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Will Carlton really play finals in 2023?

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24th January, 2023
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If you told most fans that their team would have the Brownlow medallist and the Coleman medallist in the same year, they would likely be thinking that they are playing deep into September. They may even be in the grand final mix.

Carlton somehow managed to miss the top eight despite having Patrick Cripps and Charlie Curnow, the Brownlow and Coleman medalists, in 2022. What’s more, they had the 2021 Coleman medalist in Harry McKay too. McKay kicked 45 goals, meaning he was 14th in the Coleman, with Curnow kicking 64 goals.

Rounding it out, Sam Walsh finished 13th in the Brownlow. In Cripps, Walsh, Curnow, McKay and Jacob Weitering, one of the best key defenders in the AFL, Carlton arguably has five of the top 50 players in the competition. This does not even include Adam Saad, who was an All Australian last year.

The 2022 season gave Carlton fans a reason to enjoy AFL again. They had genuine stars to watch and a finals-quality team. Yet, as it so often happens for Carlton, it all fell apart.

Patrick Cripps of the Blues leads the Blues off the field after winning the round 19 AFL match between the Carlton Blues and the Greater Western Sydney Giants at Marvel Stadium on July 24, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

The reason for missing finals is something other than top-end talent. There were several possible factors.

One is injuries. Zac Williams, Mitch McGovern, George Hewett, Matthew Kennedy, Jack Martin, Caleb Marchbank and almost every defender spent time off the field. The only players who played all 22 games were Charlie Curnow, who was previously prone to injury; Sam Docherty, whose comeback is more remarkable the more you think about it; and Zac Fisher. The constant disruption would have affected team cohesion.

Luck also played a role. Carlton needed one win in the last two weeks against Melbourne and Collingwood. It was in winning positions late in both matches but could not close out either game. Close matches are likely more determined by luck than skill. Were the Blues just unlucky?


Culture must also come under the microscope. Carlton has been down the bottom end of the ladder for a long time. Blues players are not used to big moments like some other teams are. Patrick Cripps has not played a final. Perhaps they needed the experience of 2022 to get a feel for it and slowly change the culture.

There are questions surrounding the role players too. Are Carlton’s players outside of the big five good enough? Carlton played more like a team in 2022 than they did in previous years, but are they still a way off the best when it comes to depth players? Jack Silvagni, Matt Cottrell, Lochie O’Brien, Corey Durdin and Matt Owies all provide run and/or defensive pressure.

Charlie Curnow and Jack Silvagni of the Blues celebrate.

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Many AFL observers are saying Carlton will make the eight in 2023. The talent is obvious to see. But as Carlton fans know, success is never guaranteed. Looking at previous years, there have been a number of teams that finished with similar percentages to Carlton’s 108.3. Not all of them have kicked on.

In 2021, Essendon won 11, lost 11, had a percentage of 109.1 and finished eighth. They rose unexpectedly in 2021 and some said they were fortunate to fall into the top eight. Everything that went right in 2021 fell apart in 2022, culminating in the removal of Ben Rutten as coach. Carlton’s brand of football is more contested than Essendon’s and arguably has more star power.

Could what happened to Essendon in 2022 happen to Carlton in 2023? It’s possible, but given Carlton’s talent and a fair run with injury, it is not the base case.

In COVID-19-affected 2020, Melbourne just missed the eight with a percentage of 107.8. In 2021 everything clicked for the Demons and they won the premiership. Even the most optimistic Carlton fan knows it would be foolish to even think about a premiership in 2023. Melbourne had already gone through a finals cycle, making a preliminary final in 2018. Carlton is a long way off the Melbourne of 2020.


In 2019 and 2018 Hawthorn and Port Adelaide finished ninth with percentages of 108.7 and 107.6 respectively. Hawthorn had been declining from the summit though and so were on a different trajectory to Carlton of 2023. Likewise, Port Adelaide had finished fifth in 2017.

Perhaps the most similar team is Melbourne of 2017, who won 12, lost 10 and just missed out on the eight on percentage to West Coast. Culturally Melbourne of 2017 is most similar to Carlton of 2022 compared to all the above teams. Both teams had gone through many years of pain. Both also had emerging stars. Melbourne made a preliminary final in 2018 and got destroyed by West Coast. That experience was likely invaluable before 2021’s premiership.

Regardless of which team Carlton of 2022 is most like, improvement for the Blues in 2023 will have to come from those beyond Cripps, Walsh, Weitering, McKay and Curnow. Can Hewett, Williams, McGovern and Marchbank stay fit this year? Will Adam Cerra become the midfielder he has shown himself of capable of being in patches, most notably against Collingwood in the last match of 2022? Can Jesse Motlop and Corey Durdin kick 50 goals between them? Will Blake Acres provide the outside run Carlton at times lacked last year? Can Tom de Koning become a genuine number one AFL ruckman? With Michael Voss in charge and good depth in the coaching department, it feels like the next rung of players will improve.

If the last 25 years are any guide, things will go wrong for Carlton. But the situation feels different this time. Carlton has not had the talent it currently has on its list for a long time. For a change, there are no flashy new recruits charged with turning things around. Rather, there are logical additions that fill a need, like Acres and Oliver Hollands, who both provide run. The leadership of the club appears settled for the first time in memory.

In 2023 it’s unlikely Carlton will have the Brownlow or Coleman medallist, let alone both. But if the Blues miss the eight, it will be a surprise.