We've been looking for the Pies' downturn, but they may be better in 2023

Nobody got it more wrong about Collingwood last year than did yours truly. I've made some pretty ordinary predictions in 40-odd years of football punditry, but none as embarrassing as tipping the Pies to win the 2022 wooden spoon.

So, I've learned my lesson, right? Well, maybe not. And the only consolation in 2023 might be that this time, I'll have plenty of mates.

This time, I've tipped Collingwood to finish seventh, hardly also-ran territory, but a drop nonetheless for a team which was only a couple of points away from a grand final appearance last September. And after just one game, I'm already feeling pretty nervous about it.

Why wouldn't you after last Friday night's terrific win over reigning premier Geelong? Collingwood's 19.11 (125) was its highest score since 2018. It was also, significantly, as many points as Geelong has conceded in a game since 2017.

The Pies were running the Cats ragged by the finish. They were fast. They were direct. They were skillful, the likes of the Daicos boys Nick and Josh hitting targets all over the place. It was pretty intoxicating to watch. And it may have already forced some reassessment.

Like a lot of people, I figured 2023 might be a small correction of sorts for the Pies, and in ladder terms, just a slight downturn. Like a lot of people, I put plenty of stock in the law of averages. How often is a team going to win 11 of 12 home and away games in which the margin is 11 points or less?

But Collingwood didn't buckle under finals pressure, comfortably winning one game and losing to the premier and runner-up by just a goal and one point respectively. That wasn't luck.

And while yes, of course it's very early days in 2023, there's a variety of compelling reasons this version of Collingwood already looks a more accomplished and dangerous outfit again this year.

Starting with recruiting. We'll see key forward Dan McStay play a lot better games than his Collingwood debut. But the importance of the other pair of senior-experienced introductions, Tom Mitchell and Bobby Hill, can't be overstated.

Mitchell's 21 disposals on Friday night was a measly tally by his Hawthorn standards. Indeed, only twice in his last 44 games in brown and gold did he finish with fewer than that number. And yet, this was a more damaging game from him than arguably more than half of those 42 games in which he had more of the football.

He kicked two goals. He had 10 clearances, nearly double the next highest game tally. He had 14 contested possessions, more than any player on the ground except Geelong skipper Patrick Dangerfield. And they are two areas in which Collingwood has palpably struggled for years.

Last season, the Pies ranked a lowly 17th on the clearance differentials, the Cats fifth. In contested possession, Collingwood was also 17th, Geelong fourth. But on Friday night, Craig McRae's team won both categories.

Another Collingwood "newbie" on Friday night, Bobby Hill, was no less critical to the equation, and not only with his valuable three goals from just 10 touches, a game high along with teammate Jordan De Goey.

Hill's finding of space (eight of his 10 disposals were uncontested) was important, as Collingwood reversed another negative of last year, its ranking of 14th on the uncontested possession differentials.

On Friday night, the Pies won the uncontested ball count by a considerable margin of 62. No fewer than 11 of the top 15 on the ground for metres gained were Collingwood players. Hill, despite his paucity of possession, was one of them.

He was one of 10 individual goalkickers for the Pies who shared that 19-goal tally, and no, that didn't include the suspended Jack Ginnivan. Consider his return, alongside Hill, De Goey and Jamie Elliott. That's a pretty dynamic and explosive quartet.

Just as impressive for Collingwood was the performance of the less-heralded likes of Beau McCreery and Reef McInnes in the heat and pressure of a tight final quarter in front of a massive Friday night crowd of 86,500.

That evenness of contribution across the board is typical. And it's another reason the Pies are very serious premiership contenders. There's depth, whether or not many people beyond the black-and-white army know many of the names.

Yes, Jeremy Howe's shocking arm injury is a blow. But yes, another recruit in Billy Frampton, is at least an obvious replacement. And who's to say none of these so-called "lesser lights", or an Ash Johnson, for example, couldn't have the sort of breakout year Ginnivan did in 2022.

Perception often lags some distance -- and time -- behind reality in AFL football. I suspect it's one reason some of us are still catching on to just how good is McRae's Collingwood.

That's probably a bit of a godsend for the coach and his list in terms of pressure. And while it may be temporarily frustrating for Magpie fans not seeing their team rated as highly as others, think how much fun they're going to have not only enjoying their side's continued success, but some of us pundit types being made to look stupid a second time around.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at Footyology.