THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – CARLTON 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

The Blues cut Brendon Bolton loose in 2019 as their green shoots looked as though they’d wither and die with him in charge of nurturing them. Replaced by David Teague, the Blues looked to be on the same path in their first game under their new coach, but the inspired performance of Patrick Cripps to lead his team (and make no mistake – though there is a co=captain, this is Cripps’ team) to a huge win over the Brisbane Lions.

Was that win, and the subsequent upswing in form enough to imbue the Blues fans with hope? You damn betcha it was.

With young talent like Patrick Cripps, Harry McKay, Charlie Curnow and Sam Walsh, the pieces are well and truly in place and now is the time for the Blues to start moving out of the cellar, and to start eyeing off the penthouse they occupied what seems like forever-ago.

Can they do it? Let’s explore with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

COULD HE GET EVEN BETTER?

The football world fell in love with Patrick Cripps in 2019, and as he powered his Blues to their first win under new coach, David Teague, there could be no question as to his standing as one of the best players in the game. It was an inspirational performance by an individual who demonstrated just how much one player can influence the fortunes of his team as he compiled 38-disposals, four goals and eight clearances. More impressive was the way he rallied his team from a deficit and refused to allow them to be beaten.

At 24, he is already a three-time best and fairest winner and the question is – how good can he get? Are we just scratching the surface as to what Cripps could achieve in the game?

Already he has the second-highest amount of individual clearances in a game to his name. His 19 clearances against the Crows last season is second only to a dominant 22-clearance effort by Paul Salmon in 1998. Is it just a matter of time until Cripps cracks the 20-clearance mark? Will it be in 2020?

Cripps particularly likes to feast against Adelaide, with a 17-clearance game against them in 2018 also ranking in the top ten games of all time for that stat category.

Okay, let’s assume for a moment or two that Cripps can get better in 2020 – where does that happen?

Cripps earns the hardball as well as anyone in the league, but doesn’t get much ball running through the middle. Whilst he is ranked second in the league for contested touches per game, his uncontested touches see him ranked right down at 172 in the league. It’d be nice to see him pick up a few more of those possessions to add to his game, and start hurting the opposition with some penetration as well.

His 13 goals in 2019 were a career-high, but a version of Cripps that drifts forward and uses that overhead prowess to pluck a mark or two would make him even more dangerous. Think of Cripps moving forward when someone like Matt de Boer decides that shadowing him around is a good idea. In a one-on-one inside 50, Cripps is a nightmare, and it would cause panic in the opposition coaching box.

Yeah, I know, trying to find ways for Cripps to get better is like taking perfection and saying it’s just not good enough, but at 24, there is actually room for him to get better. Word out of Carlton is that Cripps is a little lighter this season. Let’s face it – he could drop five kilos and still be one of the biggest bulls in any midfield in the game. He is a monster, a wall of force with legs, and he is the heart and soul of a footy club on the rise.

What is Patrick Cripps’ ceiling? There is none – he smashed through it in 2019, and if he rises again in 2020, we may not have seen anything like it in the middle of the ground.

 

 AND WHILE I’M AT IT…

Anyone want to humour me and have a guess at what the ceiling looks like for Sam Walsh?

Whilst I am a big fan of some other players who broke out in 2019 (Connor Rozee, Cam Zurhaar), there is no disputing that we bore witness to one of the best debut years in a long time by Sam Walsh.

As it stands, the only knock on him (and I reckon people looked for ways to discredit him at stages) was that he sometimes throws the boot on the ball without looking. He had 25 touches per contest at around 66% efficiency in year one, and with another pre-season, more awareness and familiarity of his teammates’ running patterns and where they like to get the footy, you know that is going to improve.

Where do we see him sitting in the AFL midfield pecking order by the end of 2020?

He should comfortably sit as the second best mid at Carlton, if he isn’t already, and with some extra fitness, could we see him start to nudge 20 uncontested possessions per outing? Last season only four men ran hard enough and made enough space to accrue that many.

Andrew Gaff, Matt Crouch, Lachie Hunter and Jack Macrae.

Of them, Walsh is probably most like Macrae, and that is great news for the Blues. If he can emulate what Macrae is producing on a consistent basis at the Kennel… well, we will hear more than a few people floating Walsh’s name when AA discussions start occurring.

 

JUST WHAT THE DOC ORDERED

We’re all crossing out fingers, aren’t we?

So far, so good as Sam Docherty has made his way over the first hurdle of the pre-season – getting to Christmas. Now, as we head to just two months until the start of the season, Docherty can actually start feeling genuinely optimistic about the upcoming season.

