like they had three or four extra players out there …they just swarm you. I’ve never seen anything like that”, said a shellshocked Scarlett.
Any player thrashed in a final knows that awful feeling. Scarlett felt like Martin Amis’s world weary-author: “It was like a game when you lost the rhythm of dominance and you never moved freely but always in reply”.
Mark Thompson watched helplessly as his champion side had the life compressed out of it and later announced, dark eyed-exhausted and ready to retire as a head coach, that Collingwood was the new “superteam”.
Thompson had no energy left to confront the rise of this new superpower and his job was done.
Malthouse, who appears to view coaching as a true calling, had gone back to the Roman Empire for inspiration. Ancient methods of warfare are obselete in an age when you kill and die without ever seeing your victim or killer.
But the spectacle of old war remains on the sporting field.
During their time the Geelong players resembled majestic knights. They were unbeatable one-on-one, opponents’ hands sliding off their sleek armour and their steeds’ muscular flanks, high impact collisions causing a little wobble from which they quickly regained their composure to complete the brutal but mesmerising task of empire building.
Inevitably an opponent arrived capable of ending its reign: the men-boys of Malthouse. A machine ten years in the making. Its gallant prototypes were seen in 2002 and 2003, and in 2007 and 2009, finding significant weaknesses in classier opposition but eventually, like their ’70’s and ’80’s forebears, found wanting.
The modern incarnation however couldn’t be turned away – it attacked with the ferocity of a barbarian horde and the organisation of a Roman legion. The Geelong players soon found themselves dismounted, confused and clanking about on the sinking turf at the mercy of these boy scout assassins.
In its bleak eras Collingwood lacked quality on-ballers and small forwards. In his first full year as coach Leigh Matthews commented to me, a dimunitive first year player, in what I thought was a promising aside, that it was no secret the club needed a fast rover.
Collingwood now have players like Brad Dick coming out of their ears; more little men than they know what to do with. And then they go and add a prison-hardened talent hell-bent on AFL redemption like Andrew Krakouer. Apparently there are more to come.
Leon Davis, Shane O’Bree, Tarkyn Lockyer, Paul Medhurst and others all played their roles but were not required on the ultimate day. Their existence isn’t noted on that vast framed Premiership board adorned with photos of the 22 Smiling Ones (rookie Jarryd Blair looking like his eighteen birthdays have all come at once.) that sits in the windows of the AFL Shop franchises.
Collingwood have perfected the art of the non specialist. Backs are playing up forward, forwards down back, and everyone’s taking shots at goal (amazingly, most miss – the Premiers had the the worst goal conversion rate with 49%). “Professional bench warmer”, once an insult, now applies to some of their match winners, who engage in short intense efforts at varied tasks.
And it’s not pretty. Their forward line against Carlton resembled an Auskick session with the entire squad of both teams camped around the ball. Inevitably, out of the seething mass a little Collingwood leg would poke its way out to kick at goal.
Nor are its champions typical: Scott Pendlebury looks like a porn star and plays with a sublime minimalism, and the oustanding player of the competition, Dane Swan, moves as if metal buckets are tied to his feet. The flashy stylists Dale Thomas, Alan Didak and Steele Sidebottom are also capable of brutal defence.
Malthouse’s penchant for military strategy is matched by a strong paternal instinct that characterised his distant predeccessor Tom Hafey whose Hard Yakka sponsored teams were hard yakka’ed to numerous Grand Finals (but also to exhaustion).
Of course if Lenny Hayes’ kick in that first Grand Final had veered to the left instead of the right St kilda would be Premiers. Who knows what would have happened then at Magpieland – a bloodletting on the order of Emperor Eddie, the destruction of the players’ self belief?
Those things didn’t happen and after winning their second Grand Final in five months, the Collingwood kids are sitting pretty; still smiling. And the frightening thing for the other clubs is they don’t look at all battle weary. They seem completely unaffected by the drama of it all. During their annual pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon they resembled a Christian youth group, not the champion team of an elite contact sport.
Impressive novice James Hird recently proclaimed that coaching is not rocket science. Perhaps not, but it has taken a grand master like Malthouse an entire decade to brew something special.
What to do now?, the other clubs’ coaches must be asking themselves.
How to wipe the smiles off those precocious faces? How to prevent a Collingwood empire?
The only hope for the rest of the competition is if Nathan Buckley next year replicates the performance of the last Magpie champion to coach the team, Tony Shaw.