Season 2014: Collingwood and Fremantle both vulnerable

If a football team is only as good as its most vulnerable part, Friday night’s season-opener between Collingwood and Fremantle should be an intriguing match-up.

The first AFL game of 2014 pits the runner-up of last year against a team many believe is still capable of contending for top four status. Yet both have an Achilles heel capable of being exploited. And on Friday night, they’ll be rubbing together.

For all its defensive steel under Ross Lyon, Fremantle’s failure to score  freely has weighed heavily enough upon the coach for him to demand an extra couple of goals per game from his goalkickers.

Scott Gumbleton was recruited to offer the overworked Matthew Pavlich some key position support but is already gone for half the season with another hamstring tear. Which leaves much of the scoring responsibility again in the hands of smaller types such as Chris Mayne, Hayden Ballantyne and Michael Walters.

For Collingwood, meanwhile, its defence has been consistently highlighted by opponents as a major weakness. And at the very least, it’s the part of the ground  that has undergone the most renovation.

There's no more Heath Shaw. A potential replacement for Shaw’s run and creativity, Marley Williams, is having an indefinite layoff with a court sentencing hanging over his head. Another former backline general in Heritier Lumumba, having shown much better form last year, played on a wing.

The key defenders for now are Lachie Keeffe, still raw in terms of experience, and Nathan Brown, who opposition analysts believe is still vulnerable against the bigger and better forwards. There’s another in Ben Reid who has been needed more in attack lately, and is out of contention this week anyway with a calf injury.

Coaches contend that defence and attack is far more than just about the set positions at either end of the ground, which of course is quite true. But neither team’s midfields chipped in enough last season to make their respective problems any less significant.

Nat Fyfe was Fremantle’s only on-baller to kick more than 14 goals. And new Collingwood skipper Scott Pendlebury was only one of a number of senior Magpies who were scathing about their midfield contingent’s failure to work hard enough back as well as forward.

The Magpies did at least improve their defensive record over the second half of 2013 after threatening to drown in an avalanche of opposition goals early on. That said, however, they still conceded goals from more than one-quarter of opposition inside-50 entries, the second-worst record of any 2013 finalist.

And that figure particularly doesn’t augur well for Friday night. Because while Fremantle doesn’t kick enough goals per se, or have enough inside-50 entries for that matter (it ranked only 15th last season) it is very efficient with those chances it does create.

Despite those lowly rankings for forward entries and scoring, the Dockers managed to convert a very healthy 28.6 per cent of its forward 50s into goals, which ranked third in the AFL.

Collingwood’s issues defensively were a complete contrast. It allowed only an average 46.8 inside 50s per game, the third-best record in the AFL, yet opponents scored goals far too frequently from those chances.

They are numbers of which Magpie coach Nathan Buckley will be acutely aware this week. And the 2014 pre-season won’t have offered him a lot of encouragement that things are about to change, Collingwood having conceded more than 100 points per game, the most of any team, and allowing opponents to score goals from nearly 32 per cent of inside 50s, the second-worst pre-season record.

Not that Freo’s pre-season campaign, which featured two losses to WA stablemate West Coast, one particularly comprehensive, and a routine win over the Western Bulldogs, was anything to write home about.

The Dockers’ pre-season attacking numbers have remained in keeping with last year, the efficiency OK, but the bottom line of the scoreboard far from imposing.

All of which means that the first of 198 home-and-away games this new AFL season appears one that will be won, perversely, by the team whose weak spot proves strongest.

The story Season 2014: Collingwood and Fremantle both vulnerable first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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