Why ‘potential’ means very little

At the end of 2021, if someone asked me whether Essendon would be outperformed by Collingwood in 2022, I would have probably laughed.

I thought Essendon, which had finished eighth in 2021 with a young side while Collingwood struggled to 17th, would have a good summer and come back bigger, stronger and fitter.

I was not alone with few giving Collingwood much of a finals chance in 2022.

For example, Ben Waterworth (Fox Sports) was one of many who felt Collingwood could avoid the bottom four, but stated on 1 November 2021 “they’re also not a finals contender”.

But here we are after 13 rounds, and Essendon’s year is finished in terms of a finals appearance after another heavy defeat by Carlton while Collingwood remains in final eight contention after a great win against the 2021 premiers Melbourne.

Alongside St Kilda, Fremantle and Carlton, who all sit comfortably in the top 8 until present after finishing 10th, 11th and 13th in 2021, Collingwood has so far exceeded expectations.

While many teams have had their ups and downs in recent years, Essendon’s bleak 2022 season will be fourth time since 2012 that they have improved to make the finals only to miss out the very next year.

So why the contrast between the performances of Essendon and Collingwood in 2022?

Does Collingwood’s 2022 season represent a quick rebound given that the 2021 season was the first season since 2017 where the magpies had not made the finals?

Maybe.

Yet, Collingwood’s good record so far in 2022 has indeed overcome considerable turmoil given that 2021 represented a year when the club faced considerable negative publicity concerning the Do Better report on racism.

And, with considerable attention also given to Collingwood’s salary cap constraints, after the club traded Adam Treloar (Western Bulldogs), Jaidyn Stephenson (North Melbourne) and Tom Phillips (Hawthorn), Collingwood has worked hard to retain key players and recruit good young players .

Collingwood has gained two key recruits that have played well throughout the 2022 season so far: the 188cm Patrick Lipinski from Western Bulldogs who had averaged 25 possessions per game to rank in the top 40 AFL players by round 13, second at Collingwood only to Jack Crisp ; and the talented Nick Daicos who has also achieved over 25 possession per game.

Nick Daicos handballs.

Nick Daicos handballs whilst being tackled by Dean Kent. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

After the 2021 season, Collingwood also moved quickly to retain three backline players by securing John Noble, Jack Madgen and Tom Wilson for the 2022 season to support the long-term contract of the star player Peter Moore.

The 2022 season also represents a very good start for new coach Craig McRae, perhaps showing the importance of a successful individual who can galvanise football success.

McRae, a triple premiership player with Brisbane, was also assistant to Damien Hardwick in Richmond’s premiership years of 2017, 2019 and 2020, coached successful the Tigers to win the VFL premiership in 2019, and was a specialist coach at the rugby league club Melbourne Storm for six years.

And many of Collingwood’s young players have also done well in 2022, including Isaac Quaynor, Josh Daicos, Oliver Henry (17 goals), Jack Ginnivan (22 goals).

But what of Essendon?

Perhaps the best prediction of Essendon’s decline in 2022 was provided in April 2022 by the former AFL forward Josh Jenkins when he noticed on SEN radio that the recent perceived lack of effort by the Bombers (against Fremantle) was accompanied by the reality that the Essendon list “just don’t have the cattle” to kick enough goals and their defenders “are all undersized”.

Jenkins also noted how a loss in important games can deflate team morale which can even lead players to worry more about their own game, an aspect which shows up badly in games when a supreme collective effort is needed.

Taking Jenkins’ points on board, there are many factors that help explain the very different fortunes of Essendon and Collingwood so far in 2022.

First, I would argue that Collingwood has a very tough mindset, something which has carried over from the club efforts under Nathan Buckley given the club’s intensity in most 2021 matches even when they were struggling.

While Essendon won more games than Collingwood in 2021 (11 to 6), I felt that Collingwood players expressed a great commitment to play for each other, albeit such an observation is impossible to quantify.

In 2022, despite a shock defeat to the struggling West Coast, Collingwood has beaten top sides Fremantle and Carlton with a close loss to Geelong after appearing to have the match sewn up at three-quarter time.

Even when it looked like Hawthorn were getting on top of the Magpies in the third quarter during Round 12, Collingwood showed tremendous fight to win against a club who has been competitive against most teams including Fremantle in Round 13.

However, given the importance of player personnel in terms of size, strength and talent, Jenkins might be right about the Don’s 2022 performance.

Collingwood clearly has a better balance between its taller and shorter more mobile players than Essendon.

While Essendon has some good key defenders like Jayden Laverde (191cm) and Jordan Ridley (192cm), similar in height to the talented Jeremy Howe (190cm) for Collingwood, they are not as imposing as Darcy Moore (203cm).

Although Essendon’s big body defender James Stewart (199cm) is no superstar, his loss for most of the season has severely impacted the depth of Essendon’s defense to counter the very big power forwards of the AFL.

Up forward, Essendon has been served well by Peter Wright (203cm and 100kg) who has kicked 25 goals in his 12 games and averaged five marks per game, but Collingwood’s big men have displayed better depth up forward with Brody Mihocek (192cm) kicking 26 goals and ruckman Darcy Cameron (204cm) 10 goals.

While ruckman Sam Draper (205cm) has the size to help Essendon’s forwards, he has averaged just 1.4 marks and 0.4 goals per game so far in 2022.

Essendon’s big man woes have also not been helped by his star midfielder/forward Jake Stringer (192cm) playing just five games because of injuries, although Essendon coach Ben Rutten called out Stringer’s effort against Carlton last Friday night as “poor” with just nine disposals , one mark and one behind.

Jake Stringer of Essendon looks dejected after losing to Carlton.

Jake Stringer of Essendon looks dejected after losing to Carlton. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

In addition, Essendon’s promising young key forward Harrison Jones (194cm), who top scored for the Bombers against Carlton (2 goals 1 behind), did not play until round 11.

While Essendon have some very good midfielders and smaller to medium sized players that do get a lot of possessions, with Merrett and Parish amongst the top ten AFL players for possessions per game prior to round 13 during the 2022 season, only Stringer really has a similar capacity to Collingwood players like Jordan De Goey or Jamie Elliott to quickly inspire their team through brilliance and goal kicking prowess.

And, in 2022, no other Essendon player has stepped up to match the missing Stringer’s brilliance.

In terms of younger players (less than 25), it could also be argued that Essendon’s players have not done as well as expected during 2022 albeit there is some talent there with Nic Martin (12 goals), Ben Hobb, Mason Redman, Jye Caldwell, Archie Perkins, Sam Durham and Matt Guelfi.

To conclude, the 2022 season has provided very different fortunes for Essendon and Collingwood, and I can only hope that Essendon can finish with a few wins and do much better in 2023.

Nevertheless, given expectations after the 2021 season, a quick improvement for any team from the season to the season is an open question given the very different performances of Essendon and Collingwood in 2022 which has defied predictions with the magpies clearly doing much better.

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