Carlton fans have dared to dream before only to have their hearts sink, but surely Thursday night was a declaration that finally, finally the Blues have arrived as a side bound for September.
Many a bold call is made after the opening round of an AFL season, but seldom is the evidence as compelling as what Michael Voss’ side put forward against Richmond in its 25-point win at the home of football.
Rarely has a statement of intent been so comprehensive – but we should expect nothing less from a side led by a former playing warrior in Voss and a resurgent current playing warrior in Patrick Cripps.
Stream every match of every round of the 2022 Toyota AFL Premiership Season Live & Ad-Break Free In-Play on Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14-Days Free Now >
Such was the power of Thursday night’s win, Carlton’s first round one victory since 2013, that former St Kilda star Leigh Montagna was ready to make a mightily bold assessment given the turmoil the Blues have suffered in years past.
“Carlton have all the ingredients right now to not only be a top eight team but to be a real threat. He’s (Voss) got all the ingredients,” he said on Fox Footy’s First Crack.
“We know about their list profile, but now they’ve bought the elements of the game that they needed. They’ve got system with the way they defend, they’re a team that now apply pressure and he’s picking players particularly the small forwards that can apply pressure, that will lay forward 50 tackles and their contest and clearance work, which needed improvement, has been significantly improved.
“Not only has it improved with Patrick Cripps being fit but of course we know about (Adam) Cerra and (George) Hewett, they’ve still got (Sam) Walsh to come in and Matt Kennedy has revitalised himself and his career.”
It’s still hard to believe Thursday night’s win came despite the absence of Walsh, who charged to a best-and-fairest win last season and equalled the most Brownlow Medal votes in a single season by a Carlton player last year, all at just 21 years of age.
Based on the Carlton of the last couple of years, Walsh’s absence should’ve been a hammer blow.
Instead, it was an opportunity the likes of Matthew Kennedy, Adam Cerra and George Hewett pounced on to announce themselves as spearheads of Carlton’s engine room.
As Montagna said immediately after the match, no longer is Carlton’s engine room “Batman and Robin”… it’s now “The Avengers” with a full-fledged ensemble cast.
NEW FIRST CRACK PODCAST – Round 1 review
That midfield dominance is evident in the statistics from Thursday night.
Despite losing the hit-outs by three (26-29), Carlton dominated clearances (40-22) against a side widely tipped to return to its former glory in 2022.
The real stamp of Voss, however, came in the way Carlton’s clearances came.
“The big bodies in the middle, there’s a change in methodology. The forward handball game is going to serve them so well,” David King said on First Crack, pointing to passages of play where the Blues opted to take a handball first out of traffic rather than blindly boot the ball ahead of play.
“That handball sets up everything and it was terrific for Carlton against the Tigers. It put the Tigers into a defensive mindset straightaway.
“That’s normally a kick but because they want to delay, they want to get forward, it serves them really well getting the ball deep.
“Vossy said this would be a change and we saw at night one and it was brilliant.”
Montagna offered up some stats that paired brilliantly with King’s view.
“Their hands were elite, it wasn’t just from centre bounce, it was all throughout the ground at contest. When they did exit stoppage by hand, 75% of the time that resulted in an inside 50. The league average is 57% so they are effective clearances.
“They got good purchase on it … they were getting really good entries which could also allow them to defend and apply forward 50 pressure.
“If that midfield can keep that up and be really sharp with their hands, it sets up some really good opportunities to score.”
That forward 50 potency was made all the more remarkable given that the Blues’ ‘big three’ up forward – Harry McKay, Charlie Curnow and Tom De Koning – kicked just one goal between them despite the side finishing with 101 points.
Carlton’s small forwards were dangerous with virtually every inside 50, while the midfield brigade put in phenomenal performances – led by a revitalised Cripps.
The captain kicked three goals but was at the centre of so many others by virtue of the attention he demanded from the opposition.
“I just want to show one clip of Patrick Cripps,” King said over vision of Cripps drawing three opponents to him in the centre while still releasing a handball to get his teammates in the clear.
“This is the Patrick Crips we’ve come to love, three guys tackling him. That opens up opportunities for everyone and he still finds a way to get it out.
“That is an unbelievable passage of play. That’ll be highlighted so many times on the Carlton review this week it wouldn’t be funny and it was just great to see him back to his best.”
Having not won either of its opening two round matches for the last decade, Carlton now enters round two’s match against the Western Bulldogs with a wave of support and optimism rarely felt despite the club’s standing as one of the league’s big powers.
For Montagna, Voss’ job has become a simple one given the tools at his disposal.
“I just think that it’s all set up now for Michael Voss. He’s got all the ingredients and if he can just whip it all together, I tell you what, a giant might have awakened with the Blues,” he said.
“Definitely to play finals but potential to be a top four team. We’ve spoken about it, history says every year there is, on average, one team that comes from outside the eight and jumps into the top four, they surprise us, it happens every year consistently.
“You look at it now and you think gee, maybe that might be Carlton. We’re going to keep a watch on them but they’ve got most of the boxes covered there. Now they’ve just got to put all together and play for each other.
“If they as a group can now play for the team rather than themselves and really buy in like we saw what Melbourne were able to do with their team defence, this group could be going places.”
Carlton’s last grand final appearance came in 1999 and it is still far too early to even think about the last weekend in September.
Perhaps though, for the first time in a long, long time, Blues fans haven’t yet called a travel agent to block out those dates.