If you think one week in football is a long time, then six weeks is an eternity. Just ask any supporter of tonight’s MCG combatants, Collingwood and Carlton.
The arch rivals both endured horror starts to their seasons.
The Pies had Fremantle first up and after watching that game and their loss to Geelong a fortnight later, I honestly remember thinking that it was going to be a long year for Nathan Buckley’s men.
Their turnaround couldn’t be more remarkable, with wins against Richmond, North Melbourne and Essendon suggesting they may just be a force to be reckoned with when September rolls around.
Though probably not in the same league in terms of turnarounds, Carlton has also defied the critics after one of its most abysmal starts to a season.
The Blues were truly in turmoil, dropping stars like Jarrad Waite while fending off suggestions that Marc Murphy wasn’t the right man to be leading the club.
They too have defied some of their doubters over the past fortnight, whetting our appetite for another blockbuster between two of the league’s oldest and proudest clubs.
Collingwood’s form is as good as anyone’s in the competition right now.
While their win over Richmond in round four might not have come as a surprise, it came at a time when their backs were against the wall. They had to show fight and they responded in style.
A week later, they easily toppled the Kangas, who in turn showed just how capable they are last week when they travelled to Perth and beat the Dockers. That’s no mean feat as it’s arguably the hardest road trip in the competition.
The extraordinary thing about Collingwood’s turnaround is that it has been led mainly by a bunch of former rookies.
Its defence has been outstanding and almost all of its backline is made up of players who were elevated from the rookie list – Nick Maxwell, Heritier Lumumba (formerly Harry O’Brien), Sam Dwyer, Jack Frost, Lachlan Keeffe, Alan Toovey, Brent Macaffer and Clinton Young.
After a rocky start to the year, these guys have transformed the Pies’ fortunes and helped them become one of the most dour outfits in the league. In fact, statistically, since round two their defence has been ranked equal-second in the AFL.
Bucks really needs to be congratulated for having the strength to persist with players he believed in and I think that, almost for the first time, you can look at Collingwood and just think Nathan Buckley. Mick Malthouse has finally left the building.
It’s also worth noting that the Pies have dug themselves out of a hole without any real contribution from the biggest power forward in the AFL, Travis Cloke. Just wait until he starts clunking a few.
That’s likely to happen sooner rather than later, with Ben Reid’s imminent return sure to ease the pressure on Cloke.
Reid is really the Magpies’ best swingman and given the way their backline is performing, he’ll likely make his return up forward, drawing the attention of key defenders who would otherwise double-team Cloke.
Then there’s the Magpies’ midfield. We’ve always known that the best teams in the competition have onballers who kick goals and Collingwood’s have improved out of sight.
Dane Swan has already booted eight goals this year, Scott Pendlebury and Dayne Beams have each kicked six, while Steele Sidebottom has chimed in with five of his own. Not bad.
It gets you thinking, is Collingwood’s list better than we all thought?
Then there’s Carlton.
Even Blues fans would admit that it was hard to pick a winner anywhere on the ground in their first month of footy.
It started with the loss to Port Adelaide, then there was Richmond, the woeful 81-point loss to Essendon and finally their pitiful performance against Melbourne.
Throw in the injury to Chris Judd on his return and it felt as if all of Carlton’s future was hamstrung.
Carlton also needs to be congratulated for the way they responded. Instead of persisting with a game plan that clearly wasn’t working, they were brave enough to throw caution to the wind and play a fast and attacking brand of footy.
It’s the type of football that’s easy to score against, but at least the Blues themselves were scoring and it reaped immediate dividends, with wins against Western Bulldogs and West Coast.
Marc Murphy has really stood up under enormous pressure. He’s laid 10 tackles in each of his past two matches which is a figure he’d never achieved before. That says a lot about his strength of character.
Expect Brent Macaffer to go to Murphy tonight. It’ll be an absorbing contest and equally interesting to see how the Blues try to protect their leader.
And let’s not forget the subplot in the showdown as one of Collingwood’s former favourite sons runs out with the enemy, Blues recruit Dale Thomas.
In some ways, Thomas’ form has reflected all of Carlton’s. After a quiet start to the year, he’s improving. Waite also seems to have found new enthusiasm after a stint in the VFL, while Lachie Henderson is really emerging as a gun player, at either end of the ground.
What I’ve liked about both these teams recently is their ability to remain calm under pressure. Last week, both teams appeared dead and buried, but managed to find a way (and the will) to win.
It’s long been said that ladder positions become irrelevant when these two teams meet and so it will be again. Friday night footy. Carlton versus Collingwood. It rarely gets much better.
The Blues will likely lift, but I can’t go past the Pies.