Have I channelled Vanessa Williams a little too easily in asking whether I’ve saved the best for last? She didn’t know what she was on about, anyway. I can vividly remember her singing “sometimes the sun goes ’round the moon”. Really, Vanessa? That doesn’t happen.
This is our last season preview, and it is going to be a banger.
The Carlton Football Club choked to end the 2022 season – there is no nice way to say it. They somehow managed to miss the finals despite looking like sure things a month out from the end of the home and away games. Four successive losses, including snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the last round of the season, sent the Blues into ninth position.
And maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.
The Blues were building in 2022, and whilst many would have preferred a finals appearance, it became apparent in that last month of footy that Carlton were out of gas, and a one-and-done exit would have done no good. With another preseason under the belt, a coach now firmly in control of his players and gameplan, and a list that looks very tight indeed, this has to be the year the Blues re-establish themselves as contenders.
It… just has to be.
Nothing is certain in the AFL, and whilst the Blues may not have been completely ready in 2022, there are absolutely no guarantees they’ll be ready in 2023, either.
What has to go right for Carlton to make the next logical step in their return to prominence, and what are some of the dangers confronting them? Well, that’s what I am here to explore.
It’s that time of year, already.
As we head into February, it is time to get serious. The holidays are a distant memory for AFL players, and the hard stuff is well underway. Yes, the teams had been training for well over a month prior to Christmas, but as we head further into 2023, the ante is upped and the intensity increases.
This is where premierships are won and lost. This is where improvements are made and lists come together. This is where the culture is set. New faces, new colours, old heads with renewed passion… so much feeds into the making of a contender. And as the days tick down toward to the intra-club clashes, practice games, and eventually the real stuff, questions are raised about each team and how they’re going to perform in 2023.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel. When we do a season preview, we go all out to make sure it is the best, most comprehensive coverage you’ll receive. We pride ourselves on it. If you are going to read one season preview for your team, or any team, this series provides it.
The way it works is as follows.
Each club has a minimum of 15 questions asked about their 2023 season, their coaches, their players, and their expectations. The answers are not glossed over. We dive deep on each and every one – some singular answers would normally be long enough for an entire column. The first five questions/answers are free for you to consume. The next 10-14 for each club are for our members, including a special appearance from Mrs Mongrel to throw her two cents in the mix.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it.
And with that, let’s jump into The Big Questions relating to the Baggers in 2023.
CAN ZAC WILLIAMS REPAY THE FAITH IN 2023?
When the Blues recruited Zac Williams from GWS, there was a perception that he was going to move into the midfield to ease the burden on Patrick Cripps.
A couple of seasons before, Williams had come to the rescue of the Giants in the midst of an injury crisis in their midfield. He opened the eyes of many with a series of games that saw him provide crash-and-bash football as he collected clearances, laid tackles, and generally went about demonstrating that he was more than just a half-back flanker with a bit of dash.
It was clear the Blues saw that, too, signing Williams until 2026.
But looking at what Williams has delivered thus far in his Carlton tenure, you’d like to believe that a lump sum return on their investment may be about to arrive, as the repayments to this point have barely covered the interest.
Williams was not in shape when he arrived at Carlton for the 2021 season. The Blues were convinced by the period I mentioned above, but in that time, Williams was in career-best shape. It was quite a bit removed from the way he presented at Carlton, and he was quickly found out in the midfield.
Returning Williams to defence was almost like the Blues conceding Williams was not ready. 2022 was meant to be different, but a severe calf tear meant that he missed 13 games – another year down the drain.
With just 22 out of a possible 44 games since arriving at Carlton, Williams has not paid the rent, and I reckon Carlton are thinking it is overdue. They need an injury-free run as a result of a career-best preseason from Williams to justify his salary and if they’re able to get that from him, a running cohort from defence of Williams, Saad, and Docherty will be a force to be reckoned with.
Williams is a quality player but the Blues have not got anything near his best. At 28, we should be seeing year three of his absolute peak. Instead, we’re still hoping for year one.
HOW IMPORTANT IS GEORGE HEWETT TO THIS MIDFELD?
One of my favourite questions about one of my favourite players.
