Carlton and Port Adelaide did battle at the MCG on Easter Sunday in a game that was, fittingly, all about resurrections.

Following their loss last week, Carlton fans would have been excused for thinking this was a danger game. They’ve seen this scenario many times over the last two decades – their team has a run of good form, looks like they might have turned the corner, expectations begin to rise, and then they lose a game. “Hey, it’s just one loss,” they say to each other, “the boys just need to come out next week and keep playing with confidence.” As loss after loss begins to pile up, these supporters come to the realisation that they’ve let themselves have their hearts broken all over again. Coaches are sacked and appointed, players are traded in and out, and the cycle repeats.

With just minutes left in today’s game, these same supporters would have come to the realisation that they might be going through that pain all over again. But just when it seemed that all hope was lost and Port Adelaide were going to complete one of the most famous comeback wins of recent history, Harry McKay and Charlie Curnow stood tall. McKay reminded everyone how big and strong he is, taking a couple of important marks late in the game, while Curnow kicked the Blues’ last goal to seal the club’s best start to a season since 2012, in the process resurrecting a season which appeared on the brink of collapsing.

Port Adelaide, meanwhile, will be left to rue a poor first half as they face up to the reality of being responsible for the Power’s worst-ever start to a season. The second half showed that they can play with spirit, verve and style, but it was completely absent for the first 60 minutes. But still, with a little bit of luck, they could have won and had their season back on track after a horror first month. When Mitch Georgiades goaled with three and a half minutes to go, bringing the margin back to three points, that stone started moving ever so slightly. Thus for the Power, it wasn’t to be and they now sit last on the ladder with a 0-5 record.

That’s enough introduction (and probably enough of the resurrection imagery), let’s get stuck into the four points.

 

  1. The Return of Aliir

 

First, a note – I originally wanted to call this point “Aliir Aliir – the man so nice they named him twice” but owing to him having a tough day and a fear that making a joke about his name may come across as racist, I decided against it. Then I thought some more and decided to do a quick bit of research and found that the SBS has a very handy website that gives the user a whole heap of information about all sorts of different cultures. When it comes to Sudanese naming conventions, the website indicated that surnames are often not verbally spoken and as a result are not recorded during immigration. Further, the naming of boys generally follows a pattern where they will have their personal name, then their father’s name, then their grandfather’s name recorded. With Aliir’s middle name being Mayom, we can deduce that he was most likely named after his grandfather – Aliir Mayom Aliir. Thus ends our socio-cultural lesson for the day.

I’ve always felt that Port were one tall defender away from having a complete defensive structure. Tom Jonas and Tom Clurey are decent enough, but Jonas is under-sized and is more suited to playing as a third tall defender, while I worry about Clurey’s ability to stop the best tall forwards. Aliir’s 2021 season papered over some of these structural cracks, with his intercept marking constantly thwarting opposition forays forward, and his absence for the start of the 2022 season has been seen as one of the key reasons for Port’s poor first month.

As a tall, intercepting defender, if there is one team that you wouldn’t want to have your return game against, it’d be Carlton. They have the most in-form tall forward duo at their disposal, a midfield who loves kicking it to them, and a game plan that’s centred around fast ball movement. If your midfield is down by even one percent, it can spell disaster for a key defender. And so it was today for Aliir. Initially, Jack Silvagni was given the task of keeping Aliir occupied, and he did a good job dragging Aliir away from goal and importantly, away from Curnow and McKay. This meant that Curnow and McKay were often left one-out with their opponent knowing that Aliir wouldn’t be flying across to spoil or mark the ball.

By half-time, Curnow and McKay had three goals each and had combined for more than 20 disposals. Meanwhile, Aliir had just three disposals and only one intercept possession. Last year he had averaged more than eight and a half a game, but now with Silvagni performing a solid defensive role, McKay dragging him deep forward when the match-up transferred over, and with a midfield offering less help than Judas (thought I’d sneak one more Easter reference in) it was turning out to be a horrible return game.

Port’s midfield got better in the second half, meaning that the ball wasn’t coming into Carlton’s forward line in the same volume, nor was it coming in with the same level of speed and precision that it did in the first half. It seemed to me as well that Port made some structural changes at the half-time break, moving Riley Bonner up onto a wing, and gave players like Dan Houston and Ryan Burton the license to run and carry from their back half. In short they seemed to pivot from relying on Aliir’s aerial intercepting prowess and instead focused on turning the ball over across half-back.

Like a few of his teammates, Aliir got marginally better in the second half – finishing with eight disposals, four intercepts and six one-percenters, but Port coaches, players and fans will be hoping that this was just a game he needed on return from injury, rather than a portent of things to come.

