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Collingwood’s packed back line: Moore, Howe and 100,000 mates

One of the fans Darcy Moore exults with after Collingwood win another close one is his younger self.

“It’s an extraordinary thing to be a part of. I was on their side of the fence for much of my childhood and rode every kick, every goal, every win, every loss,” he says. “Now to be on the other side, when the game’s over and they’re doing the Collingwood chant, I pinch myself and reflect on 12-year-old me and how pumped he’d be – and about where I am right now.“

Moore was to the Magpie manor born, but sometimes has seemed diffident and dispassionate about his inheritance. Not so, he says. It was just that he wanted to earn it.

His father, Peter, a Brownlow medallist and former captain, inspired his love of the game and he has always been proud of the name. “As a junior, getting lots of attention because of my last name was exciting to me,” he says. “It was never something that made feel embarrassed or nervous or anxious. It was just part of my reality.”

He always had his eyes on the No.30 guernsey. But once he was on Collingwood’s list, he was wholly intent on establishing his own bona fides. “The larger sentimentality of the generational thing was on the periphery,” he says. “It didn’t have much to do with the actual job.”

At 26 and now a cornerstone player, his view of the club and the game has widened and his perspective has lengthened. “I’ve definitely got an appreciation for how special it is for the fans to see me run out, a generation after my father,” he says. “That’s a really cool part of it. To wear that jumper and play for Collingwood has been a real joy.

“I’m sure when we’re both retired and old, we’ll sit back and have whisky and talk about what it’s like to play for Collingwood. That’ll be a nice moment.”

But not yet. On Saturday night, 2020 All-Australian Moore will have the biggest defensive job in footy, taming Geelong’s Tom Hawkins/Jeremy Cameron duumvirate in a qualifying final. Alongside him will be Jeremy Howe, forming not so much twin pillars as fliers in fellowship.

Howe, too, has a Collingwood bloodline. “My dad’s mad Collingwood. So’s my nan,” he says. “I’m sure we’ve provided some pretty nervous moments for them this season. My nan sends me the same message every week: not again!

“It’s been an amazing journey for 22 rounds, but especially the last three months. It’s been incredible.”

For Moore, Howe and Nathan Murphy on Saturday night, it’s down to tin tacks. “Arguably, their forward line is the most potent in the comp,” says Howe. “The most in-form. Three All-Australians down there.

“Darcy, me, Murph [Nathan Murphy]: we’ll have to do the heavy lifting on those guys. We’re a little bit undersized, but that can work as a strength for us. It’s a challenge we feel up for.

“When the ball hits the ground, we feel that’s where we get a bit of bounce and get it out of our back half pretty efficiently. Generally, there’s someone who’s not in an important spot on the ground. That’s where we try to get a bit of leverage.”

Of course, it won’t be Moore and Howe two-out. “We feel like we’ve got a lot of aerial players down there,” says Howe. “[Brayden] Maynard’s good in the air. [Isaac] Quaynor’s good in the air. Murphy’s good in the air. Darcy’s a supreme athlete. I have to play a little bit taller.”

Murphy has been the revelation. “He’s given us some more versatility,” says Moore. “His ability to play tall or small has been a real feature of his game. He’s super courageous, super competitive, doesn’t give up and his contest work is great.”

Murphy did not play and Cameron kicked six goals as Geelong came from six goals behind to win when these teams last met in April. “It feels like a lifetime ago,” says Howe.

As well it might. Craig McRae was only three games into his appointment, his mark on the club was not yet fully apparent and the mini-era of one-kick wins was in the future. Howe says McRae relaxed the playing group from the start. “He brings something new every week to our meetings,” he says. “It’s always positive and there’s always a bit of humour in there. It takes the nerves out of it.”

Moore says McRae had a clear image of how he wanted Collingwood to represent. “He doesn’t go too hard on tactics. He focuses on us putting our best selves out there,” Moore says. “He’s not someone who’s obsessed with results.

“At the start, we were just doing our thing and not worrying about other stuff. Maybe there’s a lesson in that for us for future years when undoubtedly we’re going to have more expectations on us. It’s going to be a different journey then.”

To the surprise of everyone, including Collingwood, the results came anyway. It wasn’t a rush, but it was non-stop. In close finish after close finish, the Magpies showed themselves to have nerves of steel – and, let’s face it, a bit of a tin bum, too.

What baffled most was how often they defied the holy scripture of this age, the stats sheet. Howe wasn’t and isn’t fazed, “Everyone loves stats. Contested ball is such a dream stat that everyone loves,” he says. “But we don’t rely on it for the way we play. We don’t need to win the contested ball by 40 to win the game.

“The way we defend and the way we pressure teams does it. In finals, that’s generally how the games play out anyway.”

Moore says that even for the players, converting 17th last year into a final-four spot this year has been a wondrous thing. “It’s been a crazy journey. I can’t believe it,” he says. “None of us have ever been a part of anything like it.

“These guys just don’t give up. Our fans come to life when the game’s tight. When you’re out there and a part of it, it’s pretty special. I’m not promising anything, but hopefully we can deliver another close one in a final. For our fans – and for the TV ratings as well!”

Howe says the players have made sure to smell the roses while getting their hands dirty. “We haven’t just banked the wins and then focused straight on next week,” he says. “We still like to understand what’s making it work.

“We had a kind of affirmation meeting last week, about why what’s working and why we’re in good shape. We’ve got great confidence in the group that we’re in this position because we’ve earned it.”

Impossible to quantify, but equally impossible to deny in Collingwood’s magic carpet ride has been the heft of the Magpie Army. One hundred thousand members and more than a million through the gate amount to an extra player or a bonus goal.

Playing near to goal, Howe feels it. Literally, the crowd have his back. “We feed off it, and we feel the crowd feed off the way we play,” he says. “We celebrate the small things – a tackle, a spoil – and that gets them invested. They ride the wave with us and then we jump on with them.

“We work together. We rely on them at times. When the game’s tight, you can feel the atmosphere building.

“You never feel out of it, no matter what the scoreboard says. We feel the same.”

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