It has been two months now since outgoing Carlton president Stephen Kernahan, following the Blues’ shocking 0-4 start to the season, conceded that his club had to rebuild its senior list.
Coach Mick Malthouse maintained for several more weeks, publicly at least, that things weren’t quite that dire, yet after Carlton was smashed by Collingwood in round seven, he too was prepared to start using the “R” word.
That was a month ago. So have the Blues stayed true to their word, or are they all talk and no action? Frankly, Saturday’s disastrous loss to bottom side Brisbane reinforces the view that Carlton’s hierarchy doesn’t really mean what it says.
It wasn’t just the unpalatable bottom line of being overrun by a team that had won just one of its first nine games. It was the enormous contrast provided by sides fielded by the Blues and their opposition.
Both Carlton and Brisbane have already used 34 players this season, a figure exceeded only by Greater Western Sydney and St Kilda.
Yet Brisbane’s 22 contained five first-year players and eight in either their first or second season of AFL football. Add Tom Cutler and Nick Robertson, and the Lions have in 2014 rolled out seven debutants. St Kilda, for that matter, has played four, and a fifth in Cam Shenton who played only one game last year.
Carlton on Saturday had no debutants, and only four in their second season, one of whom - Sam Rowe - is 26. In half-a-season, the Blues have handed just one player - Patrick Cripps - his debut, and he’s played just two games.
Malthouse and his coaching crew played it safe at selection again last week when Andrew Walker and Dennis Armfield were lost through injury, bringing back Mitch Robinson and Andrew Carrazzo.
Left sitting on the emergency list were Nick Graham, Jaryd Cachia and Blaine Johnson. Graham, who was best afield for the Northern Blues in the VFL last start, has played just three games in 1 1/2 years.
Cachia, at 23, is older than most of the recent additions to the Carlton list, but was good enough in 13 games last season to win the Blues’ best first-year player. This season he hasn’t had a look in. Johnson, a rookie, was upgraded to the senior list after Heath Scotland’s retirement.
There’s plenty more where they came from who have yet to taste senior football. Such as Tom Temay, now in his second year at Carlton, who has been inconsistent at VFL level yet shown enough flashes to at least warrant a go at senior level.
Or midfield endurance runner and hard nut Nick Holman and key defender Cameron Giles, both taken in last year’s national draft. Or rookie draft pick Luke Reynolds. Even Irish pair Ciaran Byrne and Ciaran Sheehan.
Those last few names might still be miles off the pace or knowledge required to cut it consistently at AFL level. But what would Carlton lose in real terms by throwing them in for a shot and seeing whether there’s something there to work with?
Some around Visy Park believe that the Blues’ current conservatism with selection and development is as much about keeping the side at least vaguely competitive until its big 150th birthday function in a couple of weeks, a turn open to supporters, which will be attended by all living former Carlton players, and at which the club will unveil its top 25 players of all time.
A more likely explanation involves something that has happened ritually to Carlton for a long time now - the arrival of another false dawn.
It happened back when the Blues last made the grand final in 1999 on the back of a famous preliminary final upset of Essendon, and 13 wins in a row the following season, veterans enjoying a last hurrah and then retained for too long afterwards.
It happened on a smaller scale last year, when a season that would have in any context been viewed a failure with a finish of just 11 wins and ninth position became viewed in far-too-glorious hindsight following Essendon’s finals disqualification and the Blues’ inspiring comeback win over Richmond in the elimination final.
And if selection is anything to go by, it might just have happened again over recent weeks as Carlton recovered from its 0-4 start to win four of five games leading up to yet another reality check on Saturday night against Brisbane.
The Blues face a chastened Geelong and Hawthorn in their next two games. The likelihood is that following them, they’ll be 4-8 with a minimum eight wins required from the last 10 rounds simply to scrape into the eight for another token finals appearance.
And to what end? With a list palpably short of what’s required to take on the competition top dogs, what would be achieved other than continuing to tread water?
Surely now must be the time Carlton no longer just talks about rebuilding but actually begins to do it by making hard calls on players who clearly aren’t going to be part of a successful future, and at least finding out whether those not yet given a chance just might be.
At the moment, Carlton and its coach are doing neither.
And while I'm at it ...
A SCHIZOPHRENIC SCHEDULE
So we’re back to the full roster of nine games a week. Trouble is, though there might be three more than we’ve been treated to the past few weeks, you need a work planner and no social or family life to be able to see many of them.
This round nine games were played at eight different start times. And nor was there anything like a return to what these days passes for a “normal” weekend schedule, with a Thursday night thrown in again, three games instead of the usual five on Saturday, and four instead of the typical three on Sunday.
Hawthorn’s clash with Greater Western Sydney was a “blink and you missed it” scenario, starting at the bizarre time of 4.40pm, and the important West Coast-North Melbourne clash was due to finish about 10.30pm when most with work or school commitments were tucked up in bed.
Is any more evidence needed that the balance between live and TV audiences has tipped way too far towards the broadcasters?
EVEN DEMON DEFEATS IMPRESSIVE
Melbourne’s progress under the coaching of Paul Roos is becoming more obvious by the week. And, while there’s some way to go, you could already almost claim mission accomplished in one sense.
That is simple competitiveness, and the Demons this year have had it in spades, Saturday’s 20-point loss to Port Adelaide merely the latest example.
Indeed, in six losses this season, only once (against West Coast in round two) has Melbourne gone under by more than 31 points. Even with that thumping their average losing margin is only 30 points.
Last year the Demons lost no fewer than six games by 90 points or more (including 148-point and 122-point humiliations), with an average losing margin of 64 points. Enough said.
TIGERS’ TALE OF WOE
It took all of 15 minutes on Saturday to work out that Richmond’s dismantling of Greater Western Sydney wasn’t going to be the moment a season turned but rather the ultimate in “flat-track bullying”.
Far from using the smashing as a spur to greater efforts, the Tigers seemed to have decided it was all going to be that easy again, regardless of their opponent being far better-equipped this week than last.
Richmond conceded 60-odd possessions to Essendon’s tally but, despite chasing bumstails most of Saturday night, was still out-tackled by 17. Few stats could be as damning of a team than those couple.
If 3-7 isn’t a stark enough win-loss scoreline, Richmond fans should prepare for worse yet, with the next three weeks serving up top-eight opponents in North Melbourne, Fremantle and Sydney. This season had long since been consigned to the disappointing basket, but within a month nightmare might be a more apt description.