Are we in a safe place, here at The Mongrel?

I kind of feel I am, given I own it and all. I can be honest… I can tell you what I think, and even if you disagree with me, all is well… we’ll handle it like adults, right?

Yeah, that’s the way it always goes… like adults.

Coming into this season, I made a point of trying to find the time to preview the matches that stood out as something particularly special. You know, there might be a specific clash between superstars, there could be the return of a star to a team they once played for, or we could see two of the top teams in the competition square off against each other.

To my complete surprise, this game has all bases covered.

Whilst some may choose to focus on the intense Collingwood v Essendon rivalry, or whether the Tigers can produce something special to knock over the reigning premiers, the game of the round will occur on Saturday night in a standalone fixture – a deserved standalone fixture, as the Fremantle Dockers host the Carlton Blues in probably the first real test for either team this season, at least in terms of the pressure of being at the pointy end of the ladder.

There is a lot to like about both these teams – they have been incredibly good fun to watch thus far, with their attacking styles and combination of good power forwards and highly-capable defences ensuring this contest will have fantastic one-on-one matches. Adding to the drama is the situation for both sides, having missed finals in 2021 (and 2020, and 2019, and… you get the picture) and now finding themselves well and truly in the mix for the top four as we head into Round Six.

A 5-1 start for either of these teams would be better than even their most ardent supporters would have predicted. It is a virtual ticket to September.

So, who gets up in this encounter? And why will it play out that way?

That’s what The Mongrel is here for. Let’s do a deep dive on the match of the round, and the chance for Freo or Carlton to establish themselves as a 2022 power.

 

THE KEY CLASHES

 

Let’s be courageous and assume that Health and Safety Protocols don’t completely gut Fremantle over the next couple of days. Fingers crossed, huh?

After hearing that both Heath Chapman and Hayden Young will miss this week due to these batshit rules, the hope is that no more players are forced into isolation and what could be one of the biggest games of the season gets to go ahead with relatively healthy lists.

Aaaaanyway, let’s look at the possibilities.

 

WILL BRODIE V PATRICK CRIPPS

Lovers of great one-on-one duels would have had this date circled on their calendars. Cripps v Fyfe would have been the marquee attraction.

Only it isn’t, with Fyfe rehabbing a back issue and out of action. What this has done is opened the door for another player to make his presence felt. And Will Brodie has grasped this opportunity with both hands.

Averaging 26.8 disposals and 6.8 clearances per contest, Brodie has been a revelation for the Dockers through the first five rounds of 2022. However, this week he could be up against a master of his craft and arguably the best inside bull in the league, in Patrick Cripps. Assuming Cripps’ hamstring allows him to play, of course.

Whilst Brodie’s numbers are impressive, Cripps started the season like he was shot out of a cannon. Number one in our first Mongrel 50 of the season – and by a considerable margin – Cripps was averaging an incredible 32 disposals, 8.3 clearances, and two goals per game before feeling tight in his hamstring in Round Four and sitting out the majority of the game.

If it does indeed come up after one week on the sidelines, the Cripps v Brodie clash at the coalface looks mouth-watering. Brodie will be determined to prove that his form stacks up against the best in the business, whilst Cripps will be eager to snuff out any challenge to his title as the best inside worker in the game.

Between these two, it may come down to being a matter of pride. Do you back the wolf on top of the mountain, having recently reclaimed his spot? Or do you back the hungry wolf climbing it?

 

JACOB WEITERING V MATT TABERNER

Fresh off seven goals against a hapless Essendon, Matt Taberner faces competition a little stiffer this week in the form of reigning Mongrel Punt Defensive Player of the Year, Jacob Weitering.

Weitering is one of the unsung heroes of the competition, going about his business with the type of no-nonsense efficiency that makes him more like a silent assassin than a key backman. He is the glue that holds this Carlton defence together, and how the back six performs, in general, largely depends on how well Weitering can curtail the opposition’s best key forward.

If he is winning his one-on-one contests, the opposition starts to look for other options, which, in turn, permits Weitering the opportunity to start freelancing and impacting contests to aid his fellow defenders.

So, what does that mean for Freo?

That means that Matt Taberner has to remain dangerous and he has to do his best work inside 50. Tabs has been knocking on the door of the elite forward club for a while now, but was always lacking a couple of those big bags to make everyone sit up and take notice. We got one last week, and he will be pretty bloody keen to repeat the dose. Doing so against a defender the quality of Weitering would have All-Australian selectors looking up from their list of usual suspects and casting an eye out west.

Nick Larkey proved that kicking a bag on Weitering was possible last year – it probably cost Weitering a place in the 2021 AA team, but in 2022, the Carlton defender has reigned supreme. This one is as pivotal as it gets. As goes Taberner v Weitering, so goes Freo v Carlton.

