The inaugural AFLW season has thrown up plenty of surprises in the first three weeks, but nobody could have predicted that the Collingwood Magpies would sit at the foot of the ladder as the only side without any premiership points.
Though the Magpies aren’t mathematically out of the running for a top two finish, there is no reason to believe that the side will turn things around in the remaining four weeks.
Collingwood’s first three performances have been so underwhelming that fans are searching for an outlet for their frustration, and have found it in marquee signing Moana Hope.
The dynamic forward, who kicked 106 goals in the VFL Women’s competition last year, has only managed one major from three games this season, and her prominence in the media has made her an easy target for irritated supporters.
After the struggles of her Magpies in the first two weeks, Hope responded to criticism of her media commitments by taking a week away from the spotlight, including vacating her Twitter account.
It was to no avail – Collingwood went down by four points against the undefeated Brisbane Lions to register its third loss in as many games, and Hope’s two disposals and solitary behind was all the forward could manage.
Hope has only had four clear opportunities to have an impact this season, having been smothered by two or three opponents on almost every occasion the ball is kicked in her direction.
She has scored two behinds, one from a tight angle against the wind and one from a crumbing opportunity, kicked one goal from her only one-on-one ground opportunity, and passed up a chance at goal to gift Caitlyn Edwards a major from a near-certain position.
The blame cannot fall on Moana Hope, who has battled to do what she can – along with her fellow forwards – with the little that has been provided from a midfield rushing disposals, while the Magpies defenders have attempted to play beyond their capabilities.
Collingwood’s forward delivery has been abysmal. It’s a side effect of a game plan that asks the midfielders to dispose of the ball first and ask questions later, as the Magpies are third in contested possessions but only sixth in uncontested possessions.
Though the Magpies average 24.3 inside 50s (4th), 22.3 clearances (1st) and 6 centre clearances (2nd) on the back of Emma King’s elite ruck work – which should hold the team in good stead – the team’s overall disposal efficiency of 53.1% is the worst in the competition, with the brunt of it coming from key midfield players.
Five of the Magpies’ top seven ball-winning midfielders operate at below 50% disposal efficiency, including the team’s two top clearance players in Amelia Barden (avg 4.3 clearances, 38.2% DE) and Bree White (avg 2.7 clearances, 45.2% DE).
In fact, if it weren’t for the output of Sarah D’Arcy (avg 13 disposals, 64.1% DE) pushing from half-forward into the centre, there would be no quality forward delivery at all.
The other exception to the seven, being captain Steph Chiocci, isn’t exactly lighting up the competition either, averaging under 10 disposals per game, most of which have been uncontested, at 58.6% DE.
Given those numbers, it’s no surprise that between them, Hope, Jasmine Garner and Jessica Cameron – a forward trio that kicked a combined 187 goals in the VFL in 2016 – have only managed four goals and eight marks inside the forward 50 altogether.
Perhaps most damning for the Magpies as a team is that they have only taken three running bounces this season, all of which came in round one against Carlton, further proving the unwillingness to run and carry.
It shouldn’t come as a shock that the Magpies have scored the least points this season with such a poor midfield showing, and it makes the likes of Meg Hutchins and Nicola Stevens look as though they are to blame when they have battled hard, particularly Hutchins.
The seasoned sweeper operates at 81.3% with an average of 10.7 disposals per game, but her potential impact out of defence has been limited by questionable instruction.
The Magpies’ game plan sees them chip the ball around in the defensive half, gaining territory by inching forward, a strategy that is commonplace in the men’s AFL.
The strategy might not be such a problem if there was room to do so in the defensive half, the conditions allowed for it and all the players were reliable by foot.
Collingwood’s commitment to the strategy has been its downfall, proceeding to chip the ball around in the rain against Melbourne and in the face of strong winds against Brisbane.
You have to give credit to the Magpies coaches for setting a precedent and challenging the players to play an elite style, but the women’s game is not ready for patient, precise build-ups just yet.
It was only in the final 10 minutes of their round three loss against Brisbane that Collingwood looked like a damaging unit in the back half, and it came from the boot of Hutchins.
The team were instructed to give the ball to her at every opportunity, and Hutchins looked to create by clearing lines with one swift kick rather than chipping it forward.
The team as a whole looked stronger – though tiring in the scorching Queensland heat – just from ditching the tiki-taka-esque style.
Approaching the game in that manner, combined with an extra emphasis to possess and run with the ball in the midfield, would allow the Magpies to take better advantage of the talent in their side.
Most importantly, it would allow Hope, Garner and Cameron to have more of an impact in games rather than having to create their own chances against multiple opponents.
With four games remaining – beginning with a high stakes clash against the Western Bulldogs this weekend – there is still time remaining for the Magpies to pull their season from the ashes and salvage something positive.
But it would require an immediate change of mindset and playing style.