I read with interest, stories around this time last year, and this time two years ago talking about how his seasons on the sidelines would serve him well as a player. I remember smiling when I read them, thinking that it was the right thing to say in the circumstance, but you know what would serve him much better – actually playing!

And it is looking more and more like we might get to see that in 2020.

What Docherty adds to the Blues cannot be measured simply by having an extra player. As co-captain, Docherty’s leadership and poise across half back are just what the doctor ordered for the Blues, who were forced, once again, to lean on Kade Simpson to fill a role he is probably a little past.

Make no mistake, whilst the Blues SHOULD be on the upswing, things can unravel quite quickly, particularly when there are so many young players in the side. Having Docherty to steady the ship will be a godsend.

Don’t uncross those fingers any time soon.

 

FROM NO SMALL FORWARDS TO PLENTY

So, small forwards don’t seem to be an issue at the moment. Imagine the Blues had also picked up Tom Papley?

Or is that something the Carlton fans would like to forget about for the time being?

Jack Martin, Jack Newnes and the returning Eddie Betts add something to the team that they’ve simply not possessed in years – small blokes capable of hitting the scoreboard. Do we count Matty Wright’s 22 goals in 2016 as hitting the scoreboard? Nah, you have to go back to Jeff Garlett kicking 41 in 2013 for the Blues to have a decent small forward.

Now they’ve got three.

Of course, that presents problems in itself, and we’ll touch on them in a while.

 

WORTH WEITERING FOR?

There are a couple of members of the Carlton defence that have really started to shine in recent season, and none more so than Jacob Weitering in 2019.

After being sent back to the VFL in 2018 following a run of games where he looked entirely out of sorts, Weitering returned to the Carlton side a better player, and has not looked back. Gone is the hesitation and confusion with the ball in hand, or when the long ball is coming inside 50, and it has been replaced with the knowledge that he can impact the contest and either kill it or mark it.

In 2018, the Blues’ defence was a mess. The amount of times I watched Weitering, Liam Jones and Caleb Marchbank run into each other when preparing to contest spoke of a defence that either wasn’t willing, or was unable to effectively communicate with each other. Jones, in particular, looked as though he was going to kill one of his teammates as some points.

Weitering is a former number one overall pick, and after four years in the system looks set for a huge 2020. At 22 years old, he averaged 7.1 intercepts per game (21st in the league in totals) and 6.95 one percenters (15th in the league in totals). I’d like to see him increase those, and move into the top ten in each category by the end of this season. The only player able to accomplish that in 2019 was Phil Davis.

Weitering has the respect of Carlton fans. It’s time he got it from the remainder of the football public.

 

THE POTENTIAL

It’s difficult not to get a little ahead of yourself, isn’t it? It’s like being stuck in a long, dark tunnel, with little to sustain you.

Then, up ahead in the distance, you see a shimmering light… thanks Glen Fry, Don Henley and Don Felder.

The shimmering light for the Blues comes in the form of the talent under 25 years old, lighting the way after such a long time stuck in the dark. Patrick Cripps, Harry McKay, Jacob Weitering, Sam Walsh, Sam Petrevski-Seton, Zac Fisher, and Charlie Curnow are all still in their AFL version of the adolescence. They are not yet at their peak (scary in Cripps’ case) and the improvement that should come from that cohort has the ability to push the Blues up the ladder significantly over the next few years.

That shimmering light in the distance – is it the end of the tunnel, or just a torch fixed to the wall of a tunnel that is teasing those traversing it. 2020 will go a long way to giving us answers on the Blues as these players mature to move from becoming the future of the club to the present.

Walsh is already a star, Fisher has shown glimpses of being a line breaker, and SPS could be anything with a little more consistency. The pieces are definitely in place on paper – it will be up to David Teague to get them all to fit.

 

UNSUNG HERO

I want to dedicate this section to Lachie Plowman. Firstly, I have a confession; I have sat there and watched Plowman ove the years and thought ‘I have no idea what role this guy is meant to play’.

I realise that this isn’t his fault by any stretch, and perhaps it is more an indication of how unsophisticated my football nous is, but as the 2019 season progressed, I started to see a defender starting to really work out just what he is doing, and then doing it very, very well.

I suppose my reluctance to embrace Plowman comes from the fact he was such a high draft pick. When someone is taken at number three overall in the National Draft, they come with high expectations, and that’s what I had for Plowman. It appears that he may be ready to fulfil them.

