Jake Niall Collingwood needs Marley, but it might not be their call

Collingwood’s Marley Williams. Photo: Sebastian CostanzoWhen Marley Williams was charged following an altercation in an Albany nightclub in December 2012, he was a six-game player who had been promoted from the rookie list. In so far as it is possible, he was a low profile Collingwood player.

It’s wasn’t clear then that Williams could or would make the grade. He was a kid who seemed robust, not overly polished and without the kind of junior pedigree that screamed of a 150-game AFL player. He was just another rookie-list Collingwood six-footer scrambling for an opportunity.

But in the intervening season, Williams developed rapidly. A season-ending knee injury to Alan Toovey and Collingwood’s troubles with the opposition’s quick small forwards led to him being promoted to the seniors in round eight against Geelong.

He did not miss a senior game thereafter, and improved to the point that, by the end of the season,  he had become a reliable defender who could smother an opposition small and chance his arm on the counter-attack.

In football, perception of a player often lags behind the reality. Williams has played only 22 games, is just 20 and isn’t high on those ubiquitous lists of  ‘‘most important players’’ at Collingwood – despite finishing a sneaky seventh in the club best and fairest.

But the Pies aren’t as settled in defence as they are in the midfield and forward, particularly if Nathan Buckley persists with deploying Ben Reid in attack. They have traded their premier small defender, Heath Shaw, and have mid-sized Toovey resuming from a knee reconstruction and perhaps needing some time to recover.

The youngsters who the Pies had slated as prospective flankers in defence, Paul Seedsman and Adam Oxley, are missing and won’t play in the opening few rounds. Ben Sinclair, another improver last season, is resuming this weekend. Top draftee Matthew Scharenberg is in recovery from surgery to both feet. Half-back flankers, usually as dispensable as Labor leaders, aren’t in great abundance at the club.

Due to circumstances and his own rapid progress, Williams has become a far more vital player to his club than he was in July or August last year. He’s travelled from the fringes of selection to a permanent spot in defence.

But Williams’ new-found importance to a team with defensive holes should not be a consideration in the stance Collingwood takes – or, rather, has taken. The Magpies have made plain they are standing by Williams (read, not sacking him and will keep playing him). The club’s argument is that it dealt with him after he was charged, that he has done his penance and with sentencing to come, the legal proceedings aren’t complete. That might not wash with the AFL which can demand a suspension.

The scenario raises a question for the AFL and indeed for all clubs: at what point in a criminal matter should a player be sanctioned by his club/AFL? A club can jump in after the charge – as Geelong did with Mathew Stokes – it can lower the boom after conviction, or once the sentence is handed down. Carlton, under fierce pressure from the AFL, suspended Heath Scotland for two matches after his conviction and initial sentence (a $3000 fine) for assault. The Saints placed Stephen Milne on suspension once he was charged with rape.

The Pies have made their call, and seem willing to wear any flak. But while they can stand by their man, insist he’s reformed and keep playing him, the decision on Williams’ immediate future could be beyond their control.

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