I know a lot of people love the superstars, the flashy, outside runners, or the contested beasts that knock people over and drag the pack with them. Others love the big forwards, flying and clunking marks, or the small, zippy forwards zigging and zagging their way to goal.
Me, I like the work of the unsung hero – the grunt worker who does the hard stuff to enable the stars to shine, and that is exactly what George Hewett is to this Carlton team.
Prior to last year, you would have heard the constant beating of people, requesting that Carlton “get some help for Cripps” in the middle. You’re all familiar with that, right?
So, the Blues finally did. Sure, they already had Sam Walsh, but he is more an inside/outside player and you don’t want him crashing and bashing in where the competition is at its hottest. Not all the time, anyway. So really, you had one inside superstar, in Cripps, one hybrid (but in all honesty, mostly outside) superstar, in Walsh, and what was required was someone to come into the team who could tie it all together… kind of like a good rug can do to a room.
At Ikon Park, that rug was George Hewett.
With Hewett in the team, the Blues sat at 9-6 for the season. Without him… come on mathemagicians… that’s right, they were 3-4.
Hewett played the role of watching Patrick Cripps’ back. As the contested ball beast went after the footy, it was Hewett switching over to cover his direct opponent and making sure there was no quick exit from the stoppage. When Cripps was unable to impact the play and it appeared as though the opposition were about to get a break from the centre, enter George Hewett, usually dragging someone to ground and ensuring the Blues got another chance to reset.
Hewett finished second on the team in tackles, at 4.87 per game, but was also incredibly efficient when given the chance to win his own footy, averaging 28.47 touches per game – good enough for second on the team. He also managed to slot in right behind Cripps in clearances, with 6.53 per game and was busy making those around him better with slick handballs, repeat efforts, and a tenacity you wish you could bottle.
But then, just as Hewett seemed to be gearing up for a big run toward September, the back injury he suffered whilst at Sydney flared up, and he was forced to miss the last four rounds of the season.
And we all know what happened in those four games, right?
Picking up Hewett was always going to be a risk – I know the Swans fans were saddened that they’d lost such a quality player, but they actually had kids coming through to replace him, and Hewett saw the writing on the wall. They also know that his back was a real worry, and although the Blues were getting bang for their buck early in the season, his absence hurt the side immensely down the stretch.
How healthy he is coming into the 2023 season will play a big role in how effective and cohesive this Carlton team is at stoppages. Hewett is a lot like players like Elliot Yeo or Jack Steele – even Touk Miller. He can win his own footy whilst making it extremely difficult for his opposition number to do the same. He also allows his teammates to hunt, with a team-first approach to stoppages.
Whilst it is a huge stretch to say the success of a team hinges on one player (really, it doesn’t), missing a player like Hewett makes everyone else’s lives a little more difficult because they’re the ones forced to do more of the heavy lifting. Hell, no wonder this guy’s back gets sore…
With all due respect to Sam Walsh, I genuinely believe that Hewett is Cripps’ most important midfield ally., and that is saying plenty.
HOW DO THE BLUES COVER THE LOSS OF SAM WALSH EARLY IN THE SEASON?
You don’t just pull a running, ridiculous fit rabbit out of a hat and say “problem solved”, but what you can do is use some of that recruiting to cover the elite run and carry Walsh provides.
With a back injury, Carlton will be extremely cautious with their young star. I know he has superhuman recuperative powers, but we are also talking about the bloke’s back, and rushing back from an injury that has felled so many others over the years would be foolish.
I read some comments that Walsh might be ready by Round Two or Three… but why would you push to get back for an early season game when the bloke has another eight or nine years of being one of the best players in the game?
No, patience will be the key to a successful long-term return for Walsh.
In the meantime, Carlton picked up a bloke last year named Adam Cerra, who is no slouch when it comes to getting up and down the park. Not on the level of Walsh, who admittedly is a freak of nature, Cerra still possesses plenty of outside run and skill by foot. There is no reason he cannot occupy the spot left by Walsh, and even aid his return by sharing the role with him when he does return.
Some believe that Cerra is more suited to a wing – I even saw a couple of “Best-22” teams with him positioned on the wing, but he really hasn’t played the role in over two seasons. Cerra is the inside/outside player that can make the loss of Walsh, for however long he is on the sidelines, a little more bearable.
