Carlton has line-up to end losing streak
CARLTON should end a five-game losing streak against Collingwood by winning comfortably tonight at the MCG. The Blues have a bit going their way, and a loss would be a real blow to their confidence. They have a settled line-up, they have had two extra days to prepare, they are ''up'' after impressive wins over Richmond and the Brisbane Lions and the challenge to beat one of last year's top-four teams will whet their appetite.
Last year, Carlton played the top four teams on six occasions, and lost them all. Collingwood and West Coast got them twice, while Hawthorn and Geelong also took the points. The Blues believe they are definite improvers and that a grand final is not beyond them. So a win over a somewhat vulnerable Magpie outfit is a must.
Nathan Buckley has been at the helm at Collingwood for only two games, but the Magpies have yet to impress. In round one, Buckley was annoyed that the Hawks had 35 scoring shots against his men, and last week, against the Tigers, the Pies slowed to a walk in the final term to win unimpressively by 21 points.
Last year, Collingwood was the hardest team to score against, conceded just 71 points a game on average. In the first two rounds of this season, the average score against it is 100.5 points. To make matters worse, Chris Tarrant, Collingwood's most accountable defensive tall, is set to miss the next month with a calf injury.
The Magpie back line has missed the leadership and direction of captain Nick Maxwell, the tightness of Tarrant, and the superb kicking skills of Leon Davis, who was his team's leading defensive rebounder in 2011.
Carlton, on the other hand, has steadily improved its defence. Five years ago, it was embarrassingly bad. In fact, in 2007 it was the worst defensive team in the competition, giving up on average 132 points a game. It has been reduced each year since, and last year the Blues were the fifth best defensive team, allowing an average of only 77 points a game. After two rounds in 2012, the average is down to 72.
There are lots of reasons for this. The forward line, led by Eddie Betts and Jeff Garlett, tackles ferociously to keep the ball in, thus not allowing easy rebound to put pressure on the Blues' defence. The midfield pulls its weight, too. Now considered to be one of the best in the business, Chris Judd and Marc Murphy lead the way. They win heaps of clearances to keep the ball out of the Carlton back line, and they try to tackle with intent, which means the ball doesn't fly fast into the back half.
In the Carlton back line tonight will be names such as Lachie Henderson, Chris Yarran, Zach Tuohy and Jeremy Laidler. None has played 50 games of senior football. Paul Bower has played just 62 games in seven injury-interrupted seasons and Michael Jamison, the big hope of the back line, has 71 games to his credit.
It's an extremely inexperienced section of the team, and enormous credit has to be given to former Magpie skipper and now Carlton defensive coach Gavin Brown. Brown is maximising the strengths and building on the weaknesses of the back line boys.
Laidler is brave and extremely good in the air. He is encouraged to go for his marks and has licence to be third man up in contested marking situations.
Yarran has explosive pace and is a fantastic finisher by foot.
Henderson is learning to contest in the air against power forwards. He reads the game well and can run and carry before kicking long.
And Tuohy, the young Irishman, is courageous and tough.
Bower could be the missing link to the Carlton defence. They say he kills them in the gym and the endurance runs. If he is strong enough to spoil the Clokes, Hawkins and Franklins in aerial contests, it's believed he will have the better of them at ground level.
The battle of the midfield will be fascinating tonight. Both sides run deep with talented possession-getters. It's hard to split both team's best two. Would you take Judd and Murphy or Dane Swan and Scott Pendlebury?
Perhaps the ruck battle will determine the winner. Collingwood misses the retired Leigh Brown, who not only gave Darren Jolly a rest in the ruck, but didn't make the team top-heavy when he played forward. Cam Wood is handy in the ruck, but cumbersome up forward. Matthew Kreuzer and Shaun Hampson have worked well in tandem for Carlton. Both are competent ruckmen, but around the ground Kreuzer is a star and Hampson is capable of taking marks and kicking goals up forward.
I have no doubt Buckley will have his team top five by season's end, but there will not be four points tonight as a determined, confident, re-charged Carlton will remain undefeated.