How Craig McRae can take Collingwood back to the promised land

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Contest. Culture. Commitment.

They're the three 'Cs' that epitomise Craig McRae's mantra as he embarks on the next chapter of his football coaching journey.

But this is a big ship the iron-willed 47-year-old hasn't steered before, one that carries the weight of hefty expectations and white noise that surrounds you when you coach the mighty Collingwood Football Club.

On McRae's side is his fruitful past, notably his experience in being a part of two of the greatest dynasties this century has seen in Brisbane and Richmond. And as Pies chief executive Mark Anderson remarked at Wednesday's announcement, winning is in his DNA.

McRae faces the challenge of instilling that success-driven mentality into a rebuilding Magpies squad that slumped to a lowly 17th-place finish in 2021. He must also cast aside any foundering thoughts that have lived in the Holden Centre, after one of the most brutal 12-month periods in the club's history.

His CV is extensive and he's highly credentialed, but just how can Collingwood's 16th coach lead the ailing club out of the trenches and back towards the AFL's summit?

Let's take a look.

Make Collingwood watchable again

One of the first things McRae highlighted publicly after his official appointment was his intention to make Collingwood a strong contest team that can balance its defence with an exciting style fans will enjoy watching.

Collingwood's ball movement was its Achilles' heel under Nathan Buckley's reign, despite nearly snaring a flag in 2018 and then falling one kick short of making two successive Grand Finals in 2019.

It was a stern defensive system that, even in an appalling 2021 campaign, had sides struggling to penetrate until caretaker boss Robert Harvey released the shackles, exposed the list's youth and gave them the 'play with freedom' order.

Still, the Pies finished the year as one of the highest disposal teams, but averaged the lowest inside 50 count per game in the competition (46.6). Alarming.

There's no doubting this Collingwood squad -- a group that through its final three matches looked like it couldn't wait for the season to be over -- can greatly benefit from fresh ideas and a new on-field system to live and breathe.

Contrasting Collingwood's epic freefall was the rapid rise of Sydney, who, sharing an eerily similar list demographic with the Magpies in terms of average age (24.2 vs. 24.3) and games played (62.6 vs. 64.5), just played off in an elimination final.

John Longmire had the Swans ranking in the top four for disposals, tackles and inside 50s this season, highlighting a game plan built on intense pressure and efficient ball movement, which helped them defy expectations.

Make no mistake, Craig McRae's goal in 2022 should not be anywhere near as lofty as a near-top four finish, emulating the Swans of '21. Instead, it needs to be to sell hope to the supporter base and the playing group that what he is building is worth backing and pursuing, all while enjoying the wins that come along the way with a new-look group, that by McRae's own admission, could "get younger".

While he might be good enough to achieve this, he can't do it alone, so surrounding himself with the best possible support staff in the coaches' box will go hand in hand with ensuring an evolution from the reserved, humdrum game style the Pies have been recently dishing.

McRae has already hinted at securing premiership teammate and highly-rated Justin Leppitsch for next season and beyond, labelling him "an elite coach" and "the best I've worked with in terms of his defensive structures".

The pair made a significant impact under Damien Hardwick during Richmond's successful 2017-2020 period and share astute modern-day football knowledge that can filter through to and emphatically impact a young Collingwood team if they do reunite again.

And that brings us to his next assignment.

Get the best out of the list and commit to a rebuild

Judging exactly where the list is at is tough, and this is where the first-time coach has his work cut out. Although, as poorly ranked as they were this season, there's merit in suggesting Collingwood isn't as far away as it seems.

There's no sugar coating it -- the rebuild is real -- but the list doesn't need a complete overhaul.

With a glass half full approach, after 21 rounds the Pies' biggest losing margin was 30 points, had lost five games by two or less goals -- including one-point games against top four teams Brisbane and Port Adelaide -- and at that stage had a better percentage (91.2) than six other teams.

It's not something the club can hang their hat on, but it doesn't necessarily set off raging alarm bells either.

There is enough quality in [arguably] their top 10 players -- Darcy Moore, Brayden Maynard, Jack Crisp, Jeremy Howe, Brodie Grundy, Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom, Taylor Adams, Jordan De Goey and Jamie Elliott -- to give opponents plenty to think about.

