The last time I watched Carlton play football (as in last weekend), the quality of footy was so putrid I was forced into a hermit lifestyle. Admittedly, this was forced by the Victorian Department of Health, who presumably took pity on me for having to sit through that game. Wow, I have to become more positive in these reviews. The last review I did for the Mongrel, a fortnight ago, was Collingwood’s gallant (I suppose) comeback loss to St Kilda. In summary, these two teams aren’t exactly setting the world on fire, with one already having sacked their coach and the other with theirs under more pressure than seemingly any other.

With Victoria in their fifth lockdown since March last year (which, following Fast & Furious conventions, should be the best one, but following Terminator conventions, is eminently forgettable and representative of a significant fade in quality in the whole franchise), these two famous clubs doing battle at the MCG in front of no fans felt somehow both wrong and yet very right. A captive audience, quite literally, sat with bated (I may be taking some licence here) breath to see where the improvements were coming for these two sides.

In truth, there were some fascinating questions to be answered here. Would Collingwood take the game on for the whole 120 minutes in the same way they have done, so successfully, in last quarters this season? How would Sam Walsh go as, undoubtedly in the absence of Cripps, the premier midfielder in his side and perhaps on the park? And would the likes of Paddy Dow and Matt Kennedy step up into the void? Could Brodie Grundy back up his starring role against the Tigers and return to form, ably supported by skipper-in-waiting Taylor Adams? How much beer could I drink and still be coherent? These questions, and more, to be answered below. Here’s what happened:

 

Swooshing Into The Void

Patty Cripps’ absence is, clearly, a substantive one for the Blues’ midfield. While he has been down on form since 2019, when he won the Leigh Matthews Trophy and came third in the Brownlow, he hasn’t gotten any smaller, and his presence and experience do make a difference even if his output is diminished.

Walsh’s year has been nothing short of just remarkable. Any argument that any player from his draft should have been taken ahead of him is, at this stage, evidence of some sort of analytical deficiency (yes, Kane, I’m looking squarely at you). It’s insane that a player who only just notched up 50 games can have gone past the likes of Cripps, and many others, to have established themselves in the upper echelon of players in the league. That is exactly what Walsh has done now, though, to the point that Cripps’ absence was noted, but not overly felt for the Blues today.

Swoosh was, at times, a one-man band in the middle for his side. He ran out the game with 39 touches, and at three quarter time was probably in a coin toss with Jordan Roughead as the best player on the ground. I’ll get to the latter, but the former’s last quarter was just phenomenal. His ten touches included six contested and three clearances when his side trailed by eight points heading into the last, but perhaps even more important was his right foot snap from deep in the pocket. I have no idea how he managed to float it through, having outdone two opponents, but it was a ridiculous effort worthy of winning his side the game. By far, and away, the best player on the ground.

It is rarely one man who wins a side the game in the middle of the ground. Gary Ablett may take exception to that, but Matt Kennedy and Paddy Dow were more than serviceable for the Blues when they needed to step up and prove their worth. Kennedy’s 26 touches were the second most of any Blue, with his long range goal out of the middle in the third quarter crucial to keeping his side in touch after the Pies opened up a 20 point lead. No player had more than his six clearances, to go with six inside 50s and 480 metres gained in a very solid performance from a player who finally was allowed to play in position.

When Darcy Parish won one of his three best on ground medals this year (in games which his side won just once, but that’s a separate story), a lot of the conversation around him was that his development had come out of nowhere. In some senses that is true but he was also taken at pick 5; it’s not as though his talent was never evident. What has this tangent got to do with anything? Well, apart from being one of my strange football gripes, just about every club has a midfielder who is undervalued and played out of position to the point of being effectively without use. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the players in general, but it is symptomatic of the glut of midfielders in the league. Anyway, apropos of nothing, Paddy Dow. Taken at Pick 3 in the 2017 Draft, Dow hasn’t really hit they heights he may have been expected to through his first 50 or so games, with a career high of 23 touches. While he only had 17 today, he included five clearances and five score involvements in a display that highlighted he still has the capacity to influence games at this level.

