Collingwood's start to the season has defied belief given the cattle they have on the sidelines and the way games have unfolded this year. Missing players the quality of Dayne Beams, Luke Ball, Dale Thomas, Alan Didak, Alex Fasolo, Andrew Krakouer and Heath Shaw (for round one only), the Magpies have managed to beat teams they were incapable of beating last season when fielding much stronger sides.
Not only have stars been unavailable for selection, Collingwood has shown a hydra-like ability to also lose important players during games and come back stronger. In round one they lost defender Ben Johnson early against North Melbourne, then lost key defender Ben Reid to concussion. Despite being seriously undermanned, the Pies still found a way to get across the line.
Then against arch-enemies Carlton on the weekend, Collingwood ruckman Darren Jolly was subbed off in the second quarter with a rib injury. Up stepped Quinten Lynch, who proceeded to ruck for 90 per cent of the rest of the match. He may not have beaten Matthew Kreuzer often, but Lynch at least made a contest and got through a power of work around the ground in a difficult situation, proving further that the depth knows no bounds.
Well almost no bounds.
While Collingwood has improved in many areas this season, they still have a gaping hole that went by unfilled last year and has still not been rectified – a quality small defender.
In round one Lindsay Thomas who was able to take advantage of the situation, kicking four goals in the first half. On Sunday, it was Jeff Garlett and Chris Yarran who did the damage, kicking three goals apiece.
The hole in the defence appeared when All-Australian defender Leon Davis refused the offer of a new contract at the end of 2011. Last year the Pies tried to plug the gap with a mix of Harry O'Brien and Ben Johnson when he was fully fit.
This year O'Brien has been playing on the wing, and has been a huge success, but Johnson, who admittedly was injured in round one, doesn't look capable of playing the role of a one-on-one defender. Heath Shaw is clearly capable, but offers the Pies too much value as an offensive weapon to be locked down trying to keep small forwards quiet.
What is needed is the sort of outside-the-box thinking that developed Leon Davis into an All-Australian defender.
Davis spent most of his career as a forward pocket, although he did manage brief stints in the midfield towards the end of his career. His first All-Australian selection in 2009 was as a forward pocket. Despite playing Davis in the same role for a decade, a disappointing output in the Pies' premiership year gave then coach Mick Malthouse a brainwave - he turned Davis into a successful back pocket, who was able to keep his man accountable while setting up valuable rebounding thrusts alongside Shaw. The move resulted in a second All-Australian selection and Davis finished fifth in Collingwood's best-and-fairest count.
Collingwood doesn't have anyone with Davis's experience who could transition into the role, but a few of Collingwood's lesser lights could try their hand. Sam Dwyer, who was among Collingwood's best on Sunday, could be tried, but given his impact is so good through the midfield, Ben Sinclair should get a chance to play there.
Sinclair played 18 games as a small forward last year, managing just 14 goals. That seems precious little to sacrifice in order to find the right sort of player to lock down damaging small forwards.
With the Pies coming up against Hawthorn this week, this will be an important part of the game, with the likes of Cyril Rioli and Paul Puopolo able to do serious damage against the very best sides.
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