No more excuses for Mo-less Magpies

No player has been more maligned in the AFLW’s short existence than Collingwood’s Moana Hope, and whoever comes in second place isn’t even running the same race.

Hope was thrust into the limelight when she became the face of the Collingwood Football Club, named as one of two marquee signings in 2016 in the midst of her record-smashing 106-goal VFL Women’s season.

Moana Hope is dejected after Collingwood again lost the AFLW season opener to Carlton. Image: Michael Willson/AFL Media

After kicking six goals for the Western Bulldogs in that year’s All-Stars Match against Melbourne, “Mo” was the star player of the whole AFLW – a household name in homes around the country, some of which had only recently welcomed women’s football into their lives.

17 months later, Hope is an afterthought. She has gone from being the competition’s ‘it’ player before a ball was bounced, to being omitted from Collingwood’s squad for last weekend’s round two match against Fremantle.

And no matter how you spin it, it’s not her fault.

Admittedly, Hope set herself up for scrutiny not just by her excellent performances on the field, but by the profile she was building away from it.

Mo, along with the remarkable Susan Alberti, was featured on ABC’s Australian Story, introducing us to the woman she is off the field and the hardships she has overcome.

Before a ball was even bounced in the brand new AFL Women’s competition, a book on her life so far was published, an honour often bestowed upon the greats of Australian Rules football following retirement.

She was everywhere. On TV, in ad campaigns – you could hardly round a corner without hearing about or seeing Moana Hope.

So when it came time to perform in the AFLW, Moana Hope’s lack of impact was met with severe scrutiny, most damningly from the black and white faithful.

A back issue in the pre-season limited her early impact playing against two – sometimes three – defenders, and a knee injury would render her ineffective as the number one forward for the remainder of the season.

While most players would be celebrated for playing through pain, Hope was maligned and criticised by frustrated supporters and media outlets, which both responded as though they had been sold a dud.

Hope still kicked seven goals for the season despite the knee injury, which was largely due to Collingwood changing its attacking emphasis, and the Magpies won three of their final four matches in 2017.

If you still wanted to be critical of Hope’s 2017 season, there was enough to mount a case.

But from the end of the 2017 season onward is where the blame for Moana Hope’s poor AFLW form could no longer be put on her, but solely on the football club.

Fully aware of the criticism and the need to give more, Hope had lost eight kilograms before the AFLW pre-season even started.

This was a new Mo, a Mo who was ready to get back to kicking goals and dominating her opponents in one-on-ones as she had done in order to kick her 106 goals in 2016, and a combined 261 goals in 49 matches since her full return to footy in 2014.

Then Collingwood played her in the midfield. The move, unsurprisingly, did not work.

The modus operandi of Magpies coach Wayne Siekman is to play build-up football and have as many players playing multiple positions as possible, two approaches which do not favour the women’s game.

When the midfield experiment inevitably bombed, Hope was thrown forward in the season opener against Carlton and appeared to be the Magpies’ only dangerous target, and would’ve had three set shots had it not been for some unbelievable defensive work from the Blues defence.

The next week, she was dropped – made an example of for committing to getting fitter and fulfilling the role that was asked of her, even though it was nonsensical.

As an onlooker, the decision to leave Hope out of the team was made laughable when viewing Collingwood’s setup against the Fremantle Dockers, who the Pies inevitably lost to.

With new sensation Chloe Molloy and inclusion Jess Duffin both playing in the backline and Jasmine Garner being used across half-forward, the prime forward spot was given to the competition’s best ruckwoman in Emma King, essentially putting the Collingwood midfield unit – which is by far the most unequipped to play contested football – even further behind the eight ball.

When King is actually playing in the ruck, she is almost guaranteed to give her side first use from the centre. Taking her out of her best position is like gifting clearances to the other team.

The Pies accepted that they were not as good as their opposition. The entire team was dropped back to the defensive half in the second and third terms when Freo had the momentum. No attempt was made to stop the purple onslaught, just contain it.

The Magpies might as well have begged Freo to keep attacking until they inevitably scored goals, because that’s what happened.

Collingwood lost the clearance battle 21 to 12 and gave up 36 inside 50s against Fremantle, the third most conceded by a team in any AFLW match to date.

Unsurprisingly, the Magpies could only kick four goals against a Dockers defence that was systematically torn apart by the Western Bulldogs the round prior, and that includes the first two majors of the match.

Had it not been for midfielder Christina Bernardi’s two goals in trying conditions and the combined efforts of Duffin and Molloy in the defensive half, the Magpies would’ve been blown out on the scoreboard.

And let’s be honest, the Dockers are nothing special. But even without two star midfielders in Kiara Bowers and Kellie Gibson, they easily outworked their opposition and had no problem sending attack after attack at a retreating Collingwood.

Moana Hope is not the problem. Collingwood’s issues are a direct result of a weak midfield and a coaching staff that has learnt nothing from the change of emphasis that turned the team’s season around last year. It feels like déjà vu – we were having the exact same conversation about the Magpies’ structure last year.

Instead, the Pies insist on playing a slow build-up game despite it being their downfall in 2017, and seemingly completely ignoring the lightning quick ball movers and handy users of the pill at their disposal.

It’s not just the personnel in Collingwood’s midfield that is the issue – though how the coaching staff thought they could build a successful team without a superstar contested ball winner is beyond the realm of comprehension.

It’s the way those midfielders have been instructed to play. The core midfield group cannot match it with physical opposition, yet the team insists on fighting a losing battle.

The Magpies could easily find success playing to their strengths, adopting a similar forward setup to the St Kilda Sharks side that allowed Hope to kick her 106 goals. They have the pieces to do it, including Mo and Jasmine Garner who were teammates at the Sharks.

If teams opt to double-team Mo, Garner – or Sarah D’Arcy when she returns from suspension – can own the space 20 to 40 metres out from goal.

If both options aren’t on, the opposition defence will be spread enough for Collingwood to run the ball into the forward 50 arc and hit the scoreboard that way. God forbid the Pies actually use Steph Chiocci as a damaging outside runner rather than an accumulator who handballs backwards or chips sideways at every opportunity.

If teams slack off Hope, she gets the kind of one-on-one that she can make a living from. It’s a very simple win-win-win setup that plays to the strengths of Collingwood’s list, and even allows Molloy and Duffin to remain in defence as an added bonus.

Or better yet, bring in veteran defender and expert sweeper Meg Hutchins for a game and push one of the two forward.

Use the team’s pace and personnel as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Playing your best players out of position because you choose to leave out a star player is going backwards.

But perhaps the Collingwood coaching staff realising the error of their ways is wishful thinking. Even after only two rounds, it almost seems too late for the Magpies to turn the corner, especially with their most naturally gifted forward on the outer.

Collingwood’s last chance is this Sunday at home against GWS. It’s too late to show signs of improvement – the Magpies have to win or else their season will be over after the first three rounds, just as it was last year.

The same build-up play will not be enough to beat the Giants, who are dogged at the contest and work hard away from the ball. They may also be winless, but they have shown a hell of a lot more than Collingwood.

As for Moana Hope, she might be in the team to take on GWS, she might not be. Either way, she probably won’t be at Collingwood next year in this observer’s opinion.

Maybe North Melbourne will be willing to play to Mo’s strengths instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, then pointing the finger at the peg when everything goes belly up.