It’s Round Twoo… I can almost hear Blues supporters telling themselves “it’s only Round Two… settle down.”
Are you one of them?
Yes, there is a long way to go in the 2023 AFL season and I am certain the late season collapse of 2022 is still bitingly fresh in their minds, but the Carlton we saw defeat Geelong on Thursday night should be something that imbues faith in a team that has let their supporters down so often. Perhaps too often.
Carlton were challenged by the Cats. They had questions asked of them and were able to find answers. Immediately, this distinguishes them from the team that meandered about the field at the conclusion of the 2022 season, falling out of the eight as a result of being unable to be composed and control the football.
In essence, that team choked.
Round One saw more of what Carlton supporters fear – a winnable game slipping from their grasp as Richmond threw down the gauntlet and the Blues picked it up only because they knew they had to.
Here we go again, right?
No, not so much this time.
Geelong came at the Blues in Round Two. Staring at an 0-2 start to the season, the reigning premiers were aware that they were digging themselves a hole with a loss (a hole I fully expect them to climb out of, for the record). Yet, even the mighty Cats with their steely resolve and unflinching belief were not enough to topple the baggers, who rode Charlie Curnow’s brilliance, the opportunism of Matt Owies, the run of Adam Saad, the defence of Jacob Weitering, and the grunt work of Patrick Cripps and Matt Kennedy to an excellent win.
Those guys stood up all game, but when the game was in the balance, it was others putting their hand up and making a huge impact.
Lewis Young took a timely intercept grab down the stretch to alleviate the mounting pressure. He has come from the clouds over the last 12 months, and while he can still make errors, his positives far outweigh the negatives.
And at the other end, it was Harry McKay, beaten for most of the game, putting his hand up and saying “my turn, boys… we’ve got this.”
McKay was a tower of strength as the Blues put the game to rest. Not only did he lead hard up to the wings and half-back to provide a big target to get the Blues out of jail, he would take his kick, run forward and present as an option again in the same passage of play. So powerful was his last five minutes that it had to make you wonder where he’d been for the remainder of the contest.
However, with Charlie Curnow playing out of his skin en route to a bag of five, McKay genuinely did the team-first thing and got the hell out of his partner’s way.
We must remember, McKay is also a Coleman Medallist and very capable of being the number one man inside fifty. To see him not only lead away from the goal mouth and into positions he knew he was not going to receive the footy, and because he knew that Curnow was “on” speaks not only of a level.of selflessness, but of a maturity required for the team to succeed.
Carlton have made the move from being a team about “me” to a team about “we”. And that was on full display in this game, as McKay sacrificed his own game for the betterment of the team.
He continued to sacrifice right up until the point the Blues needed him, and as soon as they called on him, he delivered.
McKay took four big, down the line grabs to release the pressure on Carlton in the last five minutes of the game. When the baggers needed someone to step up and play the role of saviour, McKay didn’t have to isolate in the goal square and kick a goal – no, his role was different, yet, just as valuable.
Watching the way Curnow and McKay worked in tandem would make several opposition coaches pretty nervous. These were not two blokes fighting over one bone. These were intelligent players looking out for each other and ensuring that what was best for the team was carried out to the letter.
There will be occasions throughout 2023 where Curnow doesn’t have the hot hand. There will be times when he is beaten by an opponent having a great day in defence, but after watching the way McKay stepped aside until his time came, I look forward to seeing Charlie do the same for the big bloke.
It is those types of acts that make good teams great, and turn great teams into premiers.
Yes, it is only Round Two.
Yes, Carlton fans have seen enough over the past few years to suck the optimism from their body and trample it into the dirt.
However, when you see star players operating in a selfless manner, you should know damn well you’re onto something special.
And with Curnow and McKay working in sync, we may be only scratching the surface as to how special things could get.