In each of those games, the Magpies have started Brody Mihocek on McGovern, and have found themselves kicking the ball high in the general direction of McGovern too often.
While Josh Kennedy also has been a thorn in the Pies’ side, the Kennedy conundrum should have been solved this time – somewhat – by the return and obvious excellence of Darcy Moore, who has the height and athleticism to man the Eagles’ superstar forward.
McGovern is made for a game that has become more “zonal” with fewer direct man-on-man contests, since his great talent is to read the ball in flight – as if he knows where it’s going before it’s kicked – and launch counter-attacks. To date, Collingwood has not found a way to get around the McGovern roadblock.
McGovern is one of few defenders in the AFL whom the opposition seeks to negate. On occasion, teams will assign a tagger to stop him marking. Others have tried to play through McGovern’s opponent by using a mobile forward – as Melbourne did successfully with Jake Melksham in round 22 (clearly not in the preliminary final).
McGovern is a contradiction – a thoroughly modern player, designed for zones and defensive systems, yet who has the appearance – witness his uncut body – and unflustered demeanour of a country footballer. As his coach Adam Simpson put it, he’s an “old school footballer, not the way he plays.”
He’s tough, too, defying a hip injury and internal bleeding to play in the grand final after spending two days in hospital post-preliminary final.
One theory of rival clubs is that you need deep entries to get past Fort McGovern, to kick to the top of the goal square – over his head – and avoid his natural habitat 30 metres to 50 metres from goal, where he floats and waits for the errant high ball.
“That’s easy to say, it’s not easy to do,” said one experienced assistant coach at a Melbourne club, when asked if the Pies should be kicking deep and over McGovern.
The assistant coach reckoned the best way to get around a brilliant “drop off” defender such as McGovern was to have clean forward entries. “Scrubby” balls would not cut it. Collingwood, he added, might be best to use handball to create “better looks” and avoid those indiscrimate bomb entries to no one.
The Pies did manage to quieten McGovern once, in the second quarter of the qualifying final, when, after McGovern was rampant in the opening quarter, they movedChris Mayne onto the great interceptor and curbed his influence for a time. Mayne had been used in this negating role on McGovern in his Docker days.
Mihocek, a wonderful mature presence for the Magpies since last year, has been unable to stymie McGovern’s influence, in part because the ex-Port Melbourne defender hasn’t posed a sufficient offensive threat to take the Eagle away from his fly zone.
Had Mason Cox been suspended, the McGovern problem would have been compounded, given that the American is the only genuine (very) tall in the Collingwood attack. Cox did not play in the round 17 match between the grand finalists – the game won well by West Coast despite the loss of Nic Naitanui – when McGovern faced no aerial threat from the Magpies, and marked accordingly (12 times).
Whether the Magpies send Mayne on a negating mission, kick the footy over his head, or try bypassing him with handball and short kicks, McGovern remains the player who requires the most attention and consideration if they’re to reverse the pattern of defeat.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age. He writes news, commentary and analysis on a variety of other sports.