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ANALYSIS: 'A small step and a giant leap!' New, dark navy Blues end ten-year Tigers hoodoo

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17th March, 2022
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Ten years is a long time to go without a win in the first two rounds of the season. But the last decade hasn’t been one Carlton fans will remember fondly.

But it has only taken new coach Michael Voss one game to end that particular hoodoo, the new, dark navy Blues running riot in a final quarter onslaught of Richmond to turn a 20-point deficit into a famous 25-point win.

In the process, another long-term staple of the Blues’ mediocrity was put to rest – only in one round in the past eight years had the Blues finished in the eight. They’re already guaranteed that by the end of Round 1.

Seven consecutive goals to end the match, six within an extraordinary fifteen-minute purple match, had a packed MCG rollicking, as Blues fans who showed up expecting a fight for the first time in years in this opening-round tradition left with something even more powerful – belief.

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“The sleeping giant has awoken,” former great David King said after the match.

“That is a performance tonight that was clinical.

“The competition has missed a strong Carlton, it really has. And this is just the start – it’s the infancy of Carlton regathering as a football club.

“The fans are loving this, they’re lapping it up. They’ve said a lot during the off-season, and the evidence is there tonight.”

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“It’s both a small step and a giant leap!” commentator Jason Bennett enthused at the siren, nearly drowned out by a chorus of cheers.

Twice the Tigers appeared to have broken the back of the Blues – a four goals to one opening term had Carlton on the back foot from the outset, while their recovery from a half-time deficit to extend their lead until early in the final term would have been enough to see them off in years gone by. Not this time.

“Carlton supporters are used to Carlton just drifting out of the game – not so,” Jason Dunstall said after the match.

“The fightback was incredible.”

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It was everything Carlton fans have been craving for years: disciplined, team-first defence led by the inspirational Sam Docherty, a deadly forward line that lost none of its attacking threat that was one of its few bright spots under David Teague, and most of all, that midfield.

Take your pick between Matthew Kennedy and Patrick Cripps for best-afield honours. The Blues captain seems capable of taking them to the finals through sheer force of will, the injuries that have pockmarked his last few seasons seemingly a thing of the past. His disposal was wonky at times, but few can bust tackles and find clear space from nowhere like Cripps, and he is the master of the captain’s goal, snagging three of them, all at crucial stages.

Patrick Cripps celebrates.

Patrick Cripps celebrates after scoring a goal. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Kennedy’s turnaround in the last 12 months has been extraordinary; long a fringe player under Teague, the former Giant was just as tough in the clinches as Cripps, and perhaps a touch more polished on the outside as well.

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Of the recruits, Adam Cerra’s class was apparent particularly early, the Blues’ best in a first quarter that saw the Tigers dominate, while George Hewett’s grunt work and bullish work rate on the inside was capped off by a dominant start to the final quarter that saw him kick-start the Blues’ surge.

“All of a sudden, the Blues midfield has gone from Batman and Robin, in Cripps and Walsh, to the Avengers,” former great Leigh Montagna opined on Fox Footy.

“They’ve got superheroes everywhere. Hewett and Cerra were awesome, Matt Kennedy is continuing on the strong form of late last year and the pre-season.

“And Sam Walsh, don’t forget, is still to come back.

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“It was one of the most powerful 40 minutes of football we’ve seen from a midfield.”

“We said at 3QT this is the opportunity for this midfield to take complete control. They smashed them,” King added.

“Led by Patrick Cripps, what a game he played, he was awesome. You just have to be in awe of what they’ve done in such a short space of time.

Less eye-popping on the stat sheet were the array of swooping smalls that made every ground ball inside the Blues’ forward 50 hazardous for the Tigers – no long is it Harry McKay or bust for the Blues. Corey Durdin and Matthew Owies bagged just two goals between them, but their zip at ground level, tackling pressure and work up the ground – particularly Durdin in the latter case – will cause many teams headaches this season.

Fittingly, the Blues would bring up triple figures – a figure which famously eluded Teague’s predecessor Brendon Bolton for the best part of two years – late in the game, and despite just one goal from reigning Coleman Medallist Harry McKay. With eleven individual goalkickers for the match, the spoils were certainly shared.

In defence, Adam Saad’s contribution was immense. The whipping boy at times last year for his loose checking in defence, a trait that came to epitomise the Blues, on Thursday night his attributes were on full display. Few players in the AFL are quicker or nimbler, with a sidestep in the final quarter drawing particular acclaim from the stands; while his 17 kicks were delivered with 95 per cent efficiency as he time and again set the Blues up to counterattack.

Fellow half-back Sam Docherty, making his return from cancer surgery, was inspirational in presence and act, his smart ball use and courage in the air on display throughout. His second-quarter goal after receiving a 50 metre penalty, mobbed by joyous teammates, will take some beating for the moment of the season.

Just as eye-catching for Dunstall was the names that didn’t come to the party – key forward duo McKay and Charlie Curnow managed only one goal between them and were largely kept in check by the Tigers’ key defenders Robbie Tarrant and Dylan Grimes.

“They’ve also done it without a big performance from Harry McKay. Charlie Curnow was virtually unsighted. It’s been a really good team performance,” Dunstall said.

“It’s the attitude of the playing group – their competitiveness around the contested possession at ground level, I thought was sensational.”

Praise also came thick and fast for new coach Michael Voss, for his tactical soundness and game style as much as for his inspirational presence, according to King.

“It’s Michael Voss’ stamp, isn’t it,” King said of the Blues’ approach.

“As a player, he was brutal in his contested work. He asked for no favours and he gave none.

” When you look at the way they played in tight, it was the only way they were going to get Richmond, Richmond on the outside were pretty slick. That last quarter, I can’t recall seeing clearance dominance like that for a sustained period.”

It’s only one game – the Blues take on reigning grand finalists the Western Bulldogs next week – but belief is a powerful thing in sport. And that’s one thing everyone associated with Carlton now has in spades.

“You don’t win a flag in Round 1, you can’t make the finals with one good performance. But we shouldn’t underestimate what this does for the mentality of the playing group, for the coaches,” Dunstall said.

“The belief in what they’ve worked on in the off-season, putting it into play against a team we all rate as a genuine finals contender… this is an enormous step forward.”

For the Tigers, a disappointing night was compounded by another hamstring injury to the perpetually hurt Dion Prestia, which no doubt contributed to the Blues’ late clearance dominance.

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