Round 12: Carlton v St Kilda: Even a Tigers fan admits the Blues deserves praise

By Sam Steele

I’m home alone – a rare event in the Steele household.  Older son Tom has gone to the game with some university mates.  Younger son Billy is at a party.  My better half, the non-footballing Yang to the football-mad Yin of the three boys in the family, is having a family reunion with her sisters, an equally rare event since one resides in Wellington, New Zealand, and the other in Atlanta, Georgia.

With the couch to myself, save for our two small dogs who strangely show little interest in the contest about to unfold, all I need now is a decent game.  And as fate would have it, Carlton and St Kilda is the plat du jour, and they promise plenty.  You don’t need to be at the ground to feel the buzz. Being a Richmond supporter first but a football aficionado close second, I’ve attended over 100 AFL finals as a neutral observer. I’ve grown to enjoy the anticipation of a big game without the ache of real emotional involvement.  This game has that feel.

But then as a Tiger, you can’t be truly neutral when you’re watching the old dark navy enemy!

I start musing about the Carlton resurgence.  “They know we’re coming,” is their 2009 slogan and it’s getting way too much airtime for my liking.  But I’ve got to admit it captures the zeitgeist around Carlton perfectly.  One can almost read the advertising brief that led to its creation.  “A slogan that builds expectation among the Carlton faithful and fear among our opposition of an exhilarating new era, with a generous dollop of the old Carlton arrogance that wants to let the world know all about it.”

But for the first 20 minutes tonight, the bad old Blues of earlier this decade are out on the park.  It’s not so much that they’re playing poorly – they can’t even get the pill!  Credit to the Saints, though, who are irresistible, dominating the clearances and sending “long bombs to Roo”.  Lenny Hayes is the early architect and, when troubled, that suffocating defence is snuffing out any hint of a Carlton attack.  When the margin hits five goals, my hope of a keen contest has switched to a hope that this game may expose the Blues as the great pretenders.

I should have known better.  If nothing else, the Ratten trademark is that they never throw in the towel.  The games Carlton has lost this year have mostly been close.  The second quarter begins in a holding pattern and ends with a rush of Carlton goals.  Judd has aroused his midfield and suddenly they’re winning it at will, placing the Saints’ defence under pressure the likes of which they’ve not encountered all year.  Wake up, little dogs, we’re in for a beauty!

Tom is a quiet but insightful follower of the game, observing it as one who has played the game and noting things that we mere spectators miss.  Later he shares some of these observations with me, but his immediate comment is about the extent that Chris Judd is worshipped by his new fans.  In truth, from the couch, it’s easy to see why.  He has single-handedly (and single-mindedly) dragged his side back into this game, which is why his 10-minute absence early in the third quarter, having a badly broken and bloodied nose patched up, is the decisive period of the game.  In these precious, Judd-free moments, Hayes, Ball, Goddard, Montagna et al swoop, wresting control back for the Saints.

When Judd returns, so does Carlton.  Alas, the various combinations of bandages and stuffing can’t completely staunch the blood to the umpires’ satisfaction and he becomes a spasmodic participant — looking part Roadrunner, part Lord Voldemort — for the rest of the night.  In the end, that’s the difference.  In a marvellous, pressure-filled finale, Carlton press to the end but can never quite pinch the lead.

On reflection, games of this intensity normally break the side under most pressure and the Saints were up against it from quarter-time onwards and held firm.  Deft ball handling and lack of panic were evident throughout, and particularly during the final stanza, despite seemingly being on the ropes, it was St Kilda that produced the decisive counterpunches, a trademark Montagna running goal from a tight angle, and a “clutch” set shot from Zac “Lazarus” Dawson with two minutes left and three points the margin.  Following a long-range miss at the other end from arguably the best finisher in the game, Ryan Houlihan, this was indeed a remarkable denouement.  Could Dawson be the “Stuart Dew” story of 2009?

For Carlton, I must grudgingly admit that this was a win of sorts.  Yes, spin doctors, we know they’re coming.  I just hope it’s not before the perennial Cinderellas like the Saints have their tilt at glory.

Halfway through the last quarter (I’m watching on delay, remember), I get a text from Tom.  Could I collect him from the station?  “No way, mate,” I reply – the game’s far too exciting.  As both a gentleman and a knowledgeable footy fan, he relents with good grace, not telling me the result.  As fate would have it, his train gets delayed and I receive a further plea for collection just as Zac ices the game.  Watching the scintillating finish, Bruce and Dennis tell me that the noise of the crowd under the roof is such that the players can’t hear the umpires.  Tom later confirms how loud it was and how much he’d like to hurt the Etihad ground announcer who persists in urging the crowd to “make some noise”.

At games like this, the Melbourne sporting public don’t need any prompting.

My Votes: Hayes (StK) 3, Judd (Carl) 2, Montagna (StK) 1.

About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!

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