With 94 games under his belt, Plowman is a reliable defender. He is not going to rack up huge numbers as the designated kicker like Kade Simpson or Nic Newman, or be that player with highlight marks and spoils like Weitering or Jones, but what he will give is a contest that he AT LEAST breaks even.

I have a new-found respect for Lachie Plowman, taking into account the fact he and other young members of the Carlton defence have been forced to stand up in the face of an oncoming tsunami of opposition inside 50s at times. He has watched, learned, licked his wounds and each of those first 94 games has acted as a superb launching pad for the next phase of his career.

2020 should be the year that the rest of the league starts to take notice of Plowman – not for being a high draft pick who didn’t set the world on fire, but for the way he has developed into one of the best mid-size defenders in the game.

 

WHEN CHARLIE MET HARRY

I am really surprised about the level of scrutiny placed on Charlie Curnow has NOT received this off-season. After injuring his knee playing basketball, he repeated the dose by falling over on some tiles and reinjuring it.

Look, I have a tiled kitchen. I tear around there like a lunatic chasing a three-year old. I am not a finely-tuned athlete by any stretch (although you could easily make this mistake looking at the god-like physique I possess, right? Right!?!?). How he managed to injure himself by “slipping on some tiles” is a complete mystery to me and strikes me as a little strange. I’m just surprised there has been so little made of it. Were the journos on holidays? Strange days indeed…

Anyway, that is three injuries to Curnow’s knee in about five months. Curnow is explosive, and on his day has the potential to take over a game, but as a knee-injury veteran, you have to understand that every time he damages it, it reduces his capacity to play at the level he should be at. Rehab is one thing, but continuous damage to a knee will circumvent even the best rehab in the world. And that is a big issue if he injures, or even tweaks it over the coming season.

Last season I watched the early-season form of Carlton and Harry McKay without Curnow in the team. I know there has been a lot of talk over the last couple of seasons of McKay thinking very highly of himself but in Curnow’s absence, he showed that some of that thinking may have been justified.

McKay had a ripper game as the number one forward option against the Dogs in Round Five, rewarding the Blues with their first win of the year. His 20 disposals, 11 marks and four goals had him as arguably the best man on the ground. It was a performance that Curnow matched against the Dogs again in Round 17, as he snagged a career-high seven goals.

But it was McKay’s early-season contested marking that set tongues wagging. Over the first six rounds, he had 25 contested grabs, at an average of 4.16 per game. The eventual league leader (in averages) was Matt Taberner, at 2.7 per game.

With Curnow in the team, McKay averaged 2.27 contested grabs. Without him, he was up to 3.11 per game.

So, when I watched the Blues, I saw two forwards whose best position is playing out of the goal square. Which one do you opt for down there? Who is the best option going forward?

It’s a nice problem to have, I guess, and one that can be mitigated easily by both learning to use each other to better their own game. A combination of Curnow and McKay up forward has the potential to be the best forward duo in the game. Now, let’s get Charlie healthy for a whole season.

 

 

THE BAD

 

THE STAGNATION OF SOME

Here’s where my worries start with the Blues. I watch a lot of footy. My missus might hate it, but I do. It’s my thing. And part of that is watching the Carlton Football Club. When you watch a team a few times, and do it impartially, you start to look at certain players and the way they go about it. Some look like they belong immediately. They pick up the pace of the game and look at home.

And others don’t.

What worries me is that some of the kids the Blues have invested heavily in have looked as though they haven’t really got the pace of the game at this stage.

Paddy Dow is one the Blues have huge hopes for. Taken at pick three, Dow was very highly rated but has thus far failed to impress on a regular basis. More concerning for me was his lack of development in his second year. Dow’s 2019 averages were basically a mirror-image of his debut season, with little to no real statement game from him. In fact, there was a run of five-straight games where he failed to crack double-figures in disposals.

Lochie O’Brien is another who was taken early in the 2017 draft (pick 10) and is also another whose development stagnated in his second year. O’Brien’s numbers fell, almost across the board last season, and the one I didn’t like the look of was the tackling stats. Sometimes kids won’t be getting a heap of the footy, but defensive pressure is an effort stat, and if they have adjusted to the pace of the game, they should be able to at least maintain tackling levels. I didn’t see that from O’Brien.

Cam Polson is another who has gone backwards, but he was a much later pick in the 2016 draft. Will Setterfield is another where the jury is out. Has Jack Silvagni finally found his place? And has Matt Kennedy dalliance with the forward line set him up to finally capitalise on his potential after two frustrating years in navy blue?

