Sydney and Carlton battled an enthralling contest for three quarters, with the Blues eventually being overrun by a more disciplined and better-drilled Swans outfit.

It feels like you can say that opening sentence about way too many Carlton losses over the last three or four years, doesn’t it? All you need to do is replace Sydney with any other team higher on the ladder than the Blues, and, as they say in the classics, Bob’s your mother’s brother.

It’s not that Carlton weren’t impressive – at times, the pressure they put on the Swans was just about as intense as I have seen from any team this year. It’s also not that I expected Carlton to beat Sydney. I didn’t, the Swans look to have turned a corner this year and week-by-week convincing more fans that they are the real deal. It’s that, we’ve been here before, haven’t we? The Blues have been circling the drain of mediocrity for a long time, and despite having bonafide stars, don’t seem to be getting any better.

I don’t want to kick a fan base when they are down, but this game should infuriate anyone who is affiliated with Carlton, whether in an official or non-official capacity. Last year, the Swans finished below Carlton, winning two fewer games than the Blues. Yet here we are today, less than 12 months later, and the Swans have leapfrogged the Blues faster than you can say ‘finals’. With my four points today, I want to look at why this may be the case, ultimately highlighting what I believe to be the Blues biggest problem (don’t worry Swans supporters, I’ll have some nice things to say about your boys, too).

 

 

THE BATTLE OF THE MIDFIELD STARS

 

To start on a bright note for Blues fans, it looks like Patrick Cripps is getting back to full fitness quickly. He’s never been overly fleet-footed, but has always really good acceleration and power in his first two or three steps that have been able to help him either break through tackles or break away from congestion. For obvious reasons (obvious other than to David Teague, perhaps), Cripps was missing this in the first six rounds, but his performance today convinced me that it is back.

Like all elite midfielders, he is at his best when scoring goals, and to couple his 27 possessions (18 contested) with three goals shows that his confidence in his own body is growing too. It’s a funny thing to see in a player, particularly one as young as Cripps, when they re-discover what their body can do – normally it’s players in their 30s who get a second wind like Taylor Walker who experience this. But with Cripps today I sensed a genuine excitement when he tried to break away/through Swans midfielders, and was physically able to. When up and going, I have Cripps in the class of midfielders, like Nat Fyfe, Paddy Dangerfield and Dustin Martin, who can genuinely change the course of a game and though he wasn’t able to do it today, I don’t think it will be too long until he does.

Sam Walsh and Ed Curnow tried their best to help their captain today, but were ultimately overwhelmed by the overall class of their opponents. Walsh’s strength through his hips, particularly for someone his age (how easy is it to forget that he’s only 20 years old) is absolutely amazing, giving him that extra half second to dispose of the ball. I wonder if another year or two in the gym might allow him to break these tackles, though, as looking at his stats and metres gained (he had 33 possessions – 15 kicks and 18 handballs – and 310m gained), tells us that he gained an average of just 9.4m per disposal. At his best, and I reckon he is still only scratching the surface, he should be at least doubling that average per disposal, and this will mean he needs to kick more.

Ed Curnow strikes me as the type of player you would love in the trenches with you. Though he was down on his season averages for disposals, tackles and clearances today, the runs he has on the board means that he can have the odd bad day. Like any good foot soldier, he kept running and trying his best, and you know that you can bet he won’t have two bad days in a row.

For the Swans today, it wasn’t so much about one star midfield performance but rather a weight of midfield numbers that essentially overwhelmed the Blues. Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker did what Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker have always done, winning 19 disposals and 23 disposals respectively, having 16 tackles between them and combining for three goals. Though neither of them starred, they made sure that they used the ball each time they got it, and made the Blues midfielders work overtime to get it themselves.

More than their direct impact on the game, however, has been their impact on the other Swans mids. James Rowbottom looks to be following the example set by Kennedy and Parker to a tee, collecting just 14 disposals but having 11 tackles, while Callum Mills continued his ascension to ‘great midfielder’ with 25 touches and seven tackles.

When you can then have other players of the quality of Chad Warner, Will Hayward and Dylan Stephens roll through the midfield, you know you are spoilt for choice. After a slow start, the Swans nearly levelled up the contested possession numbers (135 to 139), levelled the clearances (35 apiece) won 62 more possessions than the Blues and still laid 29 more tackles.

