Sometimes Round 19 games don’t carry particularly good narrative. With eighth taking on 16th, you’d have been forgiven for thinking this game would be a fairly flat one. Looking at their previous match-ups lent weight to a similar argument, given Adelaide had won the last five heading into this game, with three of those games by 55 points or more, including last year’s Round 23 104 point thumping.

However, there was plenty of intrigue surrounding this game. Carlton’s trade of their first round pick to the Crows for their first round pick and Liam Stocker has been well publicised all year, especially when it looked like Adelaide would finish top four and Carlton would finish last. The last six weeks has changed the story a little though. Carlton, since sacking Brendon Bolton, have won four games, and lost two by fewer than six points. The Crows, on the other hand, have lost three of their last four games, with their only win coming against the hapless Gold Coast.

The response from Don Pyke to last week’s loss at home to Essendon was an interesting one. They’ve clearly had a number of players underperforming this season, and while Eddie Betts hasn’t been spectacular, there were surely other players who could have been omitted ahead of him. For Carlton, Patrick Cripps is still clearly being hampered by his leg injury, having just 18 touches last week against the Gold Coast. If Bolton were still the coach, that would be a huge issue, but with David Teague willing to play his best midfielders in the middle, it’s less of a worry. On the wide expanses of the MCG, in the Betts-Jacobs-Gibbs-McGovern Cup, here’s what happened:

 

CRIPP-ING THEM A NEW ONE

Not since Paul Salmon in 1998 has a player had more than 20 clearances in a game. Brent Moloney went closest, when in 2011 at the height of his powers he had 19 against the Crows. Incidentally, Rory Sloane also played in that game. On Saturday afternoon, at the home of football, Patrick Cripps went absolutely berserk, equalling Moloney’s tally of 19. It’s mind boggling that a player of his talent and class is yet to bring up 100 games, but in game 96 he had arguably a career best outing, to earn his side their third win in a row.

Last week he clearly struggled with his ankle injury. He finished with just 18 touches, the third time this year he’s had below 20. Clearly smarting from lowering his colours last week, despite the win, Carlton’s captain came out like a man possessed, with 14 touches and five clearances in the first quarter, ably supported by Ed Curnow, who had 15 and two. His 19 clearances for the afternoon were quite obviously a game high, but so were his 39 touches, 24 contested, eight score involvements, and eight inside 50’s, while no Blue had more than his seven tackles.

Numbers can, of course, be misleading. At times this year Cripps has racked up plenty of ball, but not necessarily had maximum impact and, while 19 clearances is a truly massive number, at times the clearance stats don’t translate to true dominance forward of centre. That wasn’t the case on Saturday. Opposed, for the majority of the game, to Crows co-captain Rory Sloane, Cripps was mesmerising.

His goal on his left foot in the first quarter was classic of the Blue bull, bursting out of a pack and looking a class above every player around him, but that wasn’t even his greatest moment. That honour falls upon his clearance to open the last quarter. Words fail to describe the absolute beauty, the fluidity, with which the play gravitated around Cripps, as he burst through the middle and kicked it long forward, with Josh DeLuca finishing off the goal to give Carlton the perfect start to the last.

One final moment that typifies Cripps’ resolve, which might not get the plaudits it deserves, was his tackle on Riley Knight. With the Crows surging, the pair found themselves one-on-one deep in the forward pocket. Had Knight finished, and he very easily could have, it wouldn’t have been overly surprising to see Adelaide run over the top. Instead, the Blue did just enough to save the goal, and save his side.

 

AN IMPROVED FORWARD LINE? I WOULDN’T BETT ON IT

It was, very obviously, a bold move by Don Pyke to drop Eddie Betts. A player of his immense quality and standing in the game probably could have expected a few more chances than what he got; especially given he kicked six goals just a fortnight ago. Against his old side, on the game’s biggest stage, no one would have been surprised to see Eddie pull out one or two more tricks from his Merlin-like bag.

In any case, Adelaide headed into this game without their mercurial small forward, and so would have been expecting big game from his replacement in Tyson Stengle, as well as Lachie Murphy, and to a lesser extent Taylor Walker and Josh Jenkins, who clearly would have been put on notice during the week. It was the perfect start then for the two smalls, with Murphy’s kick inside 50 a beauty for Stengle to run onto for the game’s opener, and then the former nailing a nice snap of his own later on. The Blues let the ball out the back a little too easily twice for both goals, but no Crow would have been complaining too much.

Walker’s physicality has been questioned in recent weeks, with accusations of being a flat track bully and being guilty of false bravado each at the top of the list of criticisms. He looked intent on making a statement early, with a crunching tackle on Kade Simpson, and then backed himself from 50 out to nail his first goal. His second was a freebie, brought on by consecutive 50 metre penalties, but he looked like he was going to tear Jacob Weitering to shreds. Another nice goal in the second was his final scoreboard contribution though, and he really went missing after half time. Jenkins wasn’t much better, with just two effective touches and one goal for the afternoon. Between them they kicked 4.2, with seven score involvements. You don’t need to be a mathematician to know that means they weren’t setting up scores for anyone else with their touches, which were few and far between enough. If both of them take to the field next weekend against a resurgent St Kilda, I’ll be genuinely stunned. Their forward set up was not good at all on Saturday. It’s a crowded coaching marketplace to be entering, but it might be time for Adelaide to be having a look.

