At quarter-time in today’s match, I was thinking that this game would be one of the easiest I’ve had to review. Punch out a thousand or so words on the Blue’s aerial dominance in their forward 50, a few hundred on their midfield clearance work, and then a couple hundred or so on the Hawks to balance out the review. Finish off by talking about both teams’ defences, have a quick jab at Jeff Kennett, and done. Easy, right?

Instead, the last three quarters delivered the most exciting footy I’ve watched as a neutral fan since the start of Covid, and probably even further back than that, meaning I’ll actually need to sit down and think about this game. This is not a chore – no, not at all. The more time we spend watching and talking about games like today’s, the better the discourse around footy will be. Remember this match, in the dog days of June and July, when the usual suspects are using their pulpits to rage against what they feel are irreversible issues in our game, how good games should be measured primarily by goals scored.

Viewed at large, today’s match was a perfect advertisement for how modern footy is played – aggressive ball movement; tall forwards trying to mark everything in their area, and their opponents trying everything to stop it; evenly matched midfield groups going toe-to-toe for 120 minutes. Momentum changes, heroic acts of utterly astounding courage and brilliance, and when all is said and done, an exciting ending.

As I’m certain you know, the match ended with Carlton victorious over Hawthorn by one point. It’s only the third time since April of 2005 that the Blues find themselves on the winners list following a match-up with the Hawks, and sees them hold a 3-0 record after the opening three rounds for the first time since 2012 – the time before that was 1995, a not inauspicious omen for the Blues. Hawthorn, meanwhile, fall to an admittedly still impressive 2-1 record, and should not be too disappointed in the result from today’s game. Both teams had opportunities to win – Carlton just had a bit more class (and probably a fraction more luck) that saw them over the line.

As I’ve said in both my earlier reviews, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what format and tone I’m best suited for these reviews. In preparing some notes for the game today, I had a few questions/topics I wanted to cover, so let’s have a look at those.

 

  1. a) The New Blues

 

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be long screed about the history of the Blues from its beginnings with W.C. Handy through to its current-day iteration with The Marcus King Band. Instead, this is about the Carlton Football Club, and the players who didn’t start as Blues, but now happily adorn the old, dark navy blue jumper.

It’s long been a joke that Carlton have been rebuilding during the season and the national draft, but approach trade week like a team trying to compete for a premiership. Acquisitions like Mitch McGovern, Adam Saad, Zac Williams and Nic Newman appeared to be made by a team that thought they were just one offensive or defensive piece away from competing, rather than one that’s missed finals every year since 2013. The truth is, they’ve long been a couple of midfielders short, and last trade period, they finally addressed this need. In free agency, the Blues lured George Hewett away from the Swans, while trade week saw them send pick six and a future third-round selection to Fremantle in exchange for the highly-rated Adam Cerra. While some may have questioned the moves, the Blues knew that they had now added some extra grunt through Hewett, and class through Cerra.

Under the tutelage of new coach Michael Voss, a few other changes have occurred that have seen these ‘new blues’ find new life. Matthew Kennedy – a 2017 trade acquisition from the Giants in return for a second-round pick – has become a full-time midfielder, while others like Will Setterfield have found themselves becoming more stable members of a midfield group that values both inside and outside talent.

The New Blues of 2022 have sought (and in the first three rounds, succeeded) to share the load throughout the team. Instead of the entire responsibility of the midfield falling on the shoulders of Patrick Cripps, Sam Walsh and whatever other players find themselves in navy blue when the ball is bounced, the responsibility is now shared amongst a core group that includes Cerra, Hewett, Kennedy, Setterfield and an ‘I’ve finally found my purpose as a footballer’ version of Lochie O’Brien. And gang, it is working. Cripps looks like he has lost about 50kg, and is covering the ground like he used to a couple of years ago. Walsh, similarly, must be thrilled with the form of his midfield teammates and will only get more and more dangerous with each game he plays.

With their improved form, system and structure, the Blues are also starting to get the most out of their earlier additions – the ones which appeared to be misguided 12 months ago. Williams looks to have settled into a role across half-back, playing deeper in defence while still being given the reins to attack, McGovern looked vastly improved in the first two rounds as an intercepting defender (and was arguably the player Carlton missed most today), while their new style of attacking football seems suited to the styles of both Saad and Newman.