 

De Go-Ing Up The Guts

As above, one of the main criticisms of the Pies so far this season has been that they’ve been largely terrible to watch until the last quarters of games, where they’re generally so far out of the contest that they throw the sink at their opponent with nothing to lose. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton, and we’ve seen how it’s played out in general, with losses to Geelong and St Kilda following similar scripts. Even last week’s win over Richmond followed a similar path, when they entered the last quarter trailing by 20 points before running out 16 point victors. In many ways, it’s like going to the bar with the intention of picking up, chatting to zero women and generally making a cock of yourself until it’s time to go home and then talking to every woman in the place as if you’re somehow a chance. But no that isn’t targeted at anyone…

Perversely, today’s game almost flipped the script exactly. The Pies’ first half was very solid. Instead of the usual sideways and backwards kicking, guys like Mayne and Noble looked to take the game on, and it meant that, for example, Ollie Henry and Jamie Elliott were able to get favourable matchups inside forward 50. The former kicked three goals before the main break, largely through the benefit of his workrate and his teammates’ abilities to get the ball inside 50 quickly.

Chief amongst those teammates was de Goey. Across his last three games before today, he’s had an equal career-high 32 touches twice, and 29 touches last week. His midfield work has made a huge difference to a Collingwood side full of bulls but lacking the kind of explosiveness de Goey can provide. His 31 touches included 28 uncontested (and six contested, apparently, in another display of Champion Data’s innumeracy), both team highs, as well as 12 marks, a game high. While he didn’t goal himself, he had game highs in eight score involvements and 507 metres gained as he constantly drove his side forward.

Apart from Taylor Adams, who was down on last week’s form while still being solid, the remainder of the Pies’ top six ball winners were half back/wing type players in Mayne, Noble, Ruscoe and Quaynor, who had 26, 25, 23 and 22 respectively. This may in recent weeks have been representative of the kind of tedious football you’d be glad you weren’t allowed to witness in person, but this week Collingwood looked much more positive until they were beaten comprehensively in the last quarter and couldn’t get their hands on the ball.

 

Moore is Less, Roughead is More (Or Something)

Yeah there’s definitely *a* pun there, I’m just not sure what it is. Last time these two sides played, in Round 2, the Blues entered as favourites and were then comprehensively outplayed. Not sure if that sounds familiar to Carlton supporters. I’m not sure why it would…

Anyway. In that game, Moore had 22 touches, a massive 18 of which were intercepts, which would ordinarily rank him amongst the best players on the ground except for the fact his direct opponent and now-Coleman leader Harry McKay kicked four goals. It was an interesting philosophical matchup which I didn’t really buy into because, believe it or not, it’s possible both players were pretty good, actually. But that’s just me trying to bring nuance into the famously understanding football community.

With Moore out for the rest of the year, Jordan Roughead was tasked with the big matchup. With Charlie Curnow and Levi Casboult out, and Marc Pittonet missing in the ruck, Carlton were going to need a huge game from their main man seemingly, if they were going to get the four points. They didn’t get it in the first three quarters. McKay was nowhere until the final break, with just six touches, 0.0, and two marks. Roughead was, as mentioned above, in the best two players on the park, probably, limiting the most proficient key forward in the league very effectively. Eight of his 13 one percenters came before three quarter time as he managed to control Carlton’s aerial route, and while Jack Silvagni was solid and tried hard, as ever, the Blues looked unlikely to kick a winning score.

I’m not entirely sure what changed in the last. The ball delivery to McKay did seem to improve, with more balls out in front rather than sat on his head, and he seemed to have more space to lead into as he got his confidence up. Perhaps most impressive though, his set shot goal kicking, which is always dicey, was up to scratch, as he booted four of Carlton’s six last quarter goals in a famous win. I think Roughead still probably gets votes; Collingwood aren’t close if not for him, but McKay did what the great forwards should do. He turned what was shaping to be an awful day into a very solid one, extending his Coleman lead in the process.

