It was fitting that the architect behind the likely destruction of Collingwood’s season was a player who embodies everything that the Magpies are not.
Robbie Gray is a cruel and wonderful man. Surrounded by noise and stupidity he dances and shuffles, casually and without forgiveness. He hopped and skipped in his run-up to his first quarter banana set-shot goal from the right pocket, the almost childlike steps a wink to his brilliance, the immaculate finish some poison for the Magpies to drink.
He took impossible contested marks, weaved through traffic, and set up his teammates. More than anything, though, he finished his work. Everything he did built towards an ending that was even more emphatic than what preceded it. When the time came to turn the knife, there was no hesitation.
It was a lesson for Collingwood that will be learned too late. The Magpies, an elite contested ball, clearance and forward territory side, are masters of beginnings, novices at endings. Their work ethic is pure, and their hardness tough to be questioned. The only five teams more proficient at winning contested ball are the top five teams on the ladder.
Collingwood, of course, sits 13th. What separates them from the other statistically elite sides are the things that Gray has perfected.
Where the Magpies work hard, Gray kills hard. His movement is incisive, his kicking purposeful. Conversely, Jack Crisp kicks in petrified hope, and Taylor Adams’s ball drop is a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Collingwood is not without class. If class were a 1990s alternative rock album, Scott Pendlebury would be OK Computer. Steele Sidebottom is majestic, and Adam Treloar is so fucking fast that somehow he has made speed equate with class. Daniel Wells and Jamie Elliott, when they are not doing their best impressions of Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Unbreakable, are full of class. As is Jordan De Goey, when he is not punching people.
But indecision, inefficiency and skill shortages are a disease. Jarryd Blair has infected everyone. Taylor Adams has murdered life. Lynden Dunn is lovely but the fit with his new team is worryingly perfect.
Port Adelaide is a dominant contested ball and clearance team, and Collingwood beat them in both areas last Saturday and were still only notionally ever in the game.
From a young age, football coaches teach hard work, discipline and persistence, because those are things that can be learned. They do not, however, teach magic.
Collingwood is the world’s greatest under 16s team. They see ball and get ball and then kick it forward. When they don’t have the ball, they get it back. When they’re at their best – the second quarter against Melbourne, the third against Geelong – they make football look incredibly pure and simple. When they’re on, they feel like a wave, a downhill fireball, ferociously embodying the core ideas of the game. But there is no refinement here, no second gear. They are only on or off, everything or nothing. Black or white, with no Robbie in between.
The looming failure of Collingwood’s season is probably not the coach’s fault. The players, whether they like him or not, play hard and play desperate. The catastrophe has been in list management. Chris Mayne (more like ‘CHRIS MAYNE’ – the idea, the capitalised symbol of disaster), yes, of course, but the issue runs deeper, with the recruitment of players like Adams, Crisp, Levi Greenwood and Jesse White, who do a lot of things right (except for White) and the exact same thing wrong.
The Magpies can’t kick and they can’t invent. They have some players that can, but too many that can’t. Unless they find players who have or can learn the skills of their coach, their captain and the man who put them to the sword last weekend, they will continue to remain stuck in a brave nowhere.