 

SAM SWITKOWSKI/LACHIE SCHULTZ V ADAM SAAD/ZAC WILLIAMS

Before I continue, nobody in the media commended Adam Saad on a little defensive act late in the game that could have saved the win for the Blues. With Zak Butters charging out of the middle, and the overlap option on, Saad correctly read Butters’ attempt at floating a handball over the top, elevated, and deflected the footy. In one instance, we went from what looked like a certain Port shot at goal to a mad scramble around the 50-metre line.

We saw it, Adam.

Anyway, we get Saad and Zach Williams attempting to cover Sam Switkowski and Lachie Schultz, who may ed up being the most potent one-two small man punch in the game this season.

Switkowski is so clean. Everything he does is with purpose – there are no rubbishy little sideways handballs to buy time – no, no, no. When he gets the footy, good things happen. The same goes for Lachie Schultz, who is starting to demonstrate just why Hawthorn were so keen on having him swap jumpers in the off-season. They saw what we’re now all aware of.

Carlton have seemingly come to terms with the fact that Zac Williams is not a midfielder and are now playing him in the role where he provides his greatest value to the team. Between he and Saad, the potential for Carlton to burst from defence could hurt the Dockers, so Swit and Schultz will need to be prepared to run hard both ways to cover their men.

Some of my fellow Mongrels have been pretty harsh on Adam Saad’s defensive skills, but I have always thought he puts in. Whichever one of these two he gets, Saad will have to be absolutely on defensively. They’re the type that make you pay.

 

HARRY MCKAY V ALEX PEARCE

Alex Pearce fixed up Peter Wright last weekend, holding 2MP goalless.

But Peter Wright is no Coleman Medallist.

And Peter Wright hasn’t led the league in contested grabs.

Pearce is stepping up a notch here and will be facing the best big forward in the game. I have enjoyed Pearce’s comeback from injury. I watched him work through a solid, if unspectacular, season in 2021 to get his repetitions in, but it is 2022 that he has started to shine once more.

How he handles Harry McKay will be pivotal.

Harry has made a habit out of playing Wayne Carey-like bursts of brilliant footy. No, I am not saying he plays like The King, but he can impact a game in a short amount of time, which is what Carey could do at his best. McKay slotting two or three in a quarter and pulling in some big Get out of Jail marks down the line gives Carlton a weapon that is hard to combat.

If you’re Justin Longmuir, you would be well-served in advising Pearce to allow McKay his space if he ventures up past 60 meres out from goal. Pearce will be at his most valuable inside defensive 50 – that’s where he needs to concentrate his efforts, whether McKay is in the vicinity or not.

 

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CHARLIE CURNOW V LUKE RYAN

Please happen.

I love Luke Ryan’s game, and though I think Brennan Cox might get the job, a Ryan v Charlie Curnow clash would be spectacular.

Ryan goes for his marks – he backs himself and happily runs off his opponent whenever possible. Doing that against Charlie Curnow… that takes courage.

Curnow’s return to form has been a great story. Coming into the 2022 season, his injury history had Blues fans pretty cautious, but with two games of five goals so far this season (14 overall), some of them are now daring to dream. Could Charlie finally be right? And will his tandem with Harry McKay lead Carlton to the Promised Land?

 

DO THE BLUES SIT SOMEONE ON BRAYSHAW?

 

The AFL is catching on – Andrew Brayshaw is a class unit with the type of delivery of the footy that hurts teams. We’ve seen a couple of teams send someone to him in recent weeks, with decent results.

West Coast threw Jackson Nelson on him, and he restricted Brayshaw to just seven disposals for the first half before Adam Simpson released the tag (not the brightest idea) and Brashaw had 19 second-half touches. GWS did something similar, with Lachie Ash holding Brayshaw to 11 first-half touches, before he finished with 26 and a goal.

Will the Blues try something similar to hinder the young star?

Carlton have one of the best-kept secrets in the AFL at their disposal. Sure, George Hewett can rack up big numbers of his own – his 33 disposals and 13 clearances are a clear example of his prowess at the contest – but he also has a tight defensive side to his game that Sydney fans are all-too-aware of.

Given the potential of Brayshaw to be a game-breaker, does Michael Voss sacrifice the output from Hewett to stifle that of Brayshaw? Who wins in that equation?

So much comes down to whether Patrick Cripps plays – if he is out there, working hard for clearances, it gives Hewett the space to play a defensive game against Brayshaw. If he is not ready to play, the Blues will need Hewett to step into the role of midfield bull and compensate for the loss of Cripps once more.