 

  1. The Missing Leaders

 

From a Carlton perspective, it is impossible to talk about this game and not talk about their missing skipper – Patrick Cripps. For the first three rounds this year (all Carlton wins), Cripps looked like he was back to the player we all knew he could be. An unstoppable force around stoppages with an ability to go forward, take a mark and kick a goal, Cripps was entering the sort of rarified air that players like Dustin Martin, Patrick Dangerfield and Nat Fyfe have recently occupied. A hamstring injury to Cripps last week, compounded by the loss to Gold Coast, appeared to set the scene for a fall from grace that Carlton supporters have come to know all too well.

This Carlton midfield group is made of sterner stuff than their past iterations. Led by the brilliant Sam Walsh, the Blues engine room hit the start of today’s game like Port’s mids had said something about their mothers. By halftime, the Blues had kicked 12 goals, had a 49-point lead and Walsh was leading from the front gathering 23 disposals to go with four tackles and two marks. To say that Walsh is a natural leader and works really hard is a bit like saying the Pope is catholic – it’s true, but not exactly mind-blowing. And in fairness to Walsh, it doesn’t do him justice.  He is a machine who will keep working for his teammates as hard as the day is long.

I remember back to the 2018 draft, and many draft experts were arguing over who should be the number one pick. They all agreed that Walsh was as close to a ‘sure thing’ that they had seen – he seemed destined to play 250 games for whatever team drafted him. But Max and Ben King were generational tall talents, Jack Lukosius reminded them of an 18 year-old Nick Riewoldt, and Bailey Smith had the most hurt factor of any of the top talents. Walsh, they argued, was a bit vanilla – yes he was highly talented, could run all day, gather possessions at will, and had great leadership potential, but he wasn’t exciting like the others – he didn’t have their x-factor. And I guess those draft experts are right – Walsh doesn’t have an x-factor. He also doesn’t have an obvious weakness, something that all of those other players do. While there are better players in the comp right now, I’d argue that there are none more complete than Walsh. If you disagree with me, that’s fine – re-watch today’s game, and you’ll see a 21 year-old playing his 66th game of footy leading his team to victory – a victory that could be very important in the race to September.

At half-time today, Port Adelaide were staring down the barrel of their first 100-point loss since the dark days of August 2011. Their midfield was constantly a step behind their Carlton opponents, their forward line was invisible and their backline was being obliterated. One can only assume that their coach, Ken Hinkley, put it on their leaders to come out after halftime and show some fight, some passion. Missing their normal midfield leader – 2021 Brownlow medallist Ollie Wines – the responsibility fell onto the shoulders of youngsters Connor Rozee and Zak Butters. Drafted in the same year as Walsh (picks five and 12 respectively), their progression as footballers has often been compared with that of Walsh. Through playing for a better team, Rozee and Butters have been afforded more time to become accustomed to the rigours of AFL, but the expectation would be that as they enter their fourth season, they start to deliver on their potential.

It’d be fair to say that both players have been underwhelming in the first month of the season. If this was the year they were supposed to go from being good young kids to genuine stars, then their first month indicated they were well short of the mark. Their second half today, however, showed that they were no longer willing to accept the type of performances that themselves and their team had given so far. Butters, who admittedly had had a very good first half, became the type of player that Ken Hinkley suggested he could be in the pre-season (if I’m not wrong, there was a comparison to Gary Ablett Jnr?). He collected 17 touches, had four clearances and kicked a goal, leading from the front as Port came within a whisker of a famous victory. Not to be outdone, Rozee gathered 14 of his own disposals, kicked a goal and had three tackles in a performance that fans will be hoping sets a benchmark for the remainder of the year.

While the Power were not able to get over the line, the form showed by Rozee and Butters suggests that they thrive on responsibility and should be given more as the season goes on.

 

  1. The Forward Lines

 

I thought today would prove a theory of mine right, and I think it did, at least for a half. Do Carlton have the best forward line in the comp? I know, there are better teams than Carlton (Melbourne, Brisbane and Geelong look like the prohibitive top three at this stage), but do any of them have as much firepower as the Blues? Most of the best teams in the comp seem to be built around an elite defence and a midfield that bats deep, while Carlton seem to have built their team around having two of the best marking targets forward of the ball – Curnow and McKay – a more than capable third tall target in Silvagni, a dangerous hybrid-type in Jack Martin, and two high pressure, high work-rate small forwards in Corey Durdin and Matt Owies. There are some other guys who’ll float through there, but that’s the core six.

