Round 3 – Carlton v Essendon: Marching past March
“This is perhaps the finest part of the season…….March, month of optimism.”
Garrie Hutchinson, 1983
” ’81 we were being thrashed in every practice match…. I was thinking to myself ‘Gees they’re a great bunch of blokes, but I think I’ve come to the wrong club.’ But they had this attitude, they kept telling me, ‘Don’t worry, we didn’t care about practice matches.’ Sure enough our first game, against last year’s premiers, Richmond, we won by 64 points.”
Ken Hunter in conversation with Matt Zurbo.
While being enthused by the sparkling efforts of the Carlton women’s team, I also took in one of three deplorable practice match performances by the men’s squad. St. Kilda wiped the floor with a Carlton side minus a few senior players. What was particularly sobering about the performance was the dismal skills exhibited by the players – most of whom we would be expecting to perform against Richmond. While recognising this practice match as a warning of what the regular season might have in store for us, I sought some consolation in the dated observations at the head of the post. Perhaps the 2017 Carlton team would revive memories of their early ’80s forbears.
It didn’t take long on the first Thursday of the season to be disabused of that piece of wishful thinking. Richmond put the Blues away convincingly, taking a decisive lead by midway through the first quarter, which was scarcely threatened for the rest of the night. The same skill deficiencies, turnovers and clangers which have caused Blues’ supporters such angst in recent years were much in evidence, and most of our blokes seemed mesmerised by Dustin Martin.
I saw only the last half of the loss to Melbourne (on television), but that was enough to recognise improvement in comparison to the opening match. The third quarter in which the Blues outscored Melbourne 3-4 to 1-1 was particularly encouraging. That the Demons’ solitary goal came late in that quarter and narrowed their deficit from nine points to three was to prove decisive. Inevitably the youthful Blues could not sustain the pressure which had produced this progress and they were overrun in the last, six goals to two. However the take away from this performance was that Carlton’s future might not be as bleak as the three practice matches and the deflating first round loss to Richmond had indicated.
Nevertheless, the round three clash against Essendon did not offer the prospect of relief. The jurors had not returned their verdict on how successfully Essendon’s returnees and their promising youngsters exposed in the club’s challenging 2016 season had jelled. However early indications had suggested that the Bombers would be serious competitors this year and they seemed considerably more advanced than Carlton. So Essendon were justifiably the popular elect prior to the match.
The first quarter conformed to expectations. Carlton worked hard, but their execution was painfully deficient. Although Cripps scored the opening goal, it was followed by a series of behinds, and other attacks simply broke down in the face of stout defence led by Hurley. Meanwhile with Watson an imperious figure in midfield, the Bombers attacked with a convincing fluency. Goals to Parish and McDonald-Tipungwuti gave them the lead. Late in the quarter, attacks at either end of the ground demonstrated the state of play. Weitering took a fine pack mark, but missed (uncharacteristically) from close range. The ball was swept down to the other end virtually from the kick-in. A series of hand- and foot-passes enabled Daniher to take a somewhat easier mark, as Rowe valiantly tracked back to make a contest. Daniher goaled from a rather more awkward set shot than the one Weitering had missed moments earlier.
Essendon dominated the opening minutes of the 2nd quarter, but obtained scant reward. Behinds to Heppel when his scrambled kick was touched, and to Daniher from a set shot from a tight angle in the left forward pocket extended the Bombers’ lead to 10 points, which would prove to be their greatest margin for the match. White honored Kreuzer’s timely lead, and the big man goaled to bring Carlton within a goal. Intensifying rain dulled the Bombers’ skill advantage and Carlton gradually worked their way back into contention. Superior organisation and a ferocious attack on the contest characterised the Blues’ performance. This spirited effort was reflected in a contested run for the ball culminating in an accidental head clash involving Weitering and Hurley, with the Carlton player forced from the ground. A series of behinds preceded Murphy’s grubber goal threaded through a forest of legs to give the Blues the lead. Moments later, Goddard was released by a Heppell hand-pass and a Watson foot-pass and kicked long to a vacant goal-mouth where the ball bounced (skidded?) through for Essendon’s only goal of the term. Their one point lead was promptly eliminated as Carlton scored two behinds, the only scores in the remaining fifteen minutes of this quarter.
In retrospect, this quarter represented the turning point in the match. Carlton won the quarter by a modest 2-5 to 1-2, but this gave them a narrow lead, which they never subsequently relinquished, although it was rarely extended beyond a single kick . More significant though was the change in pattern, with Carlton growing in confidence and redoubling their application to the contest, which eventually wore down the Bombers in the very testing conditions.
The third quarter saw a continuing battle of attrition, conjuring images of trench warfare on the western front during World War ! It was two goals apiece, Petrevski-Seton and Murphy – a miraculous snap from the right forward-pocket – for the Blues, with Hooker and Langford producing the goods for the Dons. A few additional behinds stretched the Blues lead to four points at the last change.
Ed Curnow goaled early in the last quarter to push the lead beyond six points for the first time in two quarters of football. Essendon pressed continually, but the Blues defence led by Docherty, Rowe and White held firm , restricting the Bombers to just two behinds for the quarter. The match ended somewhat anti-climatically with a late goal to Sam Kerridge from one of those annoyingly arbitrary free kicks. Even before this intervention it was clear that there was no way back for the Bombers, as the Blues secured a meritorious 15 point victory.
For the Blues it was a day for the lesser lights. Rowe and White were superb and Curnow eventually wore down Merrett. Murphy produced two crucial goals and was again a prolific ball-winner, but there were very few passengers in a very committed Carlton outfit. Watson was a stand-out for the Bombers especially in the first half, while Heppell, Hurley, Parish and Merrett were among the best.
This was a heartening performance by the Blues. While I suspect that had the conditions been more to their likely, Essendon would probably have won comfortably, the day encapsulated a comment which golfer Ian Stanley once wrote for David Parkin:
“I may not dazzle you with my brilliance, but I’ll grind you to death with my persistence”.