LEIGH MATTHEWS: Has age caught up with ‘slow’ Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom and Jeremy Howe?

The Nightly
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LEIGH MATTHEWS: Has age caught up with ‘slow’ Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom and Jeremy Howe?
LEIGH MATTHEWS: Has age caught up with ‘slow’ Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom and Jeremy Howe? Credit: William Pearce

Things can change very quickly in the AFL and the big-picture landscape can look a lot different every Monday.

Undoubtedly the biggest story has been that both grand final teams from last year in Collingwood and Brisbane remain winless.

This is a very rare situation with statisticians unable to find when the last time both grand final teams started 0-2.

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People will talk about a premiership hangover, but that is now irrelevant. Whatever that subtle team psyche was a few weeks back, suddenly it would be very different.

Pre-season I had tipped both Brisbane and Collingwood to be premiership contenders again in 2024 but now both teams are very much starting behind scratch to go all the way.

The golden ticket into the final series is finishing top two after the home and away games and earning the qualifying final home ground advantage.

Last year Port Adelaide were an outstanding 17-6 after their 23 games and still only finished third which meant an away qualifying final. Collingwood were top with 18 wins followed by Brisbane with 17 wins.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 15: The Magpies look dejected after losing the round one AFL match between Collingwood Magpies and Sydney Swans at Melbourne Cricket Ground, on March 15, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
The Magpies look dejected after losing the round one AFL match between Collingwood Magpies and Sydney Swans at Melbourne Cricket Ground. Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

So the mathematics for the Magpies and the Lions to finish top two has now become very challenging.

With 21 matches remaining their task is winning 17 or possibly 18 of these games which is no mean feat. The margin for error is very slim.

Collingwood has had two poor games although the teams that have beaten them — Greater Western Sydney and Sydney — are both very good sides. Brisbane was beaten by Carlton at the Gabba in a close game and then was overwhelmed by Fremantle in Perth. The one-point loss at home to the Blues was a big blow and losing after leading comfortably early in both games is a frustrating way to go down.

Still, at the club level for both teams, the big picture of what may happen months ahead is never a front-of-mind consideration.

It is so true that establishing an accurate assessment of what, why and how of your current situation is always the starting point to go forward.

One of the great temptations is to look back at performances of late last season when both teams were in great form.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 17: Chris Fagan, Senior Coach of the Lions with his team at the break during the 2024 AFL Round 01 match between the Fremantle Dockers and the Brisbane Lions at Optus Stadium on March 17, 2024 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)
Chris Fagan, Senior Coach of the Lions with his team at the break during the 2024 AFL Round 01 match between the Fremantle Dockers and the Brisbane Lions at Optus Stadium. Credit: Daniel Carson/AFL Photos/AFL Photos via Getty Images

Comparisons between past and present can sometimes be helpful as a way to get better but can also be damaging because the way things were six months back needs to be consigned to the history books.

Regardless of the current form, the constant challenge for all coaches is balancing when to persevere and when to change.

After a couple of losses, the urge to change a few things tends to be stronger.

Wins validate and losses create questions.

Both coaches Craig McRae and Chris Fagan will be grappling with this delicate concept. The post-match review process happens every week and should be a similar tone regardless of the result of the previous match.

What are the lessons, both good and bad, is the objective and an 80-20 split of positivity is usually the best way to go.

My former coach Allan Jeans always talked about confidence as like Goldilocks’ perfect porridge.

Not too hot, not too cold.

Suddenly the confidence levels around the Pies and the Lions would be a little shaky.

Systems and strategy will be scrutinised, and poor execution noted as areas for improvement but getting the team psyche back to the optimum level will be a huge focus of both coaching groups.

McRae and Fagan have been geniuses in finding themes and emotional triggers to inspire and motivate their teams.

It would be intriguing to see how this process is being played out behind the scenes into the next game.

In the examination of best utilising the available talent, this is where a tweak or two might be helpful. For Collingwood one is where should they play their young gun Nick Daicos?

He played midfield and was one of the best on the ground in the 33-point defeat against the Swans last Friday night but would he give Collingwood more overlap run and drive as an attacking half-back?

How best to use their most versatile star player is a question worth posing as the Magpies’ trademark run from behind to move the ball quickly through the centre corridor has been virtually nonexistent in the first two rounds.

It is a role Nick Blakey plays effectively for Sydney and with the absence through injury of Kaidean Coleman, the Lions must be considering whether former captain Dayne Zorko can play that run-from-behind precision kicker function that has become such a critical feature of winning teams.

A query on Collingwood that will not go away is their older brigade of players who have been great servants of the club for a long time. Is this the year premiership veterans Scott Pendlebury (36), Steele Sidebottom (33) and Jeremy Howe (33) begin to fade?

