PRE-SEASON camps have been a big talking point in 2018.
Melbourne hit the headlines when player power resulted in the club calling off its pre-season camp.
In hindsight, the Crows wish they had done the same. ‘Collective Minds’ became part of the footy vernacular this season and for nearly six months Adelaide’s controversial pre-season camp was a talking point. In short, it was a bloody disaster.
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Far more low key was Collingwood’s pre-season camp on the Gold Coast in January.
This was nothing special. Some match simulation at Southport, training on the beach, leadership meetings and even the bonding was nothing to write home about.
No drinking sessions. Just board games. Dane Swan would be horrified!
Cameraman Tony Escott and myself were invited by the club to spend a couple of days at the camp.
Apart from a few interviews and occasionally crossing paths with the players in the hotel, we didn’t have much interaction with the boys. But they certainly seemed to be a very relaxed group.
En masse, players spoke about a different feel around the club following the reappointment of Nathan Buckley, as well as the hiring of new assistant coaches Justin Longmuir, Matthew Boyd and Garry Hocking.
Premiership captain Nick Maxwell ran several leadership meetings on the camp and his influence was regularly mentioned.
In 2017, captain Scott Pendlebury discussed how constant speculation about Buckley’s future impacted the players. Now the Pies had clean air.
Having a chat with assistant coach Brenton Sanderson poolside one afternoon, there was an air of quiet confidence about what could be achieved in 2018.
The pressure cooker, which was season 2017 with all the speculation surrounding Buckley’s future, was now in the past and a revised game plan was designed to make things more simple for the players.
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No one knows Buckley better than his best mate Sanderson. A post-season review insisted Buckley needed to delegate more, put more faith in his newly appointed assistants.
Sanderson was adamant his good mate was more relaxed and firmly believed he had the team to return to the finals for first time since 2013.
A common observation, which has been stated again this week by vice-captain Taylor Adams this week, was the Pies weren’t far off the pace in 2017, despite finishing 13th with just nine wins.
In hindsight, it’s a fair point.
Collingwood’s average losing margin in 2017 was just 18 points, with their biggest defeat against Essendon by 37 points. And, like they have had again this year, key players were sidelined through injury.
Watching training at Southport, Buckley stood back and observed as Longmuir and Hocking in particular took charge. Darcy Moore was learning to play defence. Brayden Maynard was playing through the middle. Mason Cox continued to work on his forward craft.
The focus was very much on team defence. A big knock on Collingwood in 2017 was question marks over their style. Longmuir was in charge of improving their team defence and with ball in hand, players were encouraged to play more on instinct.
Thing’s didn’t start well. Jordan De Goey stuffed up off the field again, Daniel Wells was injured again, the Pies lost their first two matches and conceded the first three goals to Carlton in Round 3.
But the Pies found a way past the Blues and haven’t looked back.
Six months on, the results have been stunning. But even in the pressure cooker of finals football, the attitude hasn’t changed. Buckley is relaxed with his players, relaxed with the media.
At open media sessions the players are engaging. They have a smile on their face but with a serious message: ‘Our best footy can beat anyone. Externally people may be surprised we are here but internally we aren’t shocked.’
The players have been told to enjoy Grand Final week. Embrace the hype and don’t pretend it’s a normal week — because it’s not.
The Pies are just one win away from arguably their greatest ever premiership. Some say if it’s not their greatest, it’s on-par with 1958 when the Pies prevented the Demons from matching their record of four consecutive flags.
Buckley deserves much of the credit, but premierships are won by clubs. Not individuals.