I don’t think we’re going to see Cerra average 32 touches per game whilst Walsh is out of business, but what I do think is that he will get a bump on his 2022 numbers. He was at 23.3 touches per game in 2022, but somewhere around 26 disposals per game would be ideal.
Cerra’s first season in navy blue was solid, but was overshadowed by how good Hewett was when healthy. I have a feeling we will see Cerra leap past Hewett this season and become a better player in the Carlton midfield. Not the same role, I know, but still very valuable.
And when Walsh comes back, Michael Voss can work some magic into his rotation to ensure both Cerra and Walsh are getting enough licks of the ice cream.
WHO SAW LEWIS YOUNG COMING? AND HOW FAR CAN HE GO?
I didn’t, and I don’t think I was the only one.
Coming into the 2022 season, much of the discussion around the Blues centered around who picked up the slack due to Liam Jones’ retirement.
Irrespective of what you think about Jones, he matured into a very capable defender in his last two seasons as a Blue, and his pairing with Jacob Weitering rose to become one of the more potent one-two defensive punches in the game.
However, with Jones out of action, Carlton were left looking a little thin in defence. Caleb Marchbank was hurt yet again, Oscar McDonald was looking good in the preseason until he got hurt, as was Mitch McGovern. Via the process of elimination, the role landed with Young by Round Three, and he didn’t look back.
Part of me wonders whether you could get a broomstick, stick it in as a key defender at Carlton, and the brilliance of Jacob Weitering would make it look great just by being around him, but that is vastly unfair on Young, and as good as Jacob Weitering might be… he is not 1987 Ric Flair.
Young did plenty of damage in his own right as a KPP in 2022, so much so that his name is now right at the top of the record books for one-percenters (spoils). Not only did he become the fourth player since the stat was recorded to have two games in excess of 20 one percenters in a game, but he also tied Harris Andrews for the most ever recorded in a game (25).
All of a sudden, Liam Jones was not as missed as many thought he’d be.
Lewis Young gained confidence as the season progressed, notching an incredible statistical run from Round 11 through to Round 22, where he dipped below ten one-percenters just once, averaging 14.36 one percenters. For context, the highest average ever recorded over an entire season is 11.50 from Dougal Howard back when he was a developing young defender at Port Adelaide. Young ended up with an average of 11.42 last year and if things go his way this year, we could see him break another record.
I’ll admit, last season I thought Young was perhaps the third of two options, but his play over the season proved me wrong. Now, I wonder what else he can prove?
WHAT DIFFERENCE CAN BLAKE ACRES MAKE TO THIS TEAM?
Can you name the last time Carlton had a good, consistent wingman?
Please don’t say Jack Newnes – he was okay, but he was neither good, nor consistent. Sam Walsh had a cup of coffee on the wing at one point, as well, but he was destined for other things.
Last season, the Blues rotated a combination of Zac Fisher, Matt Cottrell, Lochie O’Brien, Jack Newnes, and Will Setterfield thorough the roles – I don’t think any two from that collection will blow anyone’s socks off.
A few times they kind of blew, in general, though.
What Blake Acres arriving at Ikon Park is give this club a dedicated, hard-working runner that can power forward and retreat back as necessary. The penny finally seemed to drop for Acres last season, as he elevated his game to the levels both the Saints and Dockers would have liked to see earlier. His 21.7 disposals per game were a career-high, but it was more the willingness to get on his bike and either cover a man, or run into space to create for himself and others that was most impressive.
Acres averaged career-highs in both inside 50s and rebound 50s last season, which gives a strong indication that he did the work at both ends of the ground, and it will be something the Blues hope to gain from him in this year.
He is now in his peak years – 27 years of age with 120 games behind him. He knows what he is now capable of, and will be given every chance to own the wing role at his new club. How the Blues go in giving him a running mate will make for interesting viewing. I have my own thoughts on this below, but as it stands, Acres looks set to be the number one outside runner at Carlton in 2023, and given their wealth of midfield talent, should have quite a few looking to farm the ball out wide to him to get things cracking.
This ends the free component of the article. The next five or so thousand words are for our members. Want to join us?