Even without considering this aspect of the game, the presence of Cripps was vital, but the trickle-down effect on other matchups and roles makes any decision on his fitness vital in the scheme of this game.

So, scenario one – Cripps plays, Hewett shifts focus and restricts Brayshaw.

Scenario two – Cripps does not play, Hewett focuses on the footy, and Brayshaw plays his own game.

If I were the Blues, I would be hoping like hell that Patty Cripps is up and about this week. Sure, they can throw Matt Kennedy in there to help Hewett out, and he could still keep an eye on Brayshaw, but with a player of his calibre, you would prefer two eyes on him at all times.

And while all that’s going on… you’ve got Mundy, Serong, and a couple of Blues we’ll cover in a minute to factor in.

This midfield battle is mouth-watering.

 

THE PRODIGAL SON

 

Are we all familiar with the tale of the Prodigal Son?

It’s a Bible story, so I am guessing the answer is a resounding no. This is a good thing, because it means I can distort the story all I like to make it fit with the return of Adam Cerra to play the team that nurtured him as he developed and learnt his craft.

In the Prodigal Sin parable, the father welcomes his estranged and wasteful son home with open arms. I doubt we’ll see that from Freo. As a matter of fact, a nice round-arm to the head in a marking contest might be waiting for Cerra in a contest if he’s not careful.

In case you haven’t noticed, I am not that big a fan of running off “home” after spending years being treated like footy royalty by a team.

Freo gave Adam Cerra the type of footy apprenticeship a young player dreams of. Not once was his place in the team under threat. Not when he meandered about the paddock, notching disposal numbers in the low teens. Not when he failed to commit his body to contests. Not when he’d go missing for stretches of games. They went all-in on his development. They nurtured him like a loving parent would a shy child. Their investment was in the future.

Little did they know his future was at Ikon Park.

The Blues were shrewd this past off-season. The acquisition of Cerra and George Hewett have given the team a midfield to rival any in the competition, and the three-headed monster the Dockers were cultivating suddenly had one head removed. No longer was it the Brayshaw/Cerra/Serong trio ready to own the AFL midfield for years on end. Now, it’s just the two of them, with Cerra standing across from them, playing for the enemy.

At times in the AFL, things are a little too touchy-feely for my liking. I am more the type who likes a bit of niggle in a game – a bit of passion… a bit of genuine anger.

That is what I am hoping for from the Dockers, and if they bring that, how do Cerra and his Blues stand up?

 

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WHERE CAN FREO WIN THIS GAME?

 

RUCK DOMINANCE

Marc Pittonet is a soldier, and in a genuine one-on-one tussle is a hard man to move off the spot, but Sean Darcy is not your ordinary ruckman. He is knocking on the door of the elite ruck club of the AFL, and he is getting mighty tired of waiting for them to let him in.

Is this the game he kicks the door in and announces he is staying for the long haul?

Darcy could have finished his day against the Bombers with four goals, pushing forward to punish Sam Draper, who was unable to go with him. His inaccuracy left him with two snags for the game, and given that Pittonet was unable to take advantage of an exhausted first-gamer in Sam Hayes for Port, he looks ripe for the picking.

The Dockers also have the benefit of being able to play the best pure backup ruck in the competition to aid Darcy and allow him to drift forward. Lloyd Meek is a number one ruck at a handful of other teams in the competition, yet Freo have the absolute luxury of inserting him int the side and losing very little in the ruck contests. Look at it this way – if Meek plays and Darcy drifts forward, who takes him?

It’s a big ask for Lewis Young, and you’d think that Jacob Weitering will have his hands well and truly full with Matt Taberner. The Dockers also have Rory Lobb hanging around forward fifty, who has the potential to be a monster, but always ends up looking like a child dressed up for Halloween.

If the weather is good, a hyrda in the form of Darcy, Meek, and Lobb could give the Blues nightmares going forward. With quality smalls at their feet such as Switkowski, the returning Schultz, and maybe even Michael Walters, the big man department should see the Dockers with a distinct advantage.

 

WHERE CAN CARLTON WIN THIS GAME?

 

THE BOY WONDER

Put the ball in the hands of Sam Walsh and GTFO of his way!

The Power tried to tag Sam Walsh in a rather unorthodox fashion in Round Five, moving Karl Amon from his customary wing position into the middle, where he was continually lost in traffic by the skilled Walsh, en route to 38 disposals.

Who do Freo throw at him? Do they even try to curtail him? Or do they back their own midfield structure to get the job done?

After missing the first game of the year, and with Blues fans fearing he may miss more, Walsh demonstrated just how good his fitness base is by returning to the side and immediately picking up where he left off in 2021. He is now averaging 33 touches per game for 2022, and looks every bit the superstar of the team.