 

 

THE TWO TOWERS

 

Going into the game today, I thought that whichever of the two main scoring threats at either end – Buddy Franklin and Harry McKay – kicked more goals would have a decent say in who won. Eventually, the man who is on track to win his first Coleman Medal, and the man who has won four of his own, kicked three each and, while neither will cite this game amongst their best, I thought there were stages where both looked capable of changing the game.

For Harry, it was the same old problem – kicking straight. It’s certainly fair to say that his kicking has been much better recently, but the problem with being a full forward, particularly one who is as good an overhead contested mark as Harry is, is that any kicking problems you have get magnified. At three-quarter time today, McKay had kicked a respectable 3.2. His three last quarter shots were all behinds, meaning that he finished the day with a frustrating 3.5. The first two of his misses were exactly the types of shots he would like to become his bread-and-butter, and had he kicked them, may have been enough to start a final quarter surge. He’ll be left to rue these misses, but if his marking form continues for the remainder of the year, he’ll have plenty more opportunities to right these wrongs.

What more is there to be said about Buddy that hasn’t already been said? Not much, really, other than to add my voice to the growing chorus of those who say, how fun is it being able to watch him play? I missed getting to watch him live last weekend (I was busy getting married to *Borat voice* ‘my wife’), and I reckon just about every football supporters’ sphincters tightened a little bit when he grimaced and grabbed at his knee after getting tackled in the last quarter. But every time he pulls on a Swans jumper is one more time that we get to watch the greatest goal-kicker of a generation play the greatest game in the world. Whether he gets to 1000 goals or not (and I don’t think there’s a supporter alive who hopes he doesn’t), any second we get to watch this champion at work is one that we should all savour.

 

 

THE SMALL FORWARDS

 

I was going to write about the two defences here but seeing the impact of Isaac Heeney and Tom Papley, particularly as the game wore on, I thought they warranted some mention. Though Cripps was mighty today, and in any other game he would have been best-on-ground, I’m going to have to give my votes to Heeney. Pound-for-pound, and perhaps only with the exception of Nat Fyfe, I reckon Heeney is the best overhead mark in the game. He has a vice-like grip on the ball, and when leaping for marks has that rare ability to just hang in the air for an extra split second or two, always just enough to get hands on the ball and take the grab. With McKay, Heeney was the most dangerous forward on the ground today, finishing with three goals and 10 score involvements. I know that the Swans hierarchy are probably counting down the days until they play Heeney in the middle, but if he stays in this form, they’ll be mighty tempted to leave him where he is.

What is it with small forwards and being pests? Think Phil Matera, Stephen Milne, Hayden Ballantyne – great small forwards, phenomenal pests. If Tom Papley is not already part of this group, then he has to be bashing down the door. Whether it’s ducking for high free kicks, his (perhaps over-) exuberant celebrations, or his fantastic goal-kicking skill, Papley always seems to get under the skin of his opposition and similarly lift his teammates immeasurably. Like all great small forwards, he was impactful when it mattered most today, kicking two last quarter goals to snuff out any chance of a Blues comeback. I reckon the fact he was nearly a Blue two years ago must hurt Carlton fans that little bit more.

For Carlton, though they seem replete with small forward options (Eddie Betts, Matthew Owies, Lachie Fogarty and Jack Martin to name just four), only Betts exerted any significant influence on the game today. Like Buddy, I love anytime I get to watch Betts, as there is always a chance he is going to do something you have never seen before. And today was no exception when, in the first quarter, he gathered the ball in one hand, seemingly ran towards the boundary to up the level of difficulty, and without putting a second hand on the ball, snapped it back over his left shoulder to the amazement of anyone watching. If he didn’t already own a pocket at the SCG, I reckon he might now.

 

 

THE B-TEAM

 

Fair warning to Blues supporters – I’m going to criticise some players here. Please feel free to let me know if you think I am being too harsh, but also know that I want to see you guys succeed. It can’t be fun watching your team deliver what feels like a dozen or so ‘honourable’ losses every season, so while I empathise with you, I’m also just trying to call it as I see it.

