LEIGH MATTHEWS: Carlton’s defence needs to tighten up, what Anzac round teaches us and why Geelong are on fire

Leigh Matthews
The Nightly
Carlton need to tighten up their defence ahead of their blockbuster Collingwood showdown on Friday.
Carlton need to tighten up their defence ahead of their blockbuster Collingwood showdown on Friday. Credit: Getty Images

The round of football to commemorate the Anzac spirit is a special time on the footy calendar.

In particular, the annual Anzac Day MCG blockbuster between Essendon and Collingwood has become a huge event and illustrates everything that is great about our game, but it also reveals a stark divide between the haves and have-nots in the AFL.

It’s a great round for some players and some clubs but it’s not the same great experience for the clubs not playing at the huge stadiums in Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide.

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Each year the Essendon and Collingwood game at the MCG is guaranteed to draw a crowd of 80-90,000. That’s just guaranteed. And now we’ve got Richmond and Melbourne playing the Anzac Day eve game, also at the MCG, and we can guarantee another 80-90,000 there.

The Perth game draws a big crowd as does the Adelaide one, but the three games played outside Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth are not blockbusters. The Canberra game had 13,000 people, so when you compare it to 90,000 at the MCG it’s very second-rate.

The Suns’ game on the Gold Coast was also not a big event with 12,000 people and the game in Hobart had a paltry 5000 people attend.

The equalisation between teams that plays out over the decades means there is a movement of teams from the top to the bottom of the ladder. But the equalisation of opportunity for individual players is largely the result of what happens in the national draft.

We know the bottom club gets the first pick and that’s the equalisation measure. But what Anzac Day always emphasises is if you play for Essendon and Collingwood you’re guaranteed to play in this huge home and away game every season.

And if you get drafted to Richmond or Melbourne, you’re going to have that Anzac Day eve blockbuster experience too.

But as good as they are as a football team, the Giants play in very few blockbuster games. The Suns won’t play in many either and neither will the less-supported Melbourne clubs.

It’s an unfortunate reality of our competition that the big clubs get all the big blockbuster games and that draws the big crowds and earns huge TV broadcast revenues which allows the AFL to subsidise the financially weaker clubs.

This business model works beautifully to fund all 18 clubs but there are inequities embedded in the system that creates a great imbalance in the equality of opportunity for players.

Players can get drafted to one of the big clubs and play in blockbusters every second week. Or they can get drafted to the Suns or the Giants or one of the smaller Melbourne clubs who rarely get to play in the MCG blockbuster games.

The addition of the 19th team in Tasmania and then the inevitable push for a 20th team to even up the league will only make matters worse.

Don’t tell me a Tasmanian team is going to be playing in these huge blockbuster games and the same would go for wherever a 20th team may be based.

For all the players and clubs who get to experience the huge buzz of the Anzac round experience there are many more who don’t and never will.

The equality of opportunity for individual players is very uneven and going to a 19th and 20th team is only going to increase the number of players not playing in blockbuster games.

The tied result at the end of the Anzac Day MCG match was a fitting end to a great game and as always after a draw the debate about playing extra time gets explored yet again. I am not a supporter of that concept.

We play a long game. It’s 120 minutes already. I don’t think we should add another 10 or 15 minutes to the game by going to extra time.

We all have our personal views and if the urge to have an absolute winner is overwhelming, just go to something simple. Next score wins. At full-time tell the timekeepers to keep the game going until the next score then blow the siren to end play.

Another takeaway from the Anzac round was despite the ever-changing evolution of the game thankfully it is still a sport for all shapes and sizes.

At one end of the scale was 20-year-old Giants first gamer Darcy Jones standing at 175cm and very lightly built. His lack of size and bulk was a stark contrast to the other players on the field.

But if you’re very slight, and very short, you’ve got to be really quick, really agile and have really good ball skills and he looked to have all that.