Look, if two or three of these players kick on, the Blues are in a really good place, but from what I’ve seen thus far, there are a couple that are a worry.

 

THE UGLY

 

REBUILDING A CULTURE IS HARD TO DO

Remember that ad with the woman who married Rod Stewart…. for some reason? It was the Pantene shampoo ad, and she was telling everyone who’d listen that “It won’t heppen overnight, but it well heppen.”

She was a Kiwi, you see, and the joke is that I wrote it that way to… oh screw it.

Anyway, the point of these ads were that she was telling those that wanted to have hair like her that if you buy Pantene, you’ll get the results, but it won’t be quick.

And this is where Carlton have been for a while now. They’ve bought Pantene, they’re scrubbing the hell out of their hair every single day, and yet they’re still being told to be patient, and you know what – they’re sick to death of being told to be patient! They want hair like Rachel Hunter right bloody now!

The sad thing is – Rachel is right, and there will still be a bit of heartbreak for the Blues this season. I know many teams are buoyed by the success of Brisbane last year, and the Tigers in 2017, and the Dogs in 2016, but to think it’ll just “heppen” is probably a little too optimistic at this stage.

What Carlton need to do is start an era where the young players coming through hurt after a loss – not one where it is expected. That’s where they’ve been, and that is something they need to leave in the rearview mirror quickly.

The Blues were coming in 2008. We were smelling what they were cooking in 2010. And we know that when things do happen for them, it’ll be wonderful, but as much as it pains Carlton fans to admit it, they know that as this team grows, and as the kids start to be more than shoots on the shrub someone else left behind, they will have to endure a path that will lead them back to the top – but it won’t be a fast track at all.

The build will continue, and even if there is a few games’ improvement this season, it is something to look forward to.

 

CAN THE EDDIE BETTS RETIREMENT TOUR GO HORRIBLY WRONG?

This isn’t pleasant to write about at all, as I reckon there are many looking forward to some brilliant Eddie Betts highlights in 2020, but at what cost?

The Blues have addressed a major issue, inasmuch as they were a team forced to rely on the likes of Michael Gibbons, Lochie O’Brien and David Cuningham (who really should spell his name with a double-n to make things easier for me) to crumb and kick goals. They were a team that struggled to kick goals once the ball hit the deck, with Gibbons their best small in front of goal, kicking 16 for the season.

Yep, the best small forward had just 16 goals. No wonder they ended up third last. You simply cannot win games with no potent weapons at ground level.

The message was heard loud and clear and when news that Eddie Betts wanted out of Adelaide, the Blues welcomed him “home”.

The problem is that they then welcomed Jack Martin and Jack Newnes to IKON Park as well, and at 25 and 27 years old respectively, they are both much better long term prospects than Betts. Both may spend time up the ground, which may be Eddie’s saving grace, but if either starts lurking closer to goal, it might be an issue for Betts’ position in the team.

So, with the probability of two positions being available for the three of them, which way do the Blues choose to go? Do they opt for sentimentality and allow Eddie the opportunity to have the small forward role as his to lose, or do they immediately look to the future, knowing both Martin and Newnes are around for a long time, not just a good time?

Here’s a few things the Blues should be considering about Betts in 2020.

Betts had 37 goals in 2019. Pretty good numbers, right? Hmmm… let’s look a bit deeper.

12 of them came in two games against the Suns. In the first of those games, he kicked five after half time – the game was over by the main break. He kicked four after half time in the second encounter. It was also over by that stage. In short, it was a pair of games where Eddie managed to inflate his season stats against a team that was absolutely struggling.

Additionally, 15 of Betts 37 goals came in last quarters in 2019. Again, that could be considered pretty impressive, right? Players who step it up in final quarters are usually lauded, however if we go back and look at the actual instances when those goals were kicked, only four of those 15 came when the game was still up for grabs. That means a whopping 73% of Betts’ last quarter goals did not have an impact on the result. Yes, a few of them made the highlight reels, but around the same number really mattered.

Given what I watched and went back and looked at, is it fair to say that Eddie had a bit of flat tracking about him in 2019? And if that was the case, is this what the Blues need? Or will they get a little more from Jack Martin and Jack Newnes if they’re closer to goal?

I hope that Eddie gets a great run at it in 2020 and is able to finish his career on a high note with the team he started with, but with two highly capable players waiting in the wings for their shot, part of me wonders whether we’ll see Eddie in the VFL as much as we’ll see him in the AFL this season.

And if we do, it’ll be a damn shame.

 

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