I’m not sure Eddie would have made a difference, but Adelaide’s forward pressure was non-existent in the first half. Carlton kicked two of their four first quarter goals from the back half, and laid 13 tackles in their front half, with the Crows instead trying to be too precise with their ball movement. In the first quarter they had seven inside 50’s for four goals straight, meaning they were exceedingly efficient when they did go forward, but it was simply not happening often enough. They ended up laying 20 tackles inside 50, with their forward pressure lifting a lot after half time, but it was ultimately too little, too late. Even more damning, though, was that in a forward line with Jenkins, Walker and the hard running Tom Lynch, they took five marks inside 50. If Adelaide had designs on winning this game, they needed a far, far greater contribution from their forward line, and in reality they needed the ball in Tom Lynch’s hands more often.

 

NO MIDWINTER BLUES

I’ve said it before, but the clear difference between David Teague and Brendon Bolton in terms of philosophy is that one was focused on endless development, in spite of aiming for results, and the other has attempted to develop his players while winning at the same time. Under the former, their ball movement has improved every week. Occasionally they make mistakes here and there but there are the makings of a good footy side there.

Sam Petrevski-Seton’s hard ball win in the back line in the first quarter really lifted his side. If he doesn’t win the ball there’s every chance Adelaide kick a goal, but he managed to get the ball out, ending with Matt Kennedy snapping the Blues’ second. Ditto Will Setterfield, whose clean pick up in the second earned a standing ovation, and was integral for Casboult’s goal. It was the little things that Carlton simply did better than their opposition. Harry McKay won’t get a stat for it, but his going back with the flight to break up a handball for Lang’s goal was as important as any in the chain leading up to it. Levi’s goal from 50 in the third was an absolute belter, but it was set up by some good work in a pack by Paddy Dow. Carlton’s youngsters are starting to play with some real confidence and dash.

What would have to be most impressive for Blues fans is the improvement of their youngsters. Will Setterfield and Michael Gibbons have played just 34 games between them, but each of them had career best outings. The former Giant had 24 touches, including a goal which sealed the game, six score involvements, seven inside 50’s and a game high 553 metres gained, and the former Williamstown Seagull had 22, six clearances and five tackles. It might not have been a career best outing for Sam Walsh, but it would have to have been close to one, with 30 touches, 16 contested, seven clearances and four rebounds. He might not be as flashy as Sydney Stack, nor as hard a runner as Connor Rozee, but Walsh’s year has been massively impressive, and if he hadn’t sealed the Rising Star already, he’s sealed it now.

Dale Thomas and Kade Simpson might be closer to the ends of their careers than the starts, but on the evidence of today that end is still a fair way away. With Adelaide refusing to apply forward pressure, they were allowed to waltz out of the backline too often. Don Pyke refused to put anyone even remotely near Kade Simpson, at any stage, best exemplified by his mark late in the third quarter in 10 metres of space. His goal was an important steadier from an important steadying influence at Carlton. The former Magpie had 22 touches at 86%, and the lifetime Blue had 31 at 81%, with game highs in 12 marks and eight rebounds.

 

OH, OH, OH, O’BRIEN

Reilly O’Brien seems to be improving with every week. He only came into the side at the start of the year because Sam Jacobs was injured, but the former Blue has been relegated to the SANFL, with O’Brien now in the genuine upper echelon of ruckmen across the league. With no Kreuzer, who’s arguably Carlton’s most important player, and who was exceptional two weeks ago against Sydney, you’d have backed O’Brien to be dominant, as he was in the first half last week against Essendon.

O’Brien was far from the worst Crow on the ground on Saturday. 15 of his 20 touches were contested, a team high, as were his seven clearances, and his four contested marks out of eight total were a game high. He took a nice contested mark in front of Cripps right in the shadow of quarter time, to save a certain goal, and in the last quarter he took two intercept marks to keep his side in the game.

With all that as a given, Andrew Phillips, with Levi Casboult as his backup, won the ruck battle comfortably. Against a midfield that contains noted bulls the Crouch brothers and Rory Sloane, Carlton won the clearances by a massive margin, 52-29. It wasn’t just Cripps who was dominant, with Walsh, Ed Curnow and Michael Gibbons having 38 clearances between them.

More important than that, arguably, was the Carlton ruckmen’s abilities to work forward on O’Brien. It seemed to be a directive from the coaching staff, and when Andrew Phillips nailed a goal in the third quarter to open up a game high 28 point lead, the Blues’ rucks had kicked their side’s last four goals. O’Brien will be better for the run, knowing now that he needs to defend a little harder.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I may have been exceedingly harsh on Adelaide in this review, but the reality on them is pretty damning. With Port’s loss on Saturday night, they look almost certain to play finals, but whether they’ll be able to make an impact when they get there remains to be seen. Their last month sees them taking on St Kilda and Collingwood at home, and they travel to Perth and Ballarat to play the Eagles and Dogs. Two wins will probably be enough to see them into September, but at this stage it looks like they’ll simply be making up the numbers.

Carlton, on the other hand, are clearly on the up and up. David Teague almost certainly won’t coach them next year, but he couldn’t have done much more to earn the role full time, with five wins in seven weeks. For comparison, under Brendon Bolton, their last five wins came over the span of 44 games. While they likely aren’t much chance of beating West Coast at Marvel next week, nor Richmond or Geelong, a win against St Kilda in Round 22 would see them earn their seventh win of the season. There’s certainly something stirring about hearing the Blues song being belted out by the MCG faithful.