It’s a lie to say that teams should only draft their talent – the modern game requires that teams trade, and invariably the best teams are those that don’t necessarily trade for the best talent, but rather the most valuable for them. Carlton now look to have got the mix right, and with a 3-0 start to the season, their fans could be forgiven for seeing finals as a benchmark.

 

  1. b) The Carlton Talls

 

I’ve gotta admit, I’ve been trying to think of a zippy nickname for the Carlton tall forwards and defenders that could rival the Blues famed ‘mosquito fleet’, but sadly have been unsuccessful. (The Blue Flies? – HB)

For those unaware, the mosquito fleet refers to a group of Carlton midfielders and forwards who played in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At this time, Carlton were arguably as great and as powerful as they’ve ever been (they won the 1979, 1981, 1982 premierships, before winning the 1987 flag) but for the three premierships between ’79 and ‘82, they really didn’t have a dominant tall forward. Instead, they needed to rely on the speed and inventiveness of players like Ken Sheldon, Rod Ashman, Alex Marcou, Wayne Johnston, Jim Buckley, Wayne Harmes and David Glascott to provide enough scoring opportunities for the Blues to invariably beat Collingwood on their way to the flag (I know, they beat Richmond in 1982, but I thought Blues fans would like a little drive-by on their oldest rivals).

If this Carlton team is going to be as storied as those of the past, I reckon a lot of the credit will be due to the talent and class of their talls at either end of the ground. Down back, the first pick of the 2015 draft, Jacob Weitering, fights with everything he has to ensure the Blues’ defence restricts the opposition forward line. He’s a great intercept mark, a sure user of the ball by foot, but more important than anything else, he is seldom beaten one-on-one. Lachie Plowman, best suited to a medium-tall/third tall forward target, continues to battle manfully while being outsized, and with options like Lachie Young or Oscar McDonald for second key defender, the Blues look to be building a good mix of talls behind the ball.

Of course, however, the mosquito fleet was not about defence – it was about offence. And boy-howdy do the Blues have some talented tall forwards. The Blues have been hard-up for truly great memories since 1995, and I bet there are more Blues supporters than would care to admit who would happily re-watch the first quarter of today’s game when trying to have some private alone time.

Charlie Curnow, Harry McKay and even Jack Silvagni looked unbeatable for the first thirty minutes today. Between them, they took five contested marks and kicked four goals, helping the Blues to a 34-point quarter-time lead. The ball was being won by the Blues from clearances, moving through the ground quickly and entering the forward 50 before the Hawks defenders even had time to move. As the match wore on, the Hawks started to slow Carlton’s ball movement, stymieing the prodigious marking power of their three-pronged forward line, however, the Blues still finished with more marks inside 50, more contested marks (thanks in large part to Curnow’s five contested grabs) and the winning goal was kicked by Silvagni, proving the age-old adage that they may get tired, they don’t get smaller.

Though the Hawks’ defence got better as the game wore on, and their own forward line got better, the raw marking talent of McKay and Curnow, coupled with the work rate of Silvagni, was a constant worry for the Hawks defenders, and this strength of the Blues threatens to dominate the competition for years to come.

 

  1. c) The Young Hawks

 

Remember when Hawthorn were finishing in the top-four and were arguably in premiership contention? It doesn’t feel that long ago, does it? Despite only a few years outside the eight, and after a long time inside it, the Hawks don’t look like they are too far off challenging again. How the hell did that happen?

Well, while we’ve all been looking at and questioning their trade and free-agency additions – Jaegar O’Meara (who had an absolute shocker today) Chad Wingard, Tom Mitchell, Kyle Hartigan, Tom Scully, Sam Frost, heck even Ricky Henderson was an odd selection – we haven’t paid enough attention to their draft hauls. And let me tell you, they have quietly assembled a group of youngsters who are incredibly talented, and may just shepherd in  new era for the Hawks.

There were a dozen Hawthorn players who had played 50 games or less in today’s game. These are not your normal dozen of inexperienced players, either, this is the list; Jack Scrimshaw, Denver Grainger-Barras, Changkouth Jiath, Will Day, Josh Ward, Connor Macdonald, Mitch Lewis, Dylan Moore, Ned Reeves, Jai Newcombe, Conor Nash and Finn Maginness. Together, this dozen for the Hawks accounted for nearly 60% of their disposals, almost half of their tackles, all of their hit-outs and four of their goals. Given their age and inexperience, one can only assume their impact on games will grow.

