CARLTON 6.3 7.4 11.4 14.6 (90) ESSENDON 1.3 9.6 11.11 13.12 (90)
GOALS: Carlton: M Watson 4 C Yarran 2 T Menzel 2 B McLean C Wood D Armfield J Waite K Lucas T Bell. Essendon: J Daniher 2 J Watson 2 P Ryder 2 B Goddard B Stanton J Winderlich M Gleeson P Ambrose P Chapman Z Merrett.
BEST: Carlton: Judd, McLean, Gibbs, Simpson, Watson, White. Essendon: Heppell, Watson, Stanton, Hurley, Ryder, Zaharakis.
Umpires: Stuart Wenn, Jeff Dalgleish, Scott Jeffery.
Official Crowd: 56,658 at MCG
Carlton and Essendon have played games for huge stakes and others with not much riding on them at all. Saturday's MCG clash was somewhere in between, the Bombers with a home final riding on victory, the Blues with little but pride. But as always seems to be the case when these two teams meet, there was no shortage of drama.
This season's first draw came on the penultimate day of a six-month home-and-away season and was probably a fitting result, given that both teams at one stage had led by 30 points. But if there was a moral victor of sorts it had to be Carlton, the Dons breathing a huge sigh of relief to have avoided a potential final in Perth or Adelaide and to have survived a final five minutes in which the ball seemed camped in the Blues' forward 50.
In a bizarre game of "now it's your turn while we sit back", the Blues had kicked six goals to one in the first quarter, before Essendon slammed on 10 of the next 11. Carlton turned that around with seven of the last eight bar the final six-pointer of the game, Bomber substitute Martin Gleeson putting his side a point up with eight minutes still to play.
Zac Tuohy might have won it for the Blues, his shot from inside 50 with a minute-and-a-half left instead tieing things up. And Bryce Gibbs was expected to at least score something from the same distance with under a minute left to secure yet another famous one-point win for the Blues over an arch rival.
But Gibbs got under his kick and failed to make the distance, Essendon had one last desperate clearing kick out of the 50, and while Tuohy again had the ball when the siren sounded this time the Blues were too far from home.
They had looked efficient in compiling their early five-goal break, hapless as the Dons decided they had better actually turn up, then resolute when it looked like they were in danger of ending up on the wrong end of a hiding in the realms of last week's thrashing against Port Adelaide. It was a battle of who could be the least erratic.
But you had a sense this wasn't going to be a predictable afternoon when Carlton's Matthew Watson, arguably playing for his AFL career and thrown forward, took a strong mark and converted just his third career goal to kick things off.
His Essendon namesake evened things up shortly after, but from there it was all the Blues. Dennis Armfield was next cab off the rank, a quick snap from a stoppage bouncing through. Chris Yarran burst through the centre to turn that into three after Chris Judd, having one of those vintage Chris Judd games, won the ball, burst clear and dished off to speedster Yarran.
Judd had a big hand in the next one as well, spinning out of trouble and firing off another quick handball, Tom Bell's snap shepherded through by Levi Casboult. Essendon was sensing big trouble but was hardly helping itself, either.
Essendon's Courtenay Dempsey took on a run and left the ball behind. Heath Hocking dropped a sitter of mark and hit the goalpost from point blank range. Late inclusion (for David Myers) Orazio Fantasia and even the normally sure Zac Merrett had some fumbles.
Lacklustre was probably too kind an expression for the Bombers' first term. Their opening to the second was certainly in stark contrast. Essendon began to dominate the contested ball, then the inside 50 entries, at first without much return, but before long with maximum impact. Five goals in less than 10 minutes was enough of an indicator that, however strong the rocket coach Mark Thompson had given his men at the quarter-time huddle, it sure had worked.
It also was a period in which those who wondered what all the fussing over Essendon's young Joe Daniher was about were given some answers. The giraffe-like key forward was on fire, not only kicking two of those five goals but directly responsible for two more from Merrett and Watson, Daniher twice showing off his athleticism with pick-ups from his toes.
His second goal levelled the scores, Carlton's Watson bobbed up again with a third, but this was becoming one-way traffic, Paddy Ryder, sharing key forward duties for the Bombers with his ruck partner Tom Bellchambers, Jason Winderlich and Brent Stanton banging on another three. Eight goals was Essendon's best quarter of the season, but so it should have been given the flood of forward entries, 21-5 for the term.
By the time Ryder and Paul Chapman had got on the board early in the third term, a thrashing was well and truly on the cards. But Judd, clearly the best man on the ground, willed his side to come again, Brock McLean a possession machine, Troy Menzel lifting with a couple of goals, Watson's fourth, then a snap from Cameron Wood giving Carlton a five-point lead again.
In the end the Blues might have squared the match points but they at least will go into another pre-season with more recent memories of resilience than the cue well and truly being put in the rack.
As for the Bombers, who knows what next week's elimination final against North Melbourne brings? Essendon's switched-on best can take it to most teams. But unless it starts clocking on for a bit longer pronto, it's going to be a short September once again.