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Scott Pendlebury of the Magpies looks on during the 2023 AFL Grand Final match between the Collingwood Magpies and the Brisbane Lions at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on September 30, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)
Is this the year premiership veteran Scott Pendlebury (36) begins to fade?  Credit: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos/AFL Photos via Getty Images

They had OK games on the weekend, but do they have the leg speed to be important players this year. They looked a little slow against the hard-running Swans and Giants teams.

While Brisbane and Collingwood have made a poor start, the Giants and the Swans look like the form teams of the competition.

The Giants have won their first two games, but they were at home, and one was against North so let’s not get carried away. They do appear a team on the rise.

The Swans have had two big wins against Melbourne and Collingwood, who are both premiership contenders this year. Carlton has also won their first two games, but not convincingly and in both rounds have fallen across the line.

They have some injury issues, so to be 2-0 is a great start for the Blues.

Still, the sample size is small. The good news for the early strugglers is that only 13 of the 207 home and away games have been played.

The football season is a marathon with a long, long way to go.

Carlton v Richmond

Despite Richmond having three injured players for a large part of the game, Carlton was unable to overrun a team they had a significant advantage over and in fact the Tigers went within a kick of winning the game.

A conundrum for Richmond is where to play Noah Balta. He has been a very solid tall defensive option in the past, but on the weekend, he went forward and kicked three goals. As a coach, I would always bolster the defence and I think that is where he should play. No doubt Adam Yze and his team will look at this.

One question on Carlton is how many goals they can get from their team outside of Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay. Eight to 10 goals from their other players does not happen very often and this remains the Blues’ Achilles heel.

Essendon v Hawks

One of the big recruits for Essendon was Ben McKay. Will it pay off in 2024 as he is on big money for a player who has not set the world on fire? He has size and bulk and as a key defender, he did a decent job covering Hawthorn’s Mitch Lewis. It will be interesting to see if this investment pays off for the Bombers.

Jake Stringer looked very fit for the Bombers and kicked four goals. His consistency and ability to remain fit and playing has been an issue. Will this be his season to become a consistent match-winner?

Greater Western Sydney v North Melbourne

The Giants looked good and had a substantial number of shots on goal to show how dominant they were even if the scoreboard flattered North Melbourne.

Jesse Hogan has had a great start to this season and is leading the Coleman Medal with 10 goals from two games.

He has been at three AFL teams and his journey has taken him around the country, yet he seems to be playing the best footy of his career at 29 and he is the form forward in the comp.

Geelong v St Kilda

When Patrick Dangerfield, Tom Stewart and Jeremy Cameron play well Geelong win.

Youngster Ollie Dempster played well and as a next-generation player, he looked good and kicked three goals.

But I will not be moving Geelong into the contenders’ list just yet. St Kilda’s Max King kicked 2.4 (six scoring shots is good), but he needs to be converting better. If Max could convert six scoring shots in 4.2 or 5.1 regularly, his contribution to the Saints would be immense.

Gold Coast Suns v Adelaide Crows

Matt Rowell was great again in the Gold Coast’s second win of the season.

The wet weather helped as Rowell showed he can not only win the football but break away from the tackler and use the ball more effectively.

He and Isaac Heeney of the Swans have played two best-on-ground performances across the early rounds.

Melbourne v Western Bulldogs

After much media coverage of Brodie Grundy and the Swans getting the better of Max Gawn the week prior, the most dominant big man in the game was always going to bounce back against reigning All-Australian ruckman Tim English.

Clearly, the Bulldogs did not watch the tape of how Grundy overcame Gawn the week before. Gawn dominated English at centre bounces by holding his opponent off with his outstretched right arm while tapping the football where he pleased with his left hand.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 17: Tim English of the Bulldogs and Max Gawn of the Demons compete in the ruck during the round one AFL match between Melbourne Demons and Western Bulldogs at Melbourne Cricket Ground, on March 17, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Tim English failed to follow Brodie Grundy’s example of how to contain Max Gawn. Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Port Adelaide v West Coast Eagles

One word, predictable. This was an easy win at home for Port and it is hard to judge them given they played a team that looks to have a long season ahead of them.

The Eagles were off the pace but at least top draft pick Harley Reid looked particularly good and will be a handy player for them as he develops.

However, some of the older Eagle players from the 2018 premiership have fallen right off the perch.

Port’s new signings key defender Esava Ratugolea and ruckman Ivan Soldo had good games, but it is best we hold our judgment on these new Port players until they come up against better opposition.

Fremantle Dockers v Brisbane Lions

Caleb Serong was dominant in the midfield battle. His numbers of 46 disposals, 21 contested possessions and 10 clearances were outstanding.

Lions put early scoreboard pressure on but then the Dockers came back and just overwhelmed the Lions in a good win at home.

I am not sure the Dockers will be top-eight contenders but they will be pleased to get a win over the highly-rated Lions.


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