Shaw has issues in defence

Nick Riewoldt was about to stab home St Kilda’s first goal of the 2010 grand final replay when Heath Shaw appeared out of the ground, like the ghost of Banquo, to smother him. Riewoldt never did kick a goal that day, and the Magpies won. Shaw’s inspired moment was dubbed the smother of the century, revised by himself the next day to smother of the millennium.

Elaborating in a more earnest moment, Shaw said his inspiration was born of desperation; it was his man who had set Riewoldt free.

All was well that ended well. But three more years of the weight of defensive responsibility looks to have taken a toll on Shaw’s sangfroid. Saturday night’s elimination final began to slip away from Collingwood from the moment Shaw allowed Angus Monfries to goad him into retaliation, giving away a so-called double goal. Two hours later, the season was over.

When Collingwood’s defence was strong and settled, the Magpies could manoeuvre to keep Shaw up the ground and in the play. His ability to run, break lines and set up forward thrusts was central to its game plan. But nothing lasts forever. Attritional change to the back line, compounded this year by injury to Alan Toovey and decline in the form of captain Nick Maxwell, have made it easier for oppositions to strand Shaw deep in defence,

Shaw is a good one-on-one player, so isolation on an opponent does not concern him, but isolation from the play does. He has said so publicly. Some backmen are stoics, and suited to that position, but the hyperactive Shaw is not one of them. Technically, he can play it, but temperamentally, he finds it gruelling.

And he is scarcely the sort to keep his emotions to himself. Saturday became one of those nights when his body language seemed to say that he thought the whole world was ganging up on him.

Shaw has a colourful history, shall we say, at Collingwood. In the moment of the Magpies’ abrupt end to the season, and Shaw’s culpable part in it, that past, good and bad, inflects on everyone’s thinking. Some have even suggested he might be traded away. Instructively, his uncle, the legendary premiership captain Tony Shaw, included him on a list of names whose futures the Magpies had to consider.

Post-game, coach Nathan Buckley asked in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner if Collingwood’s culture was as it should be. On Monday, Carlton coach Mick Malthouse twisted the knife, saying there was nothing wrong with the culture at Collingwood when he was there; there was plenty of winning and enjoyment.

Naturally, this turned to contemplation of the so-called Collingwood ”rat pack”, of whom it might be said a different attitude prevails to other footballers on the requisite balance between football and lifestyle. It is a dwindling group, but its two highest-profile remaining members are Shaw and Dane Swan. Any examination of Collingwood’s culture is bound to add to whatever tensions exist within the club. That is a matter for Buckley’s diplomatic skills.

But Shaw’s problem is likely not so much to disgruntlement as shell-shock. Many defenders suffer a form of it. Teammate Harry O’Brien was an All-Australian half-back in 2010, but by this year had become so worn down by the position that the Magpies redeployed him to the wing, where he found a new lease of life.

Collingwood has many decisions to make about its list and its game plan. Between delisting and recruitment, there is reorganisation.

The return of Toovey and Dale Thomas next year – assuming he re-signs – give the Magpies some flexibility.

They might benefit from a Shaw sabbatical away from defence, on a wing or even in a forward pocket. If it works, it will rejuvenate him and the team. If it does not, he and the Magpies will be a little wiser and no worse off than now.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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