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How Craig McRae turns the Collingwood Magpies into a fun and freewheeling AFL team

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The start of football life for Collingwood coach Craig McRae and his predecessor Nathan Buckley came at about the same time and place.

Born about a year apart in Adelaide, McRae and Buckley’s careers as ships in the night have passed each other, inexorably but often unintentionally linked.

A superlative of his youth, Buckley was a zone selection for Brisbane during the 1991 draft due to his time in the Northern Territory, but was hesitant to move to the Queensland capital.

McRae was less coveted. The little South Australian crumb was overlooked on each of the 124 picks in the 1992 national draft and the top 21 picks in the following year’s preseason draft. Like Buckley, Brisbane eventually secured its rights. Still, McRae worked hard and played a part at both SANFL and AFL levels.

Richard Champion and Craig McRae smile with their arms around each other.
Craig McRae (right) and Lions teammate Richard Champion celebrate a race win in 1999.Getty Images

Both stayed in Adelaide for another year or two before making the journey north. By the time McRae showed up in Brisbane in 1995, Buckley was long gone, swapping the black and white of Port for that of the Pies in the AFL.

If Buckley had the idolized path to the top, McRae took the less traveled path. Both achieved immense success in their playing careers.

Buckley won a Brownlow and multiple Best and Fairest awards, while McRae won three flags with their shared club.

After playing, the story was similar. Buckley’s much-hyped rise to Collingwood’s senior coach came shortly after his playing career ended, while McRae spent years in the system from under-18s to the big league.

Collingwood coach Craig McRae smiles and clenches his fist in celebration as he walks on the ground after an AFL game.
The Magpies are in the top eight this season, after new head coach Craig McRae steered them in a new direction.Getty Images: Quinn Rooney

McRae’s first year in charge has seen the Pies climb the ladder, currently sitting in the top eight as the season builds to its climax. This is how McRae built his own identity for the Pies from the shadow of the monolithic Buckley – the fun, free-running Magpies.

New ways to go

It’s hard to take on a successful side, especially one that reached a grand final just three years ago. Buckley’s Pies built a strong identity around their defensive wall and an ability to win the ball in the middle. It often kept Collingwood in games they might have had to get kicked out of.

In his first year in charge, McRae has sought to radically change the way the Pies attack from defense. They now do it faster and more directly.

Collingwood was the second most direct this year at moving the ball from backcourt interceptions to goal, and the fourth fastest to do so. Last year Collingwood moved the ball faster than average from the back half, but did so significantly more indirectly, with switches and slant kicks.

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In general, the more direct a team is, the slower they have to go to get through the defense. However, Collingwood has exercised caution and so far it is working. The results have seen Collingwood score 20 percent more on defensive half turnovers – going from below the league average to the top.

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It’s a fun way to play for everyone to watch.

This speed of ball movement has created better odds of going within 50, with the win rate on one-on-one attacks increasing from 23.5 percent (15th) to 30 percent (5th). Normally this would expose a side to the back for one-on-one chances of its own, but the Pies’ cover defense has largely held up their previous performance.

Getting through the ground faster is a hallmark of McRae’s most recent employer – Richmond. Over the past two seasons, the Tigers have set the standard across the league in playing with pace outside the defense, aided by a solid, trained squad of defenders. For the equally mature group of Collingwood backs, such as Jeremy Howe and Darcy Moore, the transition is easier.

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This style of play is also based on solid work in ground matches – at the foot of spilled ruts and loose balls. McRae made sure to focus on this element during the off-season to keep the ball from going the other way quickly. Sometimes it’s heart-in-mouth stuff, but it’s exciting nonetheless.

Collingwood is in the middle of the pack for points allowed from their own turnover, meaning they do enough to defend when their quick counterattacks don’t pan out.

Preventing opposing teams from scoring is the main role of the defence, and the Magpies have largely been able to keep up with that front, despite being significantly more powerful on the counter-attack.

Collingwood AFL's Jeremy Howe jumps into the air and grabs the ball to his chest for an opponent from Essendon.
High-flying defender Jeremy Howe is dominant in the air and likes the ball a lot.Getty Images/AFL Photos: Darrian Traynor

Stick to the formula?

At the start of the year, McRae also spoke of a different vision of midfield, with more defined roles. Rather than focusing on mere winning the ball, McRae also recognized the need to inject dynamic movers, like Jamie Elliott, and guts like Patrick Lipinski into the mix of injuries.

Collingwood’s midfield mix this year has seen bigger bodies like Taylor Adams play a less prominent role, bolstered by faster movers like Elliot, and quality ball users like Jack Crisp. These moves have given veterans like Steele Sidebottom and Scott Pendlebury more opportunities to use the ball on the outside and help strengthen defensive structures.

Collingwood has a weapon at deadballs few other clubs enjoy – one of the best taprucks in the league that doubles as an above average midfielder. When Brodie Grundy is fit and fiery, few can negate his impact.

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With Grundy, Collingwood boasted of the deadliest stoppage attack of any team this year.

Without Grundy, the Pies have struggled to get points from this valuable resource. Playing with and without a dominant ruck in the air is a tough adjustment, let alone for a relatively new midfield grouping. In recent weeks they have equaled teams like Melbourne through the middle, a good sign that the final is coming.

With a relatively underpowered forward line, getting a quick ball forward is key to the Pies getting enough points on the board to beat rivals. Getting a durable break unit could unlock the side’s full potential.

Best prepared plans

When McRae took over at Collingwood, he was clear about what he was and wasn’t.

“I’m not Bucks (Nathan Buckley),” he told afl.com.au.

Craig McRae and Scott Pendlebury smile and shake hands after an AFL game.
Craig McRae has revived the Pies in 2022, after a mediocre season in 2021.AFL Photos via Getty Images: Dylan Burns

The changes on the field are more than apparent. Collingwood is currently seventh on the ladder, with destiny firmly in his hands. McRae’s game plan has revived the Pies, and their poor 2021 season looks more like an injury-induced blip than a total collapse.

More importantly, the Pies are quickly becoming one of the most watched teams in the league. That is, if you’re not a member of the ABC (Anyone But Collingwood) brigade.

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