Let’s be honest. The Perth “quarantine facility” to which Collingwood has been confined for seven days before its cutthroat final against the West Coast Eagles is not exactly Guantanamo Bay.

The Joondalup Resort boasts a 27-hole championship golf course, “relaxed cafes” and the only water boards are used in the “lagoon-style swimming pool”.

Sure, some Collingwood staff members have been forced to sleep in campervans in the car park because of the West Australian Government’s insistence that bedrooms could not be shared.

If the physio and the head trainer do not have cable TV and a minibar, presumably the players and coaches are getting the full 8 hours in rooms that offer “plush furnishings” and “an abundance of natural light”.

But while Collingwood’s pre-game confinement is not exactly the living hell some concerned pundits would have you believe, there is no question the Magpies have been the AFL club most harshly afflicted by the COVID-19 disruptions.

Rewind to round one in March, when they thrashed the Western Bulldogs by 52 points at Docklands in the eerie pre-postponement silence. If you did not trust those bookmakers who had the Magpies favourites to win the grand final, they at least seemed good things to finish top four and have a crack at losing yet another decider.

After the June resumption, however, things quickly fell apart.

The season-ending injury to athletic defender Jeremy Howe in a narrow defeat to the Giants was a crushing blow; so too the finger injury that sidelined destructive midfielder/forward Jordan De Goey after he had kicked five goals in an impressive win over Geelong.

There were self-inflicted blows, as well.

Star midfielder Steele Sidebottom breached COVID-19 regulations while on a drunken bender; coach Nathan Buckley and his friend and assistant Brenton Sanderson left the quarantine bubble to play tennis with Alicia Molik — a $25,000 hit and giggle that can’t have done much to help Buckley maintain his authority after Sidebottom’s lapse.

An AFL player wheels away in celebration with his fists clenched after kicking a goal.
Steele Sidebottom was banned for four matches after breaching COVID-19 regulations.(AAP: Darren England)

Collingwood also endured the most enervating schedule during the AFL’s “footy frenzy” — four games played in three states in just 13 days that ended in a disastrous 56-point loss to Melbourne and with its season on life support.

None of this is likely to elicit any more sympathy for Collingwood than The Rolling Stones realistically expected to gain for the devil.

For the vast majority, Collingwood’s finals encounter with the West Coast Eagles will rekindle delicious memories of the 2018 season decider when Dom Sheed threaded the needle with minutes left to inflict yet more grand final misery on Magpies supporters.

But Collingwood’s tumultuous season has been emblematic of the heavy toll taken on some clubs by the COVID-19 disruptions, and perhaps also the often misunderstood and misstated nature of the AFL’s most heavily publicised club.

McGuire’s influence overstated

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire — the breakfast radio and game show host, Fox Sports commentator and media entrepreneur — is commonly described as “one of the AFL’s most powerful figures”.

This is based on the perception that he has the ear of the game’s highest officials and an open microphone to express his own often strident and occasionally “controversial” opinions.

But, this season, you would be hard pressed arguing McGuire’s supposed power has furthered the cause of the Magpies as they were handed their punishing mid-season fixture, quarantined finals preparation and damaging COVID-19 sanctions.

A leading AFL club administrator stands speaking at an outside event.
Eddie McGuire has not been as outspoken about the Magpies’ draw as some might have expected.(AAP: Stefan Postles)

Rather, Collingwood members would be justified lamenting how McGuire’s statements calling for harsh punishment for COVID-19 offenders put an unwelcome spotlight on his own club’s inevitable indiscretions (Buckley and Sanderson were forced to pay their own fines and Sidebottom received a four-week suspension).

Also, where you might have expected McGuire to be outspoken about Collingwood’s harsh fixture, he had instead aligned himself with the AFL as a member of its war-time cabinet and a Fox Sports commentator — a position presumably justified as “pubbing game ahead of club in unusual times”.

But perhaps McGuire’s influence had always been overstated and the graces and favours granted Collingwood — including multiple blockbuster games and a friendly MCG draw — have merely been the result of the club’s massive fan base and revenue-raising capacity rather than individual influence.

In Sydney, McGuire is reviled by Swans fans for his “King Kong” comments about Adam Goodes and also his campaign to have the Swans’ cost of living allowance removed from the salary cap.

Yet it was not until the Swans snatched Buddy Franklin from beneath the nose of the AFL-owned Giants that the allowance was removed at the insistence of infuriated AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick.

McGuire huffed and puffed. But the AFL blew the house down.

If Collingwood cannot be accused of benefiting from a “soft draw” or any other AFL favours to reach these finals, the Magpies are in a historically familiar position on Saturday night as the despised underdog.

Collingwood ended the home-and-away rounds wounded, tired and desperately clinging to an ultra-defensive game plan that seems to have sapped the players — and even the coaches — of self-belief. West Coast regains a clutch of stars and has an imposing home record.

So this will be another fascinating examination of the Magpies’ famous ability to win backs-against-the-wall playoffs, or; the death knell in a season when all the club’s typical bluster and bravado was no match for the COVID-19 crunch.

Offsiders will have in-depth analysis of the AFL and NRL finals and all the other major sports stories on Sunday at 10:00am on ABC TV.



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