WHAT a difference two weeks – and a gutsy win on the road – can make to the outlook for a club.
Labelled a concern for the AFL on the eve of the season by one columnist, because of its apparent lack of talent, Carlton is now firmly on track under Brendon Bolton as that talent emerges with every disciplined performance.
Only the most optimistic of Carlton supporters expect to see their team in September, but the 5-7 Blues were the big winners out of round 13 after the type of road win that stays with a team as it builds for success.
The Blues are playing the long game under Bolton, who was as disciplined as his team in his post-match media conference after a gutsy win against Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium, sending a message to his players to keep perspective.
“We’re only one year and 12 games in. It’s important our club, our supporters and most importantly our players keep real perspective in spite of two wins,” the coach said.
It is sage advice for a club that has won back-to-back matches just eight times in 78 matches, but there is certainly something cooking at Ikon Park.
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This pair of wins – the first coming against premiership contender Greater Western Sydney – felt significant and it was only the second run of wins since the start of 2014 to include a victory on the road (the Blues won four straight matches last year, including one at Domain Stadium).
Carlton is building a reputation as a well-coached, disciplined team that gets the most out of itself, and as talent builds that is only going to make them harder and harder to beat.
Last month’s AFL Media fan survey placed the Blues behind Fremantle and North Melbourne when it came to team’s clearly in rebuild mode and their closeness to a premiership.
A Twitter poll on Sunday had the Blues clear front-runners after their back-to-back wins, earning 59 per cent of the vote, ahead of Gold Coast (18), Fremantle (12) and North Melbourne (11).
So what specifically has been so impressive about the Blues in the past two weeks?
In both wins the Blues have fallen behind during the fourth quarter but found a way to steady the ship and get their noses in front at the right time.
Against the Giants it was the Blues’ defensive structures that held up under serious pressure in the final two minutes that was most impressive.
Against the Suns it was their ability to respond to each challenge in the final 10 minutes, with the sensational Bryce Gibbs and impressive youngster Jack Silvagni both kicking clutch goals.
The Blues are bedding down their style under Bolton and it is holding up in tight games. Next Sunday’s clash against Richmond – a team that can’t win the tight ones right now – is huge.
So exactly what are the Tigers learning?
For the fourth time in six matches, Richmond will presumably start its review by breaking down the end of a match, having let victory slip through its fingers.
The Tigers have improved out of sight this season, are doing a great deal right, and their brand of football is capable of beating any team, both now and in September.
But these close losses have the potential to rob the Tigers of a top-four spot come the end of the season and that would be a great shame for a team that would otherwise be in the premiership discussion right now.
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Coach Damien Hardwick, the popular pick for coach of the year so far this season, has spoken often about learning from these losses. But what have they learnt, and why does it keep happening?
Against Fremantle in round eight the Tigers’ centre bounce structure didn’t hold up at the critical moment, and one week later they were poorly set-up to defend a kick-in, conceding a goal.
Against the Swans, they conceded the final three goals after holding a nine-point lead.
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The first, a brilliant 50m bomb from Josh Kennedy, had more to do with the midfielder’s brilliance than the Tigers’ failings. So did Kieren Jack’s check-side goal in traffic.
It was Gary Rohan’s sealer that highlighted the work still needed to the Tigers’ defensive structure behind the ball, with Rohan sneaking out the back to receive Kennedy’s kick out of a half-forward stoppage.
So do the Tigers have to take the good with the bad under Hardwick’s “just play” philosophy this season that has freed up his players and sparked an exciting season that has them finals bound?
Or is it time to ramp up the structure and discipline that Hardwick conceded had become too prominent in his coaching?
Only he will know the balance his players need, but they will have to learn quickly and start turning their close losses into wins if they are to deliver on their potential.
In an even premiership race they should be sitting with the front-runners. They aren’t yet.
Happy hunting for Demons
You can always read something into a winning team’s song, and Melbourne’s on Sunday evening said plenty.
The Demons players shook the walls at Etihad Stadium after their third straight win, and there’s no doubt this was a big one against the reigning premiers.
It was their most committed performance under Simon Goodwin, who targeted this period of the fixture as an opportunity for the team to build momentum.
Twice this season the Demons have notched impressive victories, only to lose the following week, with those defeats coming against Hawthorn in round seven and North Melbourne in round nine.
So to back up a thrilling Queen’s Birthday win against Collingwood with a clinical and ruthless defeat of the Bulldogs was significant for this team, opening up possibilities for later in the year.
“We’re in a position where we’re teetering on being in the eight and outside, so we understand if we keep putting even performances together we can slowly climb the ladder,” midfielder Jordan Lewis told After The Siren.
“As a group it was a really important win, but we also wanted to back up after last week.”
While the Demons gained momentum, the Bulldogs have entered worrying territory, coming off second best in a fiery and physical clash that threatened to boil over late in the second quarter.
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Luke Beveridge has spoken about the new dynamic the Bulldogs are dealing with as teams set themselves to take a scalp when they come up against them.
It’s a dynamic Lewis knows about after four premierships with Hawthorn.
“When you are a reigning premier, sides see that as a game you want to win and it is a different mindset that the Western Bulldogs are going through,” the midfielder said.
“We had that at Hawthorn and it’s a really tough position to be in, so you’ve just got to back it up every week.”
With one win from their past five matches, and only two from their past seven, the Bulldogs haven’t managed that yet.
1. This year’s eventual Brownlow medallist will need to show great patience in the final 10 rounds of the season. With the return of committed, four-quarter tagging jobs, the game’s stars are going to get frustrated. That is nothing new, but retaliation through stomach punches and backward swinging elbows is no longer tolerated by the Match Review Panel. Dual Brownlow medallist Gary Ablett endured one of the tightest tags of the season on Saturday night from Ed Curnow, and his frustration nearly boiled over at stoppages a couple of times. It would be a great shame to see one of the leading contenders suspended for retaliating to a tagger, so hopefully the game’s stars get the protection they are owed by the umpires.
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2. Everyone involved in the Dustin Martin negotiations has been very diplomatic in their public comments this year, but Tigers CEO Brendon Gale put some pressure on the Martin camp for the first time on Saturday. Gale said the club was “probably approaching that time where we’d like to get a sense of where their heads are at because we do have to plan (our) salary cap and other players, so I guess we’re approaching that point”. The Tigers have 16 senior list players out of contract – and five rookies – and the club can only wait so long before it commits salary cap space to them.
3. North Melbourne’s place on the Friday night stage must be in jeopardy next season. The Kangaroos’ only match in that timeslot was a fizzer against St Kilda, with a listless performance combining with a flat atmosphere to make for one of the more disappointing games of the season in a marquee timeslot. A lack of outside class was the most glaring weakness against the Saints, and only reinforcing the Roos’ need for a Josh Kelly type.
4. Port Adelaide is not at its best, but it sits fourth after doing what needed to be done against the Brisbane Lions. More will be needed, however, in a three-week stretch against Collingwood (MCG), Richmond (Adelaide Oval) and West Coast (Domain Stadium), so let’s see what the Power are made of.
5. Yes, it was on home turf, but West Coast’s physical performance against Geelong should be acknowledged. The Eagles smashed the Cats in tackles (93-74) and had an aggressive edge all night. It was a positive sign.
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