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Mark Duffield: Winged Magpies still the real deal
Sharrod Wellingham of the Magpies celebrates a goal with Chris Dawes in Collingwood's win over Adelaide. Pic: AFL Media

As many as six clubs have registered expressions of interest in this year's premiership.

West Coast, Essendon and Adelaide made flying starts to the year. Carlton made a lot of noise early but are having second thoughts.

We keep hearing there is going to be something in the mail from Hawthorn, but the price they are prepared to pay changes from week to week.

On Saturday night, we got our first emphatic bid, our first official statement of intent. It came from Collingwood, who might head into round 10 fourth on the ladder but also as the team to beat for the flag.

Premiership favouritism has been a poisoned chalice this year. Hawthorn started as favourites but did little to back it up.

The Blues surged in premiership betting after belting Collingwood in round three but have fallen off the pace and have now lost Marc Murphy to a long-term shoulder injury. Hawthorn re-emerged by trouncing Fremantle in Launceston, only to surrender four premiership points and significant credibility against Richmond on Saturday.

Remarkably, Collingwood, the self-proclaimed Manchester United of the AFL, a premiership team two years ago and grand finalists last year, have emerged as the quiet achievers of 2012.

After losing two of their first three games to Hawthorn and the Blues, Collingwood have won their last six.

They took everything Essendon could throw at them to win an Anzac Day classic but it was the last 30 minutes against in-form Adelaide that really stamped the Pies as major threats. It also put the stamp of approval on the club's coaching transition from Mick Malthouse to Nathan Buckley.

Buckley's team took the field against the Crows minus eight players with reasonable claims on the club's best 22.

Among them were Brownlow medallist Dane Swan, All-Australian defender Ben Reid and the pair you would most like filling in for Reid, Chris Tarrant and Nathan Brown.

The others were Luke Ball, one of the best hard ball winners, Ben Johnson, an unfashionable but highly effective running defender, Andrew Krakouer, who kicked 35 goals last year, and Brent Macaffer, who played 21 games in the club's premiership season before losing his spot in the pecking order last year.

When 204cm defender Lachie Keeffe went down in the final term with a suspected anterior cruciate knee injury (which would be the club's fourth of the year), Collingwood could have claimed an honourable loss due to extreme hardship.

Instead they kicked 5.5 to 0.3 in enemy territory packed with 44,000 screaming fans.

This was a stunning display of depth and determination. It may also be remembered as the night Buckley officially laid the ghosts of Malthouse to rest.

Injuries may do the Magpies this season but you wouldn't bet on it. Ball, Krakouer, Macaffer and now probably Keeffe are gone for the season but they should regain Swan and Reid within three weeks, with Brown to follow soon after.

Tarrant has been gradually building form and fitness in the VFL.

A month of solid football from the veteran could be enough to tide the Magpies over and keep them in the mix until Reid and Brown return for the run to the finals.

Meanwhile, their midfield remains stellar, even without Swan and Ball.

There is no better player than the silky Scott Pendlebury, Dale Thomas has worked himself into form after early injury, and Steele Sidebottom and Dayne Beams have stepped to a new level in the last month.

On Saturday night, they won by 26 points despite power forwards Travis Cloke and Chris Dawes not kicking a goal between them.