While their ‘points for’ across the first five games puts them behind seven or eight teams, it’s their ability to score heavily and quickly that’s most eye-catching. In each of the first three rounds, they kicked seven goals in a quarter, using this strength to break the shackles and put distance between them and their opposition. Again today, back to back quarters of six goals saw them take a lead of 49 points into the long break. Getting a consistent effort from their midfield seems to be the only thing holding their forward line back from true greatness, and may be the key to going deep into September.

If Port Adelaide are one key defender short from having a complete defence, then they are certainly one tall forward short of having anything that resembles a consistently dangerous forward line. Missing Charlie Dixon obviously hurts their structure – far more than I ever thought it would – but I do wonder if they have reached the end of the journey with Todd Marshall? I’m not saying that Marshall isn’t AFL standard, I think in the right system he certainly could be, he just doesn’t seem to be the type of player Port needs him to be. With the amount of dangerous medium-small forwards that they have (Rozee, Robbie Gray, Steven Motlop and Sam Powell-Pepper), it seems they want a ‘bash-and-crash’ type of tall forward, someone who will, at worst, bring the ball to ground and let these smalls do what they do best. Mitch Georgiades tries to do this, and was pretty good today, but at 20 years of age and with only 33 games of experience, isn’t ready to do this on a consistent basis. As any GWS fan will tell you, Jeremy Finlayson is a great six-foot-six half-forward flank but doesn’t have the right temperament to be a tall forward.

It was telling that Port looked at their most dangerous today when their midfielders were hitting the scoreboard, while Carlton looked their most dangerous when their forwards were doing what they’re paid to do.

 

  1. The Coaches Box

 

I always find it interesting when a coach comes up against a team he used to help coach, whether as a senior or assistant coach. Who does he choose to tag? Who does he want to stop in the backline? Which forward does he send his best defender to? Basically, we’re just waiting to see who the coach thinks is actually a good player, and who he thinks isn’t. Unfortunately, we didn’t et many really intriguing move from coach Michael Voss on his old team. The Blues sent Silvagni to Aliir at the start of the game, but this seemed like a pretty logical decision – you wouldn’t want to use McKay or Curnow in a defensive role. From a Carlton perspective, the midfield match-ups weren’t centred around an attempted game-breaking tag; instead, Voss seemed pretty content to let his group go head-to-head with their opponents

Probably the most interesting match-up happened as a result of the other coaches box – Hinkley sent Karl Amon to Walsh. On the surface, this is an understandable decision – Amon is probably Port’s best runner and is most likely to be able to go with Walsh all game. However, Amon is not the best inside player, and started the game poorly, constantly following Walsh into and then out of stoppages often after Walsh had affected a clearance. Amon finished with 15 touches and 10 tackles, equalling the most of his 110 game career, but it should be questioned if this was his best use. That Walsh gathered 38 disposals and had eight score involvements indicates that the job was not performed to a high level.

 

Stray Shots

 

  • Carlton’s victory today broke Port Adelaide’s six game win streak over them, dating back to round five of 2017.
  • As the game got tight, I started looking at past results between the teams. Their only draw was back in round four of 2005 at Football Park. The three votes on that occasion went to Power midfielder Stuart Dew who had 22 touches and kicked a goal.
  • While the Blues are 4-1 and have been really impressive so far, they are developing a worrying ability to fade out for a quarter a week. One bad quarter arguably cost them the loss last week, and could have seen them 2-3 without much change. Mind you, trying to fix a problem at 4-1 is far preferable to fixing a problem at 2-3.
  • I thought this was a nice game from Jack Martin. At times in the first quarter, it looked like he was ready to tear the match apart. Slightly worrying that he didn’t get a disposal in the last quarter, but I hope that he is settling into a position in Carlton’s forward line.
  • I didn’t mention him above, but I thought this was one of Zac Fisher’s better games. He is the clubhouse leader for goal of the round, following his beautiful goal early in the third quarter and his game of 22 touches, two goals and six score involvements was really impressive.
  • I wonder if Carlton will institute a rule that prohibits Harry McKay from leading out to his right? He’s a great exponent of the snap set-shot, but if I’m a Carlton supporter and McKay needs to kick a drop punt, I’m worried.
  • I reckon you can tell who the best players are by how quickly they get up off the ground. Walsh and Butters jump to their feet and look for the next contest or where the ball has gone almost as soon as they hit the deck, but other players will take their sweet time.

 

Next Steps

 

Carlton travel to Optus Stadium to take on Fremantle in round six, in the type of match-up that journalists love to call ‘eight-point games’, while Port will keep looking for their first win as they host the lowly West Coast at Adelaide Oval.

 

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