Winning in the dark at Waverley Park
By: Glenn McFarlane
Collingwood fans don’t have particularly fond memories of the 1998 season, other than a handful of team highlights and Nathan Buckley’s second place to Robert Harvey in the Brownlow Medal.
In Tony Shaw’s penultimate season as coach, the Magpies started the year by winning four of their first six games, to be only a game and percentage off top spot after beating Carlton in Round 6.
However, the optimism was short-lived; the hype doused quickly and the expectations of a finals appearance exhausted in a miserable finish to the season that put pressure on all of those involved.
From that early win over the Blues, in what was Shaw’s 50th game as an AFL coach, only three more victories would come for the rest of the 1998 season.
Sadly, Collingwood finished that home-and-away season with six consecutive losses to plummet to 14th on the AFL ladder, with only Fremantle and the Brisbane Lions anchored below it.
But, of all the moments and matches of that frustrating year, one stands out in the memory of Magpie fans – the 86-point win over Hawthorn at Waverley Park in Round 16.
Yet it is remembered as the one of the most emphatic wins of Shaw’s coaching career, for the manner in which his young side was able to defensively shut out the struggling Hawks.
That 86-point victory was not the Magpies’ greatest winning margin over the Hawks – that was the 105-point win back in 1979 – but it was remarkable for the complete shutdown of the opposition, as well as some superb individual performances, notably from forwards Saverio Rocca and Shane Watson.
Incredibly, Collingwood’s defence – which that day boasted the likes of Nathan Buckley and Paul Williams running off half-back – managed to keep Hawthorn to only four goals for the game.
Rocca and Watson each kicked five goals, so you had the unusual situation where two players were both able to score more goals individually than the opposition could score as a team.
AFL football is a vastly different game these days to what it was back then, and not just because Channel Seven used to use the Whitman’s Blimp (remember that?) for ground aerial shots.
Back then, Waverley was still being used as a league venue – instead of now being Hawthorn’s home training base – though it was in its death throes as a venue.
Hawthorn had fought to keep it alive as an AFL venue, protesting that it was situated in the heart of the Melbourne growth corridor. But the promise of a new venue to be built with a roof – unheard of in AFL circles – at Docklands was always too tempting for the league as it prepared to put the stadium formerly known as VFL Park on the market.
Still, those almost 40,000 fans who attended the Round 16 match in 1998 were offered the chance to buy $2 stickers in green and gold colours stating: “Save Waverley for the Community.”
The ground had one more season to live back then, but Magpie fans flocked to that Saturday night game with the hope that their team could beat the struggling Hawks and re-start a season that had gone off the rails.
Collingwood had beaten Hawthorn by 39 points in Round 1, but there were many critics who believed the team with the Waverley Park home ground advantage would win this match.
While Hawthorn brought in Mark Graham for Rayden Tallis, it lost Daniel Chick and Richard Taylor as late withdrawals. Collingwood omitted Anthony Rocca and Chris Tarrant, but the biggest selection buzz centred around Nathan Buckley, who was returning from a hamstring complaint that had troubled him for five weeks and cost him one match as well as a state match.
A game preview in the Herald Sun predicted: “Home ground advantage comes into play with the Hawks well suited to Waverley Park, while the Pies clearly struggle on the big ground. It is the one place where Buckley can get his requisite 30 touches and not inflict his usual damage.”
As Buckley recalled in his autobiography, All I Can Be: “The first time I ever pulled my hammy was at a Monday training session. Hamstrings generally require a twenty-one-day recovery period, but mine was accelerated to seventeen days. I trained and was assured: ‘You’ve passed all the tests; you’re right to go’.
“I was wary of tearing it again but I had no experience of hamstring injuries and I had to trust the experts.”
Still, he had a beaming smile as he ran out that night beside a young 13-year-old road accident suffered, who had the privilige to run through the banner with the Magpies. It was a big night for the kid, and Buckley intended it to be the same for him and his team.
And almost from the outset, Collingwood held the ascendancy. Shaw swung a few surprises with his two most damaging players in Buckley and Williams off the half-back flank, Gavin Brown was back to the wing, as was Gavin Crosisca, and it seemed as if the moves were making a solid impact.
The Magpies kicked the only two goals of the opening term, as the Hawks produced a wasteful 0.6 on the scoreboard, much to the annoyance of Hawthorn coach Ken Judge, who had sensed from as early as when his team was running out, that it was “flat and disinterested.”
Judge had planned to run his own young gun Shane Crawford with Buckley as a tag, and when the Magpie came off half-back, the Hawks coach stuck with the plan. But all it did was take Hawthorn’s best player out of the contest, and by the middle of the second term, the coach had no other alternative than to switch Crawford onto the ball again.
In that second quarter, the Magpies piled on six goals to push the margin out to 40 points by half-time. Sav Rocca kicked three goals of his five goals in that term.
The Herald Sun recorded: “(Rocca’s) clean marking was a highlight and in the second quarter alone he took five pack marks. Rocca was too strong for his initial opponent Mark Graham and too experienced for replacement full-back Jonathan Hay.”
