Our AFL experts tackle some of the burning questions ahead of Round 17, including Collingwood's ceiling in 2022, whether David Noble deserves a third year at North Melbourne and the storyline to come out of Cats-Dees.
How far can Collingwood go in 2022?
Rohan Connolly: They've beaten Melbourne, Fremantle and Carlton and lost to Geelong and Brisbane only narrowly, so you'd be foolish to say definitively they can't go all the way. I think the Pies (along with pretty much everyone else) are still a bit behind the Demons at their best (which they clearly weren't on Queen's Birthday). But there's a real momentum about this group which can take them a long way. Their pressure and direct play is very reminiscent of Richmond, even Melbourne last year, and that's been a very potent and successful finals formula. And it wouldn't be the first fairytale flag we'd seen in recent times, would it?
Jake Michaels: FlagPies? Okay, maybe that's a little over the top, but with their next month of football being against North Melbourne (MCG), Adelaide (Adelaide Oval), Essendon (MCG) and Port Adelaide (MCG), a top four finish is certainly in play. If that happens, then who knows, perhaps a shock preliminary final berth? Not sure they have enough talent and depth to go further than that but I've already been wildly wrong about Collingwood this year -- having predicted them to finish in the bottom four at the beginning of the season.
Matt Walsh: I said last week the Pies seem the most likely to drop out of the top eight, given their percentage is a fair bit lower than teams around them. Well, that won't matter if you win enough games, and that's what they're doing! They're playing with flair, and a youthful exuberance which is hard not to enjoy. Is it the type of footy which stands up in finals? If they keep up the pressure, it could be. Given what I've seen this year, they could make finals and maybe jag a win!
Jarryd Barca: I still think they're in a fairly precarious position given they've won four of their last five games by an aggregate margin of 24 points. They've been playing with fire, and still aren't putting teams away when they need to. The positive with all that? They find ways to win -- that's the sign of a genuinely good team -- and they've still managed to take some scalps over more fancied opposition. There's still enough experience in the starting 22 to be competitive, and the youth that's been sprinkled in gives them a great balance, but their depth does worry me. All things going in their favour, the Pies can win a final.
Does Eric Hipwood deserve to be suspended for pushing Ryan Gardner into an umpire?
RC: I feel like the answer to this is somehow dependent upon whether Hipwood realised the third man in the incident was an umpire or whether he assumed from peripheral vision that it was another player. But perhaps that shouldn't matter anyway, because it looked really bad, was totally unnecessary, and could have caused injury. So tough luck for Hipwood if he didn't realise. There's been more leniency towards players contacting umpires lately, but I reckon it's probably time to draw a line here and give him one week.
JM: Call me crazy, but I don't think so. We saw Nat Fyfe escape punishment for umpire contact last week, as it wasn't deemed intentional, and I'd argue the same here with Hipwood. If you watch closely, Gardner deviates off his line and toward Hipwood. At that moment, Hipwood naturally reacts by bumping, and the umpire just happens to get tangled up in it. I really don't think Hipwood intended to push Gardner into the umpire. There's over 40 people running around on the field at any one time and every now and then two are going to collide!
MW: Hipwood should go, and for many weeks. There may not be a specific rule relating to what he did, but his actions were reckless, dangerous, and could have caused injury to two people. Umpires don't and shouldn't expect contact of that nature, and what Hipwood did seemed very deliberate.
JB: This is incredibly difficult to assess (probably why the MRO referred it directly to the tribunal and made no grading), but either way there is a punishment coming his way, and there should be. Hipwood should consider himself lucky if he escapes with just a fine, it was an intentional shove and regardless of whether he subconsciously knew the umpire was there or not, there is a clear duty of care that needs to be upheld for umpires and this is an incident that had a very real potential to cause injury. The only thing I can unquestionably express is he can't be let off completely.
Should David Noble get a third year at North Melbourne?
RC: It's a harsh call given how much has been stacked against him even upon taking the job, but I don't think so. There has to be at least some sort of upward curve, and whilst the second half of last year was a slight improvement, this season has just been a disaster. An average losing margin of nearly 59 points over the past 11 games is on par with what Fitzroy was serving up in its death throes in 1996. It threatens to turn sponsors away, let alone fans, and more than most clubs, North Melbourne simply can't afford that. Literally.
JM: Some of North Melbourne's 2022 numbers are as grim as it gets. They've lost 11 straight games by 47+ points and have a percentage below 50 - the worst we've seen since the Giants' inaugural season. The Kangaroos claimed the wooden spoon last year, but have topped themselves in 2022, scoring 10 points fewer and conceding 13 points more per game. With all that said, yes, David Noble should have a minimum of three years. Anyone who expected him (or anyone) to turn this shambolic list around in 24 months is kidding themselves. If North is prepared to change coach every two years, they're never getting anywhere.
MW: Sometimes all you need is a fresh approach, even if the incumbent hasn't been on the scene for very long. Look at Michael Voss at Carlton, Craig McRae at the Pies and even Brett Ratten's first year at St Kilda. It's grim under Noble, and won't get much worse, if any, under new management. I would make the move.
JB: I've always been a big believer in backing in your coaches, showing faith and persisting a la Richmond, Collingwood and Melbourne with Damien Hardwick, Nathan Buckley and Simon Goodwin. A lot of the problems that exist right now are problems that Noble inherited, not created, and while he does need to wear criticism and carry some of the blame, is he really at fault? Does shipping him off actually solve anything? I just don't believe this is a coach issue, it's a whole of club issue that this review headed by Geoff Walsh will hopefully uncover.
What headline will come out of Thursday night's Geelong-Melbourne blockbuster?
RC: "Beware: The Cats Are Coming". I reserve the right to change my mind on this (given it's early in the week) but Geelong owes Melbourne a couple, and this is the perfect opportunity for them to prove to the many sceptics that they mean business. Again.
JM: "Move over Melbourne, Geelong is the new flag favourite!" I think the Cats get the job done at home on Thursday night to take over as the new team to beat for the 2022 premiership. With Patrick Dangerfield and Sam Menegola back and skipper Joel Selwood to return, joining Cam Guthrie and Tom Atkins in the middle, the Cats have enough firepower to match the Demons in that area. Both sides have great backlines, which means it could come down to the forward line I trust more, and I'm taking the one which has Jeremy Cameron and Tom Hawkins every day of the week.
MW: "How are the Cats STILL contenders?" A few weeks ago in this column we were discussing writing this side off (I don't think anyone did, phew!) but for neutrals, there's a growing sense of being sick of watching this team win a lot more than they lose. It's been a long period of domination without the ultimate reward, though, so the hunger and determination shown does make sense.
JB: "Don't kid yourselves, Dees still a level above." I think the cats are a genuine premiership chance and yes, they can absolutely win this game on their home deck, but Melbourne has a better midfield, the right defensive combinations in Steven may, Jake Lever and Harrison Petty to negate Hawkins and Cameron, and with Luke Jackson and Max Gawn returning (and no tom Stewart), the Dees can really stretch Geelong down back. They beat North at a ground every single team struggles at, let's not get sucked in just yet.