Rohan Connolly5 Minute Read
For all the biggest names and big moments that win games of finals football, it’s also an accumulation of little, less spectacular things which more than just play their part.
For Collingwood against Melbourne last Friday night, the headliners were the likes of three-goal Bobby Hill, a prolific performance from finals veteran Steele Sidebottom, and another classy game from unmissable key defender and skipper Darcy Moore.
But the Magpies mightn’t have had anything to celebrate at all had it not been for the game of the understated but enormously effective Will Hoskin-Elliott, whose late-season transition from wingman to defender had gone all but unnoticed until it proved arguably the match-winning move as Collingwood progressed straight to a preliminary final.
The 30-year-old former Giant has been in the system 12 years now and only a fortnight ago clocked up his 200th game. But he agrees he probably hasn’t played a better one than the nail-biting win over the Demons.
“I think so,” a beaming Hoskin-Elliott told ESPN after the game. “That was probably my fourth game as a defender ever. It’s been pretty pleasing the last couple of weeks that I’ve been able to help the team in some way down there.”
Hoskin-Elliott’s 20-disposal, 10-rebound 50 effort was pivotal to the Magpies’ early scoreboard dominance, and then enabled it to withstand wave after wave of Melbourne attacks thereafter. It wasn’t lost on the serious AFL analysts, either.
“That’s probably as good as I’ve seen him play,” said Jason Dunstall. David King agreed. “He was absolutely terrific. They got full tote odds out of him.”
Not to mention a grateful coach Craig McRae, who’d probably have worn criticism for the omission of another running defender in John Noble has the Pies’ lost, but instead was vindicated by the performance of Hoskin-Elliot in what amounted to the Noble’s usual role.
“We thought Will Hoskin-Elliott’s flexibility to play half-back and wing is important in our team, and we needed a third winger, and Will’s been in great form the last couple of weeks,” McRae said at the post-match press conference.
It was also a window into the amount of “contingency planning” which can go into player preparation. Because while it’s only just happened, Hoskin-Elliott’s positional shift has been some time in the making.
“I did the whole preseason as a defender,” Hoskin-Elliott said. “I’ve always been a half-forward or winger, but it was just to get an idea of defence so I could play all three roles along that open side of the ground. At the start of the year, I said to ‘Fly’ I want to be able to help out and do whatever the team needs at certain times. And it’s paying off.
Nonetheless, there was still some mental adjustments to be made when Hoskin-Elliott got the news the switch was on.
“It was a bit of a shock to the system when he came out and said: ‘You’re playing back this week’,” he said. “I thought, hmm, hang on a minute. But I knew I just had to take it in my stride. And do what the team needs.
In practical terms, the difference, he says, is just about “knowing where to be at certain times.” Normally, he says, that would be pretty easy with fellow defenders issuing instructions. But on Thursday night, as Melbourne staged a last desperate attempt to pinch the win, simply hearing those instructions proved to be one of the biggest hurdles.
“That was actually really hard with the crowd, they were pretty noisy,” he laughed. “The atmosphere was electric, unbelievable. I was just saying to Brody Mihocek that in that last minute, I couldn’t hear anybody trying to put me in the right spots, or telling me how long left … you just couldn’t hear anything.”
Collingwood, though, never lost its composure even while conceding a staggering 56 inside 50 entries after quarter time against its own paltry 22.
“There’s just a real no-fuss attitude,” Hoskin-Elliott says. “If you make a mistake, you just move on with it. It doesn’t matter, we’ll get the next one. That’s just the way we’ve been playing all year. Last year was a first final for a few of the boys. So they got to have a taste of it. And now everyone’s ready, really excited. And ready.
Safely ensconced in a home preliminary final for which it will start favourite regardless of whom is its opponent, Collingwood now gets to play the waiting game. Not much will change, though, says Hoskin-Elliott, regardless of who the Pies end up playing.
“We want to keep it simple and pretty much the same weekend week out,” he says. And after the success of a small, subtle positional shift, no doubt with the Magpie veteran once again coming off half-back.
You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at FOOTYOLOGY .