On Silvagni, I thought he worked exceptionally hard today. It can’t be easy being asked to be second ruck as a 194cm 23-year-old against the bigger, older, better Brodie Grundy, but at least he tried hard, and his contested mark at the top of the square, one of his three total for the day, in the second was critical in keeping the Blues in the contest. His hanger in the last quarter was a beauty, and resulted in one of McKay’s four goals. He may never be the best footballer on Carlton’s list, and he’s never looked the most natural footballer, but he does look the kind of player willing to do the hard work.

 

For Ruck’s Sake…

Brodie Grundy’s first half picked up from exactly where he left off last week, having dominated Mabior Chol. Tom de Koning fits maybe into the same category as Chol, in that he is clearly talented but nowhere near the level of Grundy. To half time, Grundy had 13 touches and 17 hitouts, as the Pies utilised their strength out of the middle. With Jack Silvagni as back up ruck, it looked like the Collingwood big man was about to have a day out.

After half time, de Koning came out like a man on a mission. Grundy’s efforts were nullified significantly, to the point he had just three touches and 10 hitouts after the long break. De Koning didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but as ever when playing Collingwood, a breakeven in the ruck is as good as a win. His turnover to Trent Bianco halfway through the third hurt, but he then managed to get on the end of a Jack Martin pass to earn the goal back for his side. As Walsh and Kennedy got their side back into the game, Grundy having his influence limited was a significant factor in the win.

 

And Another Thing… 

  • There are times when Zac Williams, highly paid back flanker, looks absolutely nothing like a defender. Today was largely one of those times, especially in the first quarter. He attacked the ball almost absurdly hard in the passage leading up to Jamie Elliott’s opening goal, and at times ran to places he didn’t need to instead of taking a man, as with Ollie Henry’s second. Got one back in the third when he iced a nice set shot, but I’m just not sure the Blues are getting what they expected when they forked out for the former Giant.
  • Was there something to be said about the jumper clash here? I recognise both clubs were wearing traditional garb, but at times players did give the ball to opponents as if they were looking for them. Stocker hit John Noble on the lead in an acre of space, although that may have been a result of a lack of forward movement, and then the usually skilful Jack Martin picked out Chris Mayne almost perfectly. I’m not sure there was much that could have been done, but it didn’t make for perfect viewing, to be honest.
  • Darcy Cameron is becoming an increasingly important player for the Pies. With limited options up forward, especially given de Goey’s role up the ground, his ability to at least bring the ball to ground is crucial to a side whose forward strength is obviously their smalls. His clunk and goal in the third gave them a 20 point lead, which looked like it would be enough at the time.
  • Eddie Betts may not have much footy left, but it’s a joy to watch him while we can. His first goal came courtesy of a mark which almost definitely bounced, and from which he almost certainly played on, but the snap was cool under pressure. His pass to Jack Martin from the pocket was just a pisstake, and then his front and centre snap in the last basically iced the game.

 

That’ll probably do me, it’s late and I want to watch I Think You Should Leave. This game was actually pretty solid, all things considered. There’s definitely room for optimism for both of these sides, although consistency remains a glaring issue. Carlton are still (and you know things are going well when this comes out) a *mathematical chance for finals*, but their last five games are reasonably winnable, starting with North Melbourne at (ostensibly) Marvel Stadium next Sunday. For the Pies, the performances of Henry, Noble and Quaynor among others are encouraging for the future, and when they play positive footy they look like a decent side at the very least. Somehow despite their mediocrity this season they get primetime Friday night footy next week against notorious flat track bullies Port Adelaide in a game no one will be rushing to watch, surely? In a round with a Grand Final rematch, in a season with a rolling fixture, this seems inexcusable to me.