Looking at their top disposal winners today, it’s not a shock to see that the top three are Walsh, Cripps and Sam Docherty. No-one else wearing the navy blue got more than 20 touches – Sydney had seven players get more than 20. This was a game for the likes of Zac Williams (17 touches, zero tackles), Will Setterfield (16 and two), Adam Saad (15 and four) and Jack Martin (12 and three) to put their stamp on this team and say ‘we are not going to lie down’.

At three quarter-time, the match (and possibly Carlton’s season) was on the line. On the back of efforts from Walsh, Cripps and Docherty, the Blues had taken it up to the Swans and found themselves just three points adrift of a top-eight opponent (stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Blues fans). In the last quarter, when the team needed it most, Walsh, Cripps and Docherty combined for 18 disposals and a goal, while Williams, Setterfield, Saad and Martin combined for just 13 disposals, three tackles and zero influence. These four were players that the Blues brought in to support their elite talent.

And boy do the Blues have some elite talent. You want a generational defender capable of stopping the oppositions best forward and setting up attacking forays? You could do a lot worse than select Jacob Weitering, Carlton’s 23 year-old key defender. You want a tall forward who at his best is unstoppable, and at his worst will still provide a contest and a target for your mids to kick to? Perhaps I could interest you in Harry McKay, the Blues 23 year-old full-forward? Couple these book-ends with more than helpful contributions from the likes of Liam Jones, Levi Casboult, Eddie Betts, Ed Curnow and Jack Silvagni, and add in the games consistently delivered by Walsh, Cripps and Docherty, and everyone involved in AFL must be left wondering, how in the hell do Carlton keep misfiring?

Is it injuries? No, everyone has injuries and Carlton’s are nothing special. Is it gameplan related? No, they’ve had too many different coaches for a new gameplan to make any great difference. So, ultimately, we are left with this – the Blues have way too many players who are either not up to AFL standard, or are just happy being AFL players. Melbourne have dealt with this too, and they were able to get out of it (though admittedly it took them some time), so there certainly is hope for Blues. But after this long, and with the amount of talent on their list being wasted away, and the amount of hope that the Blues have tried to instil in their fans, I can’t help but be reminded of a phrase an old coach of mine used to say “hope’s nice, that and a buck fifty will get you a coke”.

 

 

STRAY SHOTS

 

  • I loved Eddie Betts intro to the game today (this may have been a Fox/KAYO only production). Going through why he loves the game, and how much fun he has playing it, and the players he loves watching – it was enough to bring a tear to this writers eye.
  • At times today, and mostly in general play, I felt I had to do a double-take to ensure that Buddy hadn’t mistakenly put on Harry McKay’s jumper. It might be that they are both tall left-footers, but there were definitely moments in the game today where I saw a real similarity between them.
  • Just on McKay, he’d have to be a great tall forward option for his small forward teammates. He rarely gets beaten and if he doesn’t mark it will bring the ball to ground. Memo to Carlton’s plethora of small options – STAY AROUND HARRY’S FEET!!!
  • That pressure that Carlton put on in the second quarter was amazing, however, they couldn’t kick the goal that might have opened the flood gates. As soon as the Swans took the ball down the other end and converted, through Heeney and then Franklin, I felt the game was slipping away from the Blues.
  • I’ve watched a lot of footy – some (*my wife*) will say too much, but I swear there are times where I have no idea what a free kick is paid for. This confusion is only compounded by the commentators, who are apparently too busy with calling each other by their nicknames and reminiscing about great players from the past or how good they used to be to worry about explaining anything to viewers who, oh I don’t know, might actually want to watch the game.
  • By early in the third quarter, Carlton had allowed two kicks at goal to be marked on the goal-line. I wrote in my notes that they might come to regret this. Did I just bring this up to highlight my amazing foresight? Maybe, dear reader, maybe.
  • One really key moment in the last quarter occurred about half-way through, when Owies marked at half-forward. Had he turned his body to face goal, he would have probably seen Ed Curnow crossing 50m on the outer-side of the ground, surrounded by nothing but green grass. Instead, he kept his body facing the Swans goal, gave a handball to a player under a bit of pressure, and the ball got turned over.

 

And that’ll just about do it for today. The Swans train keeps rolling as today’s win keeps them in contact with the top four, while the Blues fall two wins out of the eight. Sydney face St Kilda next week, while the Blues will stay in Sydney to face West Coast.