Believe it or not, games against Collingwood haven’t always been the most urgent in Carlton’s season.
Over the last 50 years it’s fair to say Richmond in the 1960s and 70s and Essendon in the 80s and 90s provided a greater spur.
Perhaps it’s due to the quantum of pain inflicted by each opponent. Richmond gave Carlton some horrible beatings, two of them in grand finals, when their rivalry was king. And Kevin Sheedy’s Essendon serially tormented David Parkin’s teams of the 80s. The Bombers then humiliated the Blues in the 1993 decider.
Collingwood has scored lots of wins over Carlton, plenty in finals, but hasn’t beaten the old enemy in a grand final for more than a hundred years. From 1970 to 1981 the clubs played for the flag three times and, although they gave their rival a substantial lead in each, the Blues managed to win the lot.
Yet for all the above, the warfare between these two leviathans has been a constant. Other feuds have come and gone, arousing greater passion in their time, but the Collingwood-Carlton rivalry has outlived the others and still burns strong.
This despite the clubs not having met in a final for almost three decades. Not only that, but in 28 Septembers since their clash in a 1988 qualifying final, the names Collingwood and Carlton have simultaneously appeared in the mix but once. That was in 1994, and both clubs crashed out without a win.
The pages have turned. This is the national era, with its 18-team competition. It’s no longer a matter of the old powerhouse teams turning up and automatically having their September entrance papers stamped. The 21st century AFL requires clubs to get their act together off the field if they’re to have any chance of doing so on it.
Collingwood and Carlton were slow to respond to a new world order. At the turn of the century Eddie McGuire had just inherited something that looked dangerously like a basket case. Meanwhile, over at Princes Park, John Elliott was about to relinquish a club that had painted itself into a corner. That paint was extra-slow-drying.
In the years that have followed, the Pies have won a flag, had periods of overperformance and lately have underperformed. The Blues, meanwhile, have been almost perennially abysmal.
Yet, though their recent contests have never been for much more than bragging rights, they haven’t been without significant impact. Back in the day Collingwood’s win-loss ledger against every club was in the black. That changed during Carlton’s golden era from the late 1960s.
When the Blues came from 21 points behind the Pies late in the third quarter to win the 1981 flag, they drew level with Collingwood on two fronts. Both clubs had now won 89 of their contests and, more importantly – way more importantly – Carlton had edged alongside the Magpies by winning a 13th flag.
By the close of the 20th century the Blues had won another 25 of 37 games against the Pies and achieved three more flags to Collingwood’s one.
But the Pies have been in the ascendancy since 2000: 22 wins to 12, plus a premiership. This has cut Carlton’s all-time lead to just three: the Blues 126, the Pies 123, four games drawn. Don’t imagine Eddie McGuire isn’t watching the pendulum. And don’t imagine the folk of Carlton aren’t, either.
So despite both teams currently being out of the eight and likely to still be on the outer come the end of August, Saturday’s clash has deep meaning.
Then there’s the flag count: Carlton and Essendon 16, Collingwood 15. Oh, the bragging rights in that! And there’s a burning question: which club is currently better placed to win its next?
Now there’s a challenging topic. Both have young lists, but Collingwood’s currently appears at the least slightly better. On the other hand, stability is crucial to long-term development and Carlton’s coaching circumstances currently appear the more stable.
As for the age factor, by the time either club is close to threatening the youthful GWS, Crows and Bulldogs they’re likely to lose significant players. In Collingwood’s case, Daniel Wells will probably be gone, while Pendlebury and Varcoe will be in their 30s. Their midfield will be a different one.
As for Carlton, even on a best-case scenario erstwhile number-one draft picks Murphy, Gibbs and Kreuzer will be card-carrying veterans when the Blues are next a force. So the future is not exactly clear.
For now, though, Saturday is the 125th anniversary of Collingwood’s first ever game as a club. That was a VFA match against Carlton in 1892. There will be a big crowd at the MCG and a gala ball at the Crown Palladium that night.
What a milestone! What a mighty club the Pies have been! What a perfect reason for the Blues to want to beat the hell out of them!