We’re a week out from the AFL finals series and Collingwood is in cruise control.
On the field, the Magpies are impeccable. They’ve won 20 of 21 games, scoring the most points and conceding the fewest points of any team this season.
Off the field, they’re as lucrative as ever. With more than 70,000 members and a solid football department, the Pies are heading for their largest revenue total yet.
The Magpies are looking stronger than padlocks. The 2011 premiership is really theirs to lose.
But there’s one probing issue; one that will keep the footy community talking over the coming weeks.
Which players are in Collingwood’s best 22? Who deserves to come back into the side? Who will be unlucky to miss out?
With a plethora of talent and a number of potential All-Australians, selecting the Magpies’ line-up this season has been harder than teaching elderly people how to text on a mobile phone.
The names are intimidating. There’s Ben Reid and Leon Davis in defence. Then Travis Cloke and Alan Didak causing havoc up forward. And of course Dane Swan, Scott Pendlebury and Dale Thomas accumulating through the midfield.
However, the most impressive aspect about the Pies this season has been their depth. When first-choice players haven’t taken their spot in the side, we’ve seen new talent emerge. Most importantly, these players have fitted into the side with consummate ease.
But there are 40 players on Collingwood’s list and only 22 can play.
Barring Nathan Brown, Brad Dick – both on the long-term injury list – and Thomas, who was suspended by the Match Review Panel for a hit on Garrick Ibbotson, the Pies will have a full list to choose from.
So which players deserve to come back into the side?
Heath Shaw is a must. Before his eight-week suspension for betting on an AFL match, he was in All-Australian form, averaging career-high disposals (22) and tackles (4) over the first 14 games. His ban finishes this weekend, meaning he’ll be available for selection in the first week of the finals.
Shaw headed to Arizona during his time off to keep himself in peak fitness. He returned five kilograms lighter. There’s no doubt he wants his spot back – and he deserves it.
Nick Maxwell is another necessity. The Pies skipper is far from the best player in the team and is considered a liability by some media pundits. But his on-field leadership and ability to command the troops, particularly down back, is crucial.
Maxwell’s currently out of the side due to a broken thumb. On Sunday, Pies coach Mick Malthouse told SEN Radio the skipper was ‘a week or thereabouts’ away from returning. However, we must remember it took ex-Essendon forward Matthew Lloyd seven weeks to recover from the same injury in 2002. The last thing Collingwood wants to do is rush Maxwell’s return.
Luke Ball and Chris Tarrant missed the clash with Fremantle due to general soreness, but both will walk straight back into the side over the next fortnight. While Sharrod Wellingham, the Magpies’ best midfield tagger, will come straight back into the side once he’s recovered from a hip injury.
But who’ll be the unlucky ones? Which players will have their finals dreams shattered?
Alex Fasolo, the NAB Rising Star nominee for Round 22, is likely to be the unluckiest of the lot. He’s booted 14 goals from 10 games this season. But with Jarryd Blair’s impressive finals campaign in 2010 and Andrew Krakouer’s freakish capabilities, it’s hard to see another small forward squeezing into the side.
Tyson Goldsack was a key member of the Pies’ 2010 premiership victory, famously kicking the first goal of the Grand Final replay. However he’s failed to cement his spot in the team this season. Mind you, his 23-possession performance against Fremantle last weekend proved he’s capable of stepping into Maxwell’s shoes if he is unfit.
Also, ruckman Cameron Wood isn’t in the same class as Darren Jolly and Leigh Brown, while it would be silly to expose young players Ben Sinclair and Tom Young at this stage of their careers.
At full-strength, these are the 22 players that will give Collingwood its best chance of winning the flag:
Backs: Nick Maxwell, Chris Tarrant, Alan Toovey
Half Backs: Leon Davis, Ben Reid, Harry O’Brien
Centre: Dale Thomas, Luke Ball, Heath Shaw
Half Forwards: Alan Didak, Travis Cloke, Dayne Beams
Forwards: Steele Sidebottom, Chris Dawes, Andrew Krakouer
Ruck: Darren Jolly, Scott Pendlebury, Dane Swan
Interchange: Sharrod Wellingham, Leigh Brown, Jarryd Blair, Ben Johnson
But it shouldn’t matter which players don a Collingwood jumper during the finals series.
The Pies are a champion team, not a team of champions.
Unless something goes drastically wrong, the Pies should be crowned back-to-back premiers.