Better Blues can put heat on Pies
Caught: Chris Judd runs down Alan Toovey just the way the Blues may be about to catch up to the Pies. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
TRADITIONAL rivals they may be, but for most of the past quarter-century, Carlton and Collingwood have been like ships in the night, having moments of glory and despair, but seldom, if ever, at the same time.
In the 1990s, it was the Blues up as the Magpies started sinking. For most of the past decade, those roles were reversed. But for AFL football's marketing people, the planets are once more beginning to align.
After both competing in the same finals series just once in 21 years, Carlton and Collingwood have been a part of the past three Septembers, the Pies very much the heavyweight, Carlton desperately trying to land a blow. Perhaps, finally, the Blues are in position to do so.
There's considerable hype building already around Friday night's bumper MCG clash between the two leviathan clubs and this time it's more than justified.
Yes, Carlton hasn't exactly tackled the cream of the competition thus far, but the Blues couldn't have been a lot more impressive than in their imperious late dismissal of Richmond in round one and their obliteration of Brisbane last Thursday night.
Collingwood, meanwhile, while at pains to state its build towards its best in 2012 will be a more gradual affair, continues to look at least gettable. The Pies were certainly ''got'' by Hawthorn, leaking 20 goals a couple of weeks back, and while they were vastly improved defensively against Richmond on Saturday night, the wash-up was still a pretty scratchy 21-point win.
Is this Carlton's time to strike? Recent history indicates the Blues are creeping closer. Collingwood has won the past five clashes, but the margins keep shrinking - 54 points, then 53, 48, last year 28 points in April, down to 19 by July.
There's considerable encouragement for the Blues this time even out of those two most recent defeats.
First time around, Magpie twin towers Travis Cloke and Chris Dawes got hold of second-gamer Matthew Watson. In the return bout, the Blues were without key backman Michael Jamison and key forward Jarrad Waite. Neither time were they monstered on the scoreboard.
This week, the Blues will have considerably more defensive cover with the imminent return of Jamison and important medium-sizer Nick Duigan. The Carlton backline has held up well thus far without that pair, coach Brett Ratten - even after a thumping 91-point win over the Lions - far more animated about the defensive efforts of Lachie Henderson, Jeremy Laidler and Paul Bower, than the showmen at the other end.
Not that he'd sneeze at the sort of firepower the Blues are mustering at the moment, 41 goals racked up in two big wins and, importantly, shared by talls Waite and Shaun Hampson, smalls Eddie Betts and Jeff Garlett, and midfielders Kade Simpson, Chris Judd and Marc Murphy.
It is that latter pair that loom largest over Carlton's capacity to make a real statement at Collingwood's expense on Friday evening.
The Blues have spent several seasons getting the balance right all over the ground and it's paying off - the days of the ''three amigos'' up forward long gone and the distribution out of defence far silkier through Chris Yarran and Bryce Gibbs.
But even a midfield that has had its praises sung often enough, appears to have risen to another level. It certainly bats a lot deeper these days and, again, the balance is perfect - the continually undersold Andrew Carrazzo, Mitch Robinson and Ed Curnow doing the grunt work, Simpson the outside stuff, which leaves Judd and Murphy more able to execute the sort of tricks they pulled from their bag at the Gabba.
Collingwood's midfield is still racking up healthy numbers, too, but as Dane Swan's two 30-plus possession games have shown, not necessarily with the impact we've become used to.
The Magpies might also have an emerging issue in the ruck, where they've lost in numerical terms both games, Dawes not offering the sort of support for Darren Jolly the Pies would have hoped. With Carlton pair Matthew Kreuzer and Hampson teaming nicely, Cameron Wood could return, but the ramifications of Leigh Brown's departure are hitting home already.
They've been coming a while, Carlton, but the progress, while never quick enough to satisfy the critics and even some of their fans, is clear. Surely victory over an old enemy on Friday night would be definitive proof that the Blues have arrived.