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Finals Fix: Forget Charlie and Harry - it was Blues' sensational smalls that sunk the Swans

8th September, 2023
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8th September, 2023
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There are thousands of incremental reasons why one team wins a close match while the other is left tasting bitter defeat – and even more so when it’s a final.

Carlton’s thrilling six-point escape against a charging Sydney to keep their season alive and end the Swans’ is no different.

This was a win built on the little moments; on Jack Martin standing under the high ball as the loose man in defence in the last quarter; on Blake Acres’ desperate defensive running twice denying the Swans goals with the barest of fingertips in the goalsquare; on Sydney wasting set shot after set shot in their latest profligate first half that came back to haunt them in the end.

It was a win borne of Tom De Koning stepping up in the heat of finals with a series of supreme efforts in the air throughout Friday night, not all of them marks, but every effort significant; in Sam Walsh responding to a quiet home-and-away season with as vital a September debut as any Blue has had in decades; in Adam Saad’s dash and penetrating kicking from defence or Nic Newman’s last-gasp intercept mark that at last put the Swans away.

It could so easily have gone the other way, and we’d be talking about Harry McKay’s twin shocking misses from close range, the latter of which would have put the Blues six goals to the good early in the second half.

We’d be praising Hayden McLean’s extraordinary night in the air, clunking 12 marks as the Swans ruled the skies after half time, or Luke Parker going forward to not only occupy Jacob Weitering but bag two goals of his own and drag them back into a match seemingly lost. Lewis Melican’s desperate tackle to ensnare a forward-charging, fresh-legged Jesse Motlop; Errol Gulden’s tireless running and magnificent kicking either on the wing or as a damaging centre square on-baller; Tom McCartin’s superb job to restrict Charlie Curnow to just the one goal.

Ultimately, though, in a match decided by such fine lines, each team won enough little moments to feel they’d earned a victory: the Blues for their scintillating first half that saw them lead from start to finish, the Swans for the spirit of their lionhearted comeback that so nearly got them home.

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In the end, one thing separated each team’s periods of dominance: the Blues’ small forwards were simply magnificent when the match was in dispute. And it was them who ensured the Carlton dream lives on for another week at least.

There have been times under Michael Voss when the Blues didn’t have a prayer of winning a game without a massive bag of goals from Curnow. And there have been times when, if the Blues couldn’t convert an inside 50 into a mark from either Curnow or McKay, that was the end of their chance to score.

But Friday night was not one of them.

To half time, Curnow had just one mark, not inside 50, and only the one major from his only shot on goal, having been well held by the Swans’ premier key defender in McCartin. McKay, too, had just one scoring shot – a remarkable miss from the goalsquare – but if that shank was peak Harry, his two goal assists (his first since Round 14) in the opening five minutes to spark the Blues’ bright start was anything but.

But this is now a forward line as dangerous at ground level as it is in the air: even if Curnow or McKay couldn’t take it outright, the moment ball met grass the smalls came into their own. It’s their presence which has turned the Blues from impotent to imperious since June.

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Take Matthew Owies’ goal in the second quarter, to extend the Blues’ lead to 17. A long, high ball inside 50 directed at Curnow and Tom De Koning would, up until Round 13, have almost certainly led to nothing the moment neither could clunk a contested mark.

Now, though, De Koning’s first instinct isn’t even to mark, but to simply get hands on the ball and bring it to ground. Once that happens, the first man onto it is Owies, and so certain is a Blues goal that it’s only the small’s desire to be unselfish and hand Curnow, riding shotgun, a gift that very nearly brings the play unstuck.

An underrated aspect of the Blues’ small brigade is the hard yards they put in. With the intent partly to isolate Curnow as the deepest inside 50, as well as to get them in prime position to snap up any crumbs that came their way, Owies, Matthew Cottrell, Jack Martin, Lachie Fogarty and David Cuningham all push well up the ground, even to the point of getting extra numbers to stoppages. Then, when the ball is run, they sprint back towards goal, in full belief they’ll beat their man back whoever it may be.

McKay’s miss here, like Owies’ stuff-up, steals the show, but the key is how they’re set up as Adam Saad hoofs the ball in. To a man, the Blues smalls have pushed up the ground to leave McKay free, one out, against Lewis Melican, but Martin is goal side of Lloyd as he sprints back, and on the other side, Cottrell and Cuningham are going stride for stride with their own defenders.

If McKay doesn’t tap it forward, but instead neutralises the ball, then Martin would have been on hand to gather the spillage. It’s a play that doesn’t work without supreme speed and a willingness to work both ways, as well as the craft to suck a defender as experienced as Lloyd up the ground and away from his usual stomping ground.

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A lot is made of the Blues’ defensive half transition becoming a potent source of points in the second half of the year, and once again it was damaging against the Swans, with three goals to one to three quarter time from defensive half launches. But plenty of that potency is generated by the smalls’ ability to both create open space behind them, and then flood back to create at best an outnumber, and at worst an equal result, to pressure and harass and force repeat stoppages.

That’s how you win a final with just seven marks inside 50 – the Swans had nine. And it’s so different to the way the Blues played in the first half of the season as to perfectly epitomise how, and why, Carlton find themselves in the last six.

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And through Sydney’s dominant second half, all the way to the final minutes, the Blues remained just as dangerous at ground level. The winning goal proves that.

On the wing, De Koning again made a level contest against McCartin in the air, and showing all the athleticism that the Swans would know more than most – they, after all, were the team keenest in luring him away from Ikon Park before the mobile big man re-signed – gathered the ball and whacked it inside 50.

The Swans’ desperation to attack at all costs had left them defensively vulnerable, but even so, a three on one inside 50 is down to the Blues’ trademark: sucking defenders up and then beating them back.

It’s Martin, Owies and Acres against only Braeden Campbell; all Owies needs to do is engage with the Swan and force it forward. He does. Acres is loose in the square waiting for the handball. Goal.

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In Round 13, the Blues wouldn’t have had the structure to pull off a play like this. Hell, they wouldn’t have had any cause to, because they wouldn’t have had a half time lead sufficient enough to take the Swans, playing brilliantly, into the last minutes to draw to single figures. The match would have been long gone.

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But this is a different Carlton. And watch out, Melbourne – they are about to hit you with everything they’ve got.

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