Sport AFL Nathan Buckley is facing his moment of truth
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Nathan Buckley is facing his moment of truth

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Collingwood are performing like a bottom four team after being widely expected to contend for the top eight.

In their current form, the disjointed Magpies are vulnerable, not just to the improving Demons on Sunday, but to lowly arch-rivals Carlton and Essendon and winless Brisbane at the Gabba in upcoming weeks.

There is an assumption that the ailing Magpies will improve, but what if they can’t?

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Injuries have struck; key players are out of form and it is not just the poor results – three wins from their last 14 games – that has shocked the AFL.

It is the manner of these losses.

Collingwood have been ineffective at centre bounces; tentative and hesitant in the back half, and porous up forward, yes, but worse than that, the players have looked dispirited.

They have appeared down on confidence, leadership and cohesion. They have looked like an unhappy team.

Jesse White's move from Sydney has not gone to plan. Photo: Getty
Jesse White’s move from Sydney has not gone to plan. Photo: Getty

This demeanour betrays more than a form slump.

It speaks of a deep-seated issue, either disharmony, due to the effect of an issue like reports linking a significant number of Collingwood players to off-season illicit drug use prior to round one, or fundamental structural and personnel shortcomings.

The recent failures of their recruiting from other clubs have not helped.

Clinton Young, Jesse White, Quinten Lynch, Tony Armstrong, Jordan Russell and Patrick Karnezis did not fire.

As Hawthorn have proved with the likes of Josh Gibson and Shaun Burgoyne, it takes more than high draft picks to build an elite list.

And whether Collingwood has been successful in developing their raft of touted youngsters is open to debate.

Paul Seedsman, Nathan Freeman and Ben Kennedy have all departed.

Which young Pies look better players in 2016?

For now, commentary has highlighted a web of Magpie technical weaknesses and stopped short of calling time on the tenure of coach Nathan Buckley.

That is understandable – Buckley is an impressive man: personable, smart, articulate, honest and utterly committed.

He faces adversity calmly and squarely.

Under his leadership, Collingwood appeared to take a canny backward step in order to go forward, letting go of premiership stars in order to assemble the unit which could deliver the club’s next flag.

There was a long-term vision, which bought Buckley time.

Will Eddie be able to sack Buckley if required? Photo: Getty
Will Eddie be able to sack Buckley if required? Photo: Getty

So after two seasons where the young Magpies faded catastrophically, and two humiliating losses at the start of 2016, only impatient sections of the outer are calling for sackings.

But is the determination to avoid knee-jerk changes a factor in Collingwood’s woes?

Eddie McGuire must be reckoned by now the greatest-ever Collingwood President.

He took the club over when it was a basket case, helped mould a modern, progressive juggernaut off the field and delivered an extended finals run and a long-awaited premiership.

But he, like most Pies of his generation, suffered through the self-sabotage of the club’s ludicrous wage wars with Richmond in the 1980s, and the drift from premiership glory to wooden spoon irrelevance in the 1990s.

The Buckley regime is a particularly personal project for McGuire, a passionate fan as much as Collingwood’s statesman.

He was integral to the bold decision to replace premiership-winning coach Mick Malthouse with Nathan Buckley.

He is disdainful of coach sackings and said ‘mug clubs make rash decisions’.

But will McGuire and CEO Gary Pert make the hard decision, if it is necessary, on this regime?

Has the desire for stability made Collingwood stagnate?

Or is this the moment when Buckley and McGuire most prove their mettle, somewhat like Geelong with Mark Thompson in 2006?

The Buckley regime is in its fifth year.

It may last a decade or more if it gets through the next four weeks.

But no one will be out of line in calling for change if the team doesn’t perform better in that month.

Will Brodie is a former online sports editor at The Age and is the author of Reality Check: Travels in the Australian Ice Hockey League.

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