In addition to the youth in their team on the field, there’s also quite a bit of youth in the Hawks off the field – namely in their coach, Sam Mitchell. It’s long been known that Mitchell was a gun coach-in-waiting. Ever since he retired at the end of 2017, the countdown clock for him running his own team started. His first season out of the game saw him take over the midfield at West Coast in 2018, and those who have watched the Eagles midfield group for years, will tell you it has not operated with the same cohesion since.

Mitchell moved back to the Hawks in 2019, and was effectively anointed the person to take over from the legendary Alastair Clarkson as soon as his return was announced. Having got the reigns as senior coach this year, and following the Hawks ultimately disappointing seven-win 2021 campaign, I figured, along with many other football analysts (is there a more misleading term in our sport) thought the Hawks would finish in the bottom four again this year. I know it’s only the first three weeks, and we shouldn’t get carried away, but I thought the way the Hawks moved the ball today was thrilling.

Every time the Hawks got the ball on the half-back flank, it seemed the ball-handler would look inboard on a 45-degree angle, trying to hit a teammate in the middle of the ground. If they saw an option that had a 50% probability of hitting, they’d take it on. If it meant that they needed to occasionally try and land the ball in between Carlton defenders, they had the license to try and hit it. This is the confidence that great young coaches give teams. It was a level of confidence that meant, even though the Hawks were down by nearly seven goals in the second term, they still attacked. They still took chances. To be honest, they probably startled Carlton by how willing they were to be open to lose by a lot in order to try and win.

The ball use by the likes of Jiath and Day off half back, the intercept marking of Grainger-Barras, the clearance work of Ward and Newcombe, and then the finishing of Lewis and Moore promises that these Hawks are going to be a handful for a long time.

 

Stray Shots

 

  • I really enjoyed the games of Denver Grainger-Barras and Josh Ward. DGB (as I refer to Denver Grainger-Barras) was a rock across half-back in the last two terms. He had five intercept possessions and halved plenty of Carlton forays forward. Ward, meanwhile, had 20 disposals, three score involvements and three clearances in just his third game of AFL.
  • I wonder if Sam Mitchell had this game again, would he send Conor Nash to Patrick Cripps from the first bounce. I know Nash rucked as the relieving ruck-man for the Hawks, but it seemed to me that he was best suited to match-up on the Carlton superstar, and seeing the way Cripps dominated today, impacting his influence by even 5% may have been enough.
  • Is there a forward due that understands each other better than Luke Bruest and Jack Gunston? Probably not right now. But imagine how dangerous the Blues could be if Curnow and McKay had this connection – 2022 premiership?
  • Can I say, I LOVE DYLAN MOORE! He’s a quintessential small forward – quick, a great rover and a pain in the neck for the opposition. I thought he was brilliant last week against Port, but today he was even better – 21 touches, nine marks and two goals. The best part – he’s only played 33 games.
  • Anyone who has watched a game of football beyond the year of 2010 knows what it looks like when a team can’t get the ball past their half-forward line. For most of the first half, the Blues didn’t have to worry about this, with the contested marking from Curnow and McKay rendering any Hawks defenders obsolete.
  • If we’re going to give the Hawks credit for getting back into the game through the second, third and fourth quarters, then we need to give the Blues credit for re-taking the lead and being good enough to close out the game in the last term. It takes a lot of courage to withstand the best from your opponent, and then attack again, but this Blues outfit is made from stern stuff.
  • With the scores level and 6:48 to go in the last quarter, my Kayo feed dropped out and went back to the start of the game, forcing me to fast-forward through the entire match to try and get back to where I was. In doing so, I went past where the feed cut out and saw Silvagni’s goal. So let me use this time to say to address Rupert Murdoch directly. Rupert, you bizarre lizard creature banished from your own planet to study the vomit patterns of our loneliest women, you warthog-faced buffoon, you wrinkled king of the sewer perverts, fix your sport streaming app.

 

Next Steps

 

The Blues head to the Gold Coast to take on… Gold Coast. Should they win, they will have a 4-0 record for the first time since 1995. The Hawks will take on the Saints at the MCG in a match that looks set to help determine the position of teams finishing between six and 12.

 

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