Sunday, August 13, 2006

Old Blue Stager checks in

Late arrivals from our Carlton reporter, better late than never!

Round 18: Carlton 80 d. Melbourne 73

This match produced an improbable Carlton victory, not just for the fact , but also for the manner in which it came about. Against a serious finals contender, Carlton seemed hopelessly mismatched. Even allowing for Melbourne missing several key players - Pickett, Davey and Johnstone a late withdrawal - they seemed to have far too much firepower for the hapless Blues.

Carlton established an early lead, which Melbourne progressively reduced, and the prized victory always seemed within their reach. They drew to within three points on two occasions, late in the third quarter and early in the last, and it seemed that they were headed for a comfortable, if not particularly impressive win. However, each time Carlton displayed uncharacteristic resolve and poise to progress to their second victory over the Dees for the season.

This was a missed opportunity for Melbourne, where they could have put some distance between themselves and a pack of putative top four contenders. In the circumstances they seemed surprisingly flat. They are obviously much better than they displayed lin this game, and perhaps this was just a reaction to a sustained run of good form.

For Carlton Walker and Thornton (who eclipsed Neitz) were outstanding. Encouragingly, this was a real team effort, in which Houlihan, Stevens, Lappin and Carrazzo were particularly effective contributors.

Round 17: Carlton 89 lost to Fremantle 107

Carlton were frankly very poor in this match, and flattered by the scoreboard. This reflected a spirited last quarter, when the Dockers rested secure in the knowledge that their week-end's work was complete. During the final quarter, Carlton scored 6 goals to 1, but this merely negated the third quarter which Freo won by a near equivalent. The half-time margin 58-36 (18 scoring shots against 11) in favour of the visitors accurately reflected the talent gap between the teams.

I think Fremantle is under-rated especially in Melbourne. Their critics emphasise the team's (regularly-displayed) fragility, but disregard their accomplished list. The Dockers' skills were much in evidence on Sunday. Although Pavlich was well-held by Thornton, Black had a picnic, ripping holes in Carlton's threadbare defence with well-timed runs, and accurate distribution to his forwards. Sandilands dominated the ruck and gave the Freo runners first use for most of the afternoon. McPharlin controlled Fevola for much of the day, and the full-forward's five goals return was an inaccurate reflection of the balance of this individual contest.

Among the Dockers' lesser lights, Murphy, Webster and Dodd were solid contributors. For Carlton Simpson and Walker were effective four quarter players, while Thornton and Scotland gave value. Koutoufides in a second half cameo gave brief glimpses of genius of his earlier career (pre-knee injury). I speculate that he was inspired by James Hird's splendid performance the previous evening, or perhaps just a recognition that his time might be drawing to a close.

Overall another punishing afternoon for Blues' supporters.

Round 16: Essendon 105 drew with Carlton 105

This was a dreadful match characterised by hopeless ineptitude by both sides, and redeemed only by the closeness of the scores throughout the afternoon. Ball use by players from both sides was abysmal and led to a multitude of turnovers. Some observers have argued that the high skill level achieved by the top sides coupled with risk averse football has reduced the spectacle of Australian football. I still think it's better to watch players from Adelaide, West Coast or Sydney execute their skills than watch Essendon, Carlton and their fellow-strugglers battle their footballing limitations.

Essendon's decline has been remarkable. Undoubtedly, they have been affected by injuries to some key players, but the loss of confidence of previously reliable players such as Johnson J. & M. and Solomon, and to a lesser extent McPhee is amazing. Hille and McVeigh are just about the only ones of their "mid-rankers" who have at least maintained their standards this year. The Bombers also appear to have a reasonable mix of young players - Stanton, Watson, Monfries for example - but their development is being hampered by the team's collective deficiencies. I suspect that they might rebound to competitive standard quite quickly.

Essendon led for much of the day, but could never quite establish the sort of break which would have put Carlton away. It did seem likely that they would win, if only by virtue of the fact that the siren had to sound at some time, and they spent most of the day in the lead. However, it has been a feature of their season that they have been unable to finish off games from winning positions, so I always felt that if the Blues "hung in", that they might snatch a barely deserved win. The margin reached eighteen points twice - midway through the third qaurter and early in the last. Another goal at either of these moments might have secured the result, but each time Carlton was able to reel them in. In the end flair player Betts contrived two goals, one from a free kick, the other from a brave mark, to achieve scoreboard equality.

Lucas, mysteriously something of a "boo boy" for Essendon supporters, was outstanding. His running, marking and kicking with a single blatant exception contrasted with almost every one else on the field. He had six goals to half-time, and although he didn't add to that tally, he continued to look threatening. The Blues were well-served by Simpson (a notable improver this season), Scotland, Houlihan and Fevola (five goals).

Round 15: Carlton 80 lost to Western Bulldogs 110

The Bulldogs are a great side to watch. Their hard-running game makes a wonderful spectacle, and they don't muck around with tempo football in the manner of Adelaide and Sydney. However, I'm sure that this comes at a cost, as the injury toll mounts, and the limits of their paper-thin squad have produced a few sub-standard performance in recent weeks.

I also think that Rodney Eade's lack of whinging is admirable (as well as being sound psychological strategy). They were below par in this match, in which Carlton tried to play them at their own running game. Inevitably, the Blues lacked familiarity with the physical demands of the strategy, and succumbed in the final quarter. However, to be level with a side as good as the Bullies at three quarter time was a worthy effort. The Bulldogs guns especially West and Johnson ripped Carlton apart in the final quarter as they drew away for what looked like a comfortable win. Simpson, Scotland, McGrath, Houlihan and Carrazzo were the Blues' best.

Round 14: Carlton 77 lost to Geelong 142

This was a woeful performance by the Blues, close to a season worst. Geelong's justifiably maligned forward line managed an impeccable 23 goals 4 behinds, which corerctly implied that there was inadequate pressure on the ball carriers from midfield, as well as too little effective defence.

Carlton had the advantage in general play during the first fifteen minutes, but hopeless conversion yielded poor returns, and the Cats quickly made them pay. The game was effectively over as a contest midway through the second quarter, but Geelong were unusually relentless, and pressed on for a comprehensive win. Simpson, McGrath, Fevola, Scotland and DeLuca made some effort to stem the tide.

Round 13: Brisbane 71 d. Carlton 56

Superficially this wasn't a bad performance by the Blues. A fifteen point loss at the Gabbatoir to the mighty Brisbane Lions would seem a fair effort by the Blues, given their current limitations. However, Brisbane are barely recognisable as the all-conquering triple premiership side of just a few years ago (though with significant numbers of that team still around) . As well scoring shots were 31-21 in the home team's favour and that offers a more reliable indicator of the way the match unfolded.

That Carlton did stay in touch for most of the night, without ever looking likely to win, was something of an achievement. The fact that the game was only put out of the Blues' reach in the final ten minutes was also a straw of comfort for supporters to clutch.The critical event of the night was the injury to Marc Murphy, Carlton's shining light of 2006. That it subsequently became clear that this was season-ending was a bitter blow. One hopes that it does not impede what had seemed like Murphy's inexorable progress towards a Rising Star award.

Best for Carlton were Blackwell (another strikingly mature youngster), Thornton, Houlihan, Simpson and Scotland.

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