GREAT rivalries are distinct even from one another. The feeling in the one shared by Carlton and Collingwood runs deeper than them all, passed down through generations.
''What's better than beating Collingwood by 10 goals?'' asked late Carlton president George Harris, rhetorically, after the 1979 grand final. Then he rasped his own triumphal answer: ''Beating them by five points!'' More than 30 years later, Collingwood fans can quote it as readily as Carlton's. It is mantra for one and a goad to the other.
It makes their every meeting big, which makes the scale of tonight's clash hard to grasp precisely, except to say that this feels like their good old days. Carlton beat Collingwood again in the 1981 grand final, but since then these two leviathans rarely have been in the ascendant at the same time. Until now.
Great rivalry: Carlton's Bruce Doull and Collingwood's Ray Byrne do battle in the 1981 grand final.
Collingwood has won its last five encounters, and nine of its last 12. The Pies have played in grand finals the last two years. But the Blues have been gathering apace, have started this season in better form than the Magpies and for the first time in many years are the bookmakers' favourite for this fixture. Yesterday, in dreamy autumn sunshine, Carlton drew an agog crowd even to training.
''It is a great opportunity for both teams,'' said coach Brett Ratten. ''This is what we play for - round three, a big crowd and arch rivals. It is a great test for us.''
Collingwood, atypically, has been the club in the lower key. At training on Tuesday, spectators were outnumbered by media, a rarity, surprising even club officials. The Magpies' beginning has been in all ways underwhelming. The best interpretation is that last season's flying start turned into a stuttering finish, and the new coach is doing things differently.
But Nathan Buckley, of all people, cannot block out the historical implications of tonight's season within a season. ''There's probably more slabs of VB that get put on a Carlton-Collingwood game than any other game,'' he said yesterday.
Once, these teams would have entered freely and even with relish into that partisan spirit.
Now, all teams keep themselves at a clinical distance from the wash of emotions in the heaving grandstands. Or try to.
Yesterday's for-public-consumption talk was all tactical: the return of Michael Jamison and Nick Duigan for the Blues, and Lachie Henderson's role on Travis Cloke, the return of skipper Nick Maxwell for the Pies, and possible higher duties for ruckman Cameron Wood.
But forces greater than mere clubs have conspired. The weather forecast is perfect. The school holidays are good for one last hurrah. Only standing room tickets remain, and not many of them. The MCC is bracing itself for 90,000. By 7.30pm, the rumbling will be felt even in the concrete bunkers of the MCG change rooms, and the players will feel as well as know that this is not just another match, it is another Carlton-Collingwood match.