Pies pair need to ruffle Eagles

DURING its past few years residing at or near the top of the AFL ladder, Collingwood has consistently shown the capacity to rise to a challenge. It won’t get many better opportunities to prove those credentials again than tonight at Patersons Stadium. On both a team and individual level.
Nanjing Night Net

This is a big game for the Magpies, who will be overtaken by West Coast for that all-important top-four spot on the ladder with a loss to the Eagles.

To that end, their phenomenal and well-documented record on the road is a handy source of fortification – it stands at 10 straight wins interstate, and 16 of the past 17, a string of successes that goes back five years.

But it’s a big night for a couple of Magpie players, in particular. Travis Cloke has occupied more column centimetres and more air-time than probably any other player in the AFL this season, much of it less than glowing.

The other player might arguably have figured in less dialogue about season 2012 than just about any of his peers. But that doesn’t lessen the responsibility on his shoulders tonight.

Cameron Wood, despite the surname, is far from a Magpie favourite. But the big ruckman, with the absence of the Pies’ No. 1 man Darren Jolly, faces possibly the biggest test of his 63-game career up against West Coast’s star ruck tandem of Dean Cox and Nick Naitanui.

Wood has played just five games this season, four of them when Jolly was injured, and only one against a side with top-eight credentials, Carlton. That was in round three when the pair played as a duo, and Collingwood was smashed. This assignment looks a particularly daunting task.

But as good as the much-vaunted Cox-Naitanui combination has been for West Coast, there is some history and numbers to give both Wood, and ”the Woods”, some hope.

Wood has travelled this path before, in round 10 last year, when Collingwood comfortably defeated the rapidly emerging Eagles. He got belted for hitout numbers by the West Coast pair. But he did at least manage to remain competitive around the ground.

Jolly looked sore and tired last week against North Melbourne, and towards the end was ruthlessly exploited by the Roos’ Todd Goldstein. Against the Eagles pair, Wood, with a bit more help from the pinch-hitting Chris Dawes, might at least have the mobility required that Jolly patently lacked last week.

The bigger encouragement comes from current statistics. West Coast is a clear No. 1 on the differential rankings for hitouts (plus 20.3) and hitouts to advantage (plus 4.4). The Magpies’ equivalent rankings are 12th and seventh, which doesn’t appear to bode well.

Interestingly, though, when it comes to clearance differentials, the Eagles aren’t so hot. They’re ranked only 12th (minus 1.6). That’s one area in which Collingwood more than holds its own, the Pies ranked fourth (plus 3.6). Those figures should look a little better again for the return of their best stoppage winner in Dane Swan.

When the Pies just managed to outlast West Coast in round 13, even against Jolly, the Eagles dominated the hitouts 44-26, yet the final clearance tally was 36 apiece. Similarly, in the centre square, where Cox and Naitanui are often at their most effective – the hitout count going West Coast’s way 17-7 – the clearances were again even, with a dozen each.

That result might also give the beleaguered Cloke, defended again by coach Nathan Buckley this week, some badly needed encouragement. In clearly his most significant performance of the season, Cloke kicked five goals that afternoon, nearly half his team’s dozen for the game.

If Dawes is to share a bigger rucking load alongside Wood than he normally would in a pairing with Jolly, the Pies and Cloke will have fingers crossed for a repeat performance. He’ll certainly need better delivery than the unusually sloppy supply he and the other Collingwood forwards received from their teammates further afield in the North Melbourne loss.

Yet for all the hand-wringing over Cloke’s 2012 performance, he’s still averaging 2.2 goals a game, not an almighty tumble from last year’s return of 2.8, and while his marking has fallen away further on numbers than 2011, he remains the AFL’s No. 1 for contested marks at 2.7 a game, ahead even of Geelong star Tom Hawkins, who has had a year full of plaudits.

The turnaround for Cloke might not be as far away as many think. Wood, meanwhile, can help the Pies get the job done tonight simply by doing his job. They’re both big parts of the bigger picture.

And when it comes to that, as we’ve seen time and time again in these circumstances, Collingwood has an uncanny knack of painting an interstate masterpiece.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.