Walsh combines beautifully with Cripps, Cerra, and George Hewett in the middle, at times rotating out to the wing when the other three take up centre-square positions. It will be very interesting to see who of Blake Acres and Nathan O’Driscoll put their hand up to mind him when this happens. If they can limit his touches to inside work, and aid their midfield group by playing defensively on both Walsh and Cerra when they do their time on the outside, Freo will be better off for it.

However, if either of the two are permitted to run free in open spaces, both McKay and Curnow will be licking their lips (their own lips… not each other’s) inside 50.

 

THE SMALL FORWARDS

Whilst the big men get all the attention, it is the little men inside 50 that may have the biggest say in this game.

I’ll start with the Blues – their fleet-footed small brigade is headed up by Corey Durdin and Matt Owies, but it is not scoreboard impact that they thrive on – they have combined for just seven goals in 2022 thus far. No, it is the pressure they apply in Carlton’s attack that is their most potent weapon. The two mentioned above have combined for 13 tackles inside 50 over the first five weeks of the season, and constantly have defenders looking over their shoulders.

Throw in the fact that Jack Silvagni – ever a tackling threat – has five, and big Harry McKay has five of his own, and you can see why the Blues are looking good early in 2022.

But what about Freo? How are their smalls working inside 50?

Well, I am a huge wrap for Sam Switkowski – I had a giggle when everyone was up in arms following him being named as “elite” by Champion Data. Not that I rate CD’s opinion at all, but with clean hands and a great evasive sidestep, Switkowski has always looked elite to me. He and Lachie Schultz have combined for a brilliant 17 tackles inside 50 – a tandem only bettered by the Saints paring of Dan Butler and Brad Crouch, and the Demons’ Kysaiah Pickett and Charlie Spargo.

In addition to their defensive capabilities, they have also combined for 11 goals this far. The Blues’ combination of Durdin and Owies has returned only seven, so all things being equal, Freo seem to have the advantage here.

The x-factor, and one that has not really been ignited in 2022 as yet, is Michael Walters.

I have not been a fan of his work in 2020/21, but whilst he has ceased the ducking and staging, he has been unable to recapture the 2019 form that took him to an All-Australian selection. There are some cries to drop him back to the WAFL, but I would be keeping him in the side. He has the runs on the board and deserves a chance to turn it around.

My favourite of the Carlton smalls has not played in 2022. Josh Honey looked fantastic in 2021, and once he is ready to resume, a real battle for spots could ensue at Ikon Park. Also good to see Zac Fisher averaging a goal per game in 2022. It has been the one weakness in his game – a pretty hefty one for a forward… not kicking goals.

 

DO FREO OWE THE BLUES ONE AT OPTUS STADIUM?

Oh yes, they do indeed.

We aren’t goldfish, are we? We can recall the kick after the siren from Jack Newnes that gave the Blues an unlikely win and sent the Carlton fans into raptures. That was a game that got away from the Dockers, and they will be keen as mustard to prevent anything even remotely like that from occurring again.

For the players, the memory of that moment will be fresh in their minds. For the Blues, it will serve as a reminder that they are in this game up to their eyeballs – they have been there and done that… with a lesser team, as well.

Fo the Dockers, it is a painful memory, and one they will be keen to erase.

 

SO, WHO WINS?

Unless half the team has to enter Health and Safety Protocols (I hate writing about that crap), Freo will be confident of defending their home turf. They are playing excellent footy and doing it over four quarters. The Blues… well they’re playing scintillating halves and then falling in a hole.

If the Dockers are close at three-quarter time, they’ll fancy themselves as a red hot chance to run over the top of the Blues, but I watched Carlton come back hard against the Tigers in Round One… it isn’t a fitness thing.

Are Carlton playing conservatively with the lead?

How would they respond if they’re actually trailing at the last break?

This is the first game of the 2022 season I have felt compelled to write an extended preview for. There is so much that could occur to change the fortunes of the teams involved – some even before the ball is bouned.

The winner here goes 5-1.

5-1, people! This is how great seasons begin, and fans of the winning team should start to tell their better halves to cease any and all plans for September.

Big clashes, a player returning to face his old club, and a great start to the year on the line. Fremantle v Carlton will have it all.

For me – Freo by nine points. Unless more players have to sit out. Then, we’ll revisit.

 

Guys, I opted to keep this one free for all. This is a labour of love. As such, I would love your support to continue. Mongrel Memberships (link below) are the best way to support this work, but if you’re not into it, the Bumper Stickers and Stubby Holders listed above are a great way to show your support.

Many thanks – HB

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