I think it’s exciting when you see someone who’s an unusual size and shape looking like they can really impact the game.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 25: Darcy Jones of the Giants celebrates a goal during the round seven AFL match between Greater Western Sydney Giants and Brisbane Lions at Manuka Oval on April 25, 2024 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/AFL Photos/via Getty Images )
Darcy Jones may be small but he plays with a giant heart. Credit: Jason McCawley/AFL Photos/via Getty Images

At the other end of the scale is Sam Darcy playing for the Bulldogs. He’s now into his third year. He is 208cm.

He’s got the extreme height but to maintain that huge reach advantage you’ve got to have the balance and the strength when shorter players with a lower centre of gravity are trying to push you out of the contest.

Sam is still only a physically immature 20-year-old but seems to have the ability to hold his own already. As his body develops, he’s going to become a very valuable player.

Now we are a third of the way through the season we can take stock of who is looking the goods for September, and no one is looking better than Geelong.

The are the only undefeated team after seven rounds and matching the form they exhibited at the end of the 2022 season that propelled them to a dominant premiership win. After a 11th-placed finish last year the Cats are back.

The key to Geelong’s success over a long period of time is a combination of excellent list management and recruiting, terrific player development and very good coaching. All the components of a successful club are in place and have been for most of the last 20 years.

It’s interesting when you have a look at Geelong and the five players who didn’t play in that 2022 premiership team that have fitted in seamlessly to the current Cats line up.

Ollie Henry, who was recruited from Collingwood, plays like a second tall forward around Tom Hawkins. This allows Jeremy Cameron to play a small forward role even when he stands at 195cm. Cameron gets more ball by running hard and getting into space than he does overhead marking. He is effectively a big forward flanker and is reaping the rewards with plenty of up-field possessions and 19 goals this season. He is a huge weapon.

Max Holmes, Tanner Bruhn, Jack Bowes and Oliver Dempsey are the other Cats who didn’t play in the 2022 flag-winning team who are now very influential in the new-look outfit.

Carlton have a 5-2 win-loss record and are in sixth place but I rank them much higher.

In the last three rounds, where the Blues have suffered their two losses, their opposition has kicked incredibly accurately with 49 goals and 22 behinds. Most teams have an accuracy rate of around 50 to 60 per cent.

This amazing accuracy is very hard to beat. Carlton are conceding a lot of shots from relatively close to goal and they need to fix that. The closer you are the more chance you’re going to kick a goal but there is also a random nature to accurate conversion. I doubt this trend against the Blues will continue.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 27: Oliver Henry of the Cats celebrates kicking a goal during the round seven AFL match between Geelong Cats and Carlton Blues at Melbourne Cricket Ground, on April 27, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Oliver Henry rise has allowed Jeremy Cameron to change his role and it is making Geelong impossible to stop. Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

I’m also impressed with Carlton’s results given that due to injury they have probably not fielded their best team all season.

Apart from Geelong, the most improved team is Essendon with four wins, two losses and the draw. North Melbourne may be ruing their decision to push Todd Goldstein out as he is doing a really good job at Essendon. He’s very good at the ruck craft and that’s been significant for the Bombers and their clearance game.

Ben McKay also left the Kangaroos for the Bombers and North are missing a big strong defender like him. Zac Merrett has been outstanding along with Archie Perkins and Sam Durham. Jake Stringer is playing at his best this year. When he looks fit, he plays well.

Then there’s last year’s grand finalists.

Collingwood have started badly and they’re trying to stabilise the season, which they’ve sort of done with three wins, three losses and a draw.

In round six they beat Port Adelaide convincingly. Their best is good enough, it’s just a matter of if they can find their best often enough. They play Carlton on Friday.

To finish in the top four teams can only afford to lose probably five or six games and the Lions have already lost five and Collingwood have lost three and a half but that’s completely irrelevant to their thinking.

The first thing they’re trying to do is get the win-loss record equal.

The Lions (two wins, five losses) are still a long way behind but have shown glimpses of their best.

The win against the Demons in round five was one of the best games this group has played - they completely got hold of Melbourne at the MCG.

That showed what they’re capable of and what the Lions have got to get done more consistently.


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