Then there's the silver lining of blooding a competition-high nine debutants in 2021, and an ever-improving middle tier led by Josh Daicos, John Noble and Isaac Quaynor, that gives McRae enough pieces to work with.

But there's no ignoring the glaring key position weakness and lack of experienced depth across the board - the Pies lost nearly 1300 games worth of experience last year and replaced it with zero.

"I think there's a couple of holes in our structure," McRae has already acknowledged. "We've got some work to do. We're not happy with where we are on the ladder, we want to get better and we'll find some opportunities within the trade or draft period to get those areas amended as best we can."

The imminent arrival of prized father-son recruit and star underager Nick Daicos should help McRae sleep easier after the club parted with its first round selection this season for pick 24 and 30 in last year's draft, knowing it would be eaten by a Daicos bid.

But with a weak draft hand this year (they hold picks 33, 39, 41 and 45), the club will need to either shrewdly trade their way into obtaining sexier draft capital and offload senior players in a not too dissimilar but less ferocious fashion to last year, or pray their 2020 haul of Oliver Henry, Finlay Macrae, Reef McInnes, Caleb Poulter, Liam McMahon and Beau McCreery can quickly pay on-field dividends and develop into best-22 talent.

Finding the right balance is going to be key for McRae as he inherits a list constructed by Nathan Buckley and co. But it isn't all doom and gloom, and it's a good thing he comes with a development background.

Speaking of...

Cultural development and relationship building

While his tactical nous is an essential strength, McRae has another string to his bow which may prove to be his biggest weapon.

Collingwood had to bear an abundance of off-field interruptions in the past 12 months, including a player fire sale of a never-before-seen magnitude, the exiting of long-serving president Eddie McGuire and the fallout from the 'Do Better' report, the loss of its football boss, list manager, and head coach Buckley, and of course the looming presidency challenge and general board instability.

But the man replacing Bucks brings a level of care that can quickly heal any fractures caused by the club's off-field battles.

"I'm a cultural builder," McRae proclaimed. "I'm good with people and that's the club we'll be forging forward with.

"I'll treat the property steward the same way I'll treat the president, it's just the way I am."

These are the impressions the South Australian has been leaving on those who have witnessed him hone his skills in his 15-year long journey post his playing days, and will continue to leave on his new team.

"(He is) the most genuine human I've met in my time here in Australia," American-born Pie Mason Cox, whom McRae worked closely with during his first stint at the club as head of development, posted on his Twitter account on Wednesday.

Developing a young side is simply not foreign to McRae, having experienced life as a head coach with Richmond affiliate Coburg in 2009 and the aligned VFL Tigers from 2016. He led them to a Grand Final in 2017 and a minor premiership in 2018, but fell marginally short in both years.

But in 2019 McRae finally led the Tigers to a VFL premiership one week before the AFL side revelled in the same success, capping off a remarkable double.

The challenge of building that VFL squad and having a significant hand in the meteoric rise of several state-league Tigers who earned their way onto the AFL list should not go understated.

Richmond's 2019 VFL premiership captain Steve Morris revealed on SEN Radio the impact and importance McRae's relationship building had at Punt Road.

"He builds it on the back of care," he said. "Regardless of who the person is at the organisation, he showed care to absolutely everyone, and it sets a pretty good precedent for your culture at a footy club.

"I certainly learned a lot from him in the time that I was under him a the VFL and I know that plenty of young fellas at VFL level were exactly the same who were aspiring to play AFL and weren't exactly where they wanted to be. But he just set up a superb safety net for them to improve and thrive in their careers."

And it's that ability to be a leader of young men that forced Collingwood's hand in its search of just their third coach this century.

What is widely seen as a 'low-profile' hire compared to the club's past earmarking of favourite sons and messiah coaches, there is a sense of optimism that Craig McRae might just be the right man to lead the Magpies out of a season from hell and into a black and white revival.

The rebound mightn't be swift, but turn the Pies around and we'll be viewing McRae as one of Collingwood's finest acquisitions in its history.