A superb over-the-shoulder goal to Watson just before the half-time break only strengthened Collingwood’s case, as Hawthorn had managed only one goal in a half of footy.
Buckley had been solid without being spectacular on his return to the game, but all of that changed for the worse in the third quarter.
He had had 14 touches when he felt a sharp pain in his hamstring during the third term. It happened well before anyone in the crowd realised it. Their tell-tale sign was when he “mistimed a short kick on the centre wing, (and) he immediately signalled to the trainers that he had felt a twinge and left the field.”
The reality was that it had occured a few minutes earlier. After the game, he told reporters: “I was chasing Darren Kappler, felt a twinge and didn’t bother admitting to it. I stayed out there for a while, had a kick and probably knew after that.”
He explained in more depth in his autobiography: “I went to change direction and the hammy went again. I was dirty on it at the time. Being injured is no fun, and missing games was something I never wanted to do.
“After a thorough self-analysis, I attributed the injury to the fact that I’d been forced – by my own poor decisions – to bust my gut every session to catch up to the fitness levels of my teammates.”
The loss of Buckley was no disaster in terms of the match, as the game was already pretty secure for the Magpies. But from a season point of view, it was a telling blow to a club that needed everything to go right.
Shaw’s team that day had some experience in the form of Brown (214 games), Crosisca (218), Damian Monkhorst (187), Williams (149), Tony Francis (138) Sav Rocca (126), Watson (124) and Buckley (122 – 102 of them for Collingwood).
But there were a number of young players in the side as well – Frankie Raso (7 games), Clinton King (11 games overall, but only two in black and white), Josh Mahoney (15), Luke Godden (17), Mal Michael (23), Simon Prestigiacomo (25) and Chad Liddell (27).
All of those players were 21 and under.
King, whom coach Tony Shaw had urged to get a haircut, had originally played with Sydney, but said after this match just how much he was enjoying playing with Collingwood.
He would explain his love of the long-sleeved jumper – “I always wear long sleeves even if it’s 30 degrees … I’ve been rolling up my sleeves since the days of junior footy. They only ever gave you long jumpers, which were always too long for me and pretty annoying, so I used to roll them up and still do.”
Hawthorn’s long-awaited second goal came from Justin Crawford – young brother of Shane – during the third term, as the three-quarter-time scoreline read Hawthorn 2.10 (22) to Collingwood 14.7 (91). The game was well and truly over at the last change, with the lead being 69 points.
But the Magpies were not done with, kicking five goals to two in the final term to push the final margin out to 86 points.
After the match, Shaw was pleased with the win, saying the club had the confidence of back-to-back wins, against Geelong and Hawthorn.
“Geez, we were intense,” he told the gathered media deep in the bowels of Waverley Park. “Our tackling and hardness at the ball was first-rate. I’ve said before we were going to play blokes who have a go, and I think it was epitomised by these kids wanting to have a go.”
But he lamented the loss of Buckley – “It doesn’t look like a tear … we have to look at the treatment, but hopefully we can get back quickly.”
Sadly, Shaw was wrong. It was a tear and Buckley would miss the next three matches before returning for the Round 20 match with Essendon. Typical of the season that he had, where he might have pushed Harvey even closer in the medal, if he hadn’t missed four games overall, Buckley got the three votes in his game back against the Bombers.
Rocca was listed as being Collingwood’s best player in the Herald Sun, though he would not receive a Brownlow Medal vote.
Williams won the umpires’ votes that day, thanks to 29 touches and six rebounds off half-back. Damian Monkhorst won two Brownlow votes (17 disposals, 14 hit-outs), while Shane Watson’s five goals were preferred by the umps over Rocca’s five.
The Herald Sun detailed how Collingwood remained a mathematical chance of making the finals after the powerful win over Hawthorn.
It explained: “Collingwood’s meritorious showing, albeit against an insipid opposition, is cause for tremendous optimism among the Magpie fraternity. The most optimistic should be coach Shaw, who less than a month ago was beginning to wonder whether he had much of a futrure at Victoria Park.”
Scot Palmer, a long-time Magpie supporter and one of the most respected men in the media, wrote that day that Shaw – who had been under intense pressure to be allowed to see out the final year of his contract in 1999 – must be afforded the chance to keep coaching the club until the end of that deal.
Palmer penned: “The time is right for Collingwood’s board to tell coach Tony Shaw that he can serve out the last year of his contract … that would remove the veil of uncertainty that now shrouds the team, the match committee and the club’s administration.”
The end of that 1998 season came with six straight losses that saw another Magpie member of the media – Channel Nine’s Eddie McGuire – put his hand forward to become president of the club that he had supported for as long as he could remember.
The wings of change were sweeping through Lulie St.
Shaw would be allowed to finish his contract with the club, though his final year would end in the club’s second wooden spoon, as Collingwood farewelled one of its favourite sons and Victoria Park as its home playing venue.
It was not the fitting farewell that anyone would have wanted for one of the club’s favourite sons, though a black-and-white would turnaround was not going to be all that far away as the club moved into the 21st century.