Hot Cripps blazing a Blues streak for Carlton to play AFL finals football

With scores level, light rain falling, and the sporting nation’s collective tachycardia finally easing post-Matildas, Patrick Cripps licked and rubbed his palms, surveyed his centre square kingdom and went to work. In the space of 45 seconds, he twice pushed off Christian Petracca, twice found Paddy Dow by hand and twice set up Carlton goals. A few minutes later, he eschewed the deep dump, lowered his eyes and feathered a ball to Charlie Curnow, who converted from long range.

Cripps has played better quarters. He’s played quarters where he’s put the entire team on his back. He’s played quarters where he’s had two, three or four players hanging off him, where they’ve still been unable to take him to ground, where he’s been the only Carlton player sufficiently invested.

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This was different. This wasn’t the heavy-haulage Cripps. This showcased the side of his game that is sometimes sold short - the creative Cripps, the left and right-sided Cripps, the Cripps who checks and weighs his disposals, the Cripps who puts others into space. It didn’t all go perfectly. At one point, he appeared to have been shivved in the kidney by Angus Brayshaw. At various other times - an errant handball here, a bad bounce of the ball there – he’d slap his palms together in self-reproach. But he kept persisting, presenting, directing and was probably the player who tilted this most line-ball of games Carlton’s way.

The key to this game – and to this extraordinary winter wave that Carlton is riding – is that it wasn’t all Cripps. It was George Hewettt, who Cripps should sling some of his salary to, such is his ability to absorb pressure and create room. It was their ruckmen, who neutralised Max Gawn. It was Paddy Dow, who’s what bodybuilder types would call a hard gainer, but who certainly knows how to find the ball, and who finally looks like he belongs at this level. It was the glut of players who’ve ironed out their chinks in the hopelessly compromised and lopsided reserves competition. It was Alex Cincotta’s tackle, Nic Newman’s final term, Lachie Fogarty’s pressure, Ollie Hollands’ engine. It was Caleb Marchbank’s fingernail, or his proximal phalanx.

In the early part of the evening, footy was peripheral. Teetotallers were propping up bars at the MCG. Melbourne supporters and Carlton supporters were in the same blizzard of agony throughout the penalty shootout. After that, the next few hours felt like a giant exhale. But the game itself was anything but relaxing. It had more tackles than any other this year. It was a marvellous mess of a finish, with insufficient intent, and insufficient evidence. At times, it looked like a facsimilie of the corresponding fixture last year. It was the sort of game Carlton has been blowing for two decades.

Patrick Cripps leads the Carlton Blues onto the Melbourne Cricket Ground against the Demons.
Patrick Cripps leads the Carlton Blues onto the Melbourne Cricket Ground against the Demons. Photograph: Rob Prezioso/AAP

But not any more. Michael Voss insists they’re not interested in the past, that they’re squarely focused on living in the present. Football people all speak like that these days. But recent history is entirely relevant to this Carlton side. Every week, they right an old wrong. The remarkable thing about Richmond’s run in 2017 was the way they picked off, one by one, the teams that had beaten them earlier in the season, or rubbed their noses in it for years. They learnt, they changed, and they remembered. Carlton is doing exactly the same.

And like Richmond, they’ve simplified their game. “We were getting taught and coached in so many areas of the game – basically we were scared of doing anything,” Matthew Kennedy, one of several walk-up starts still missing from this side, said this week. They’ve worked out who and what they are. The data boffins rank them as the best stoppage team of the past decade – ahead of the crack Hawthorn (2012, 2014) and Melbourne (2021) sides. The captain, it goes without saying, is central to that.

A little bit of good fortune never goes astray either. The AFL’s score review system, apparently filmed on an NEC FIDO, couldn’t definitively tell us whether Caleb Marchbank touched that ball. But you just feel like the Carlton of previous seasons would have copped the raw end of that decision. If there’s one thing this World Cup has drummed home, particularly if you are Swedish, it’s that sport comes down to millimetres.

Alastair Clarkson says the most overlooked factor in Hawthorn’s 2013-15 three-peat, particularly in the Preliminary Finals, was luck. You need it at this time of year. In Cloudstreet, Tim Winton’s Sam Pickles, maybe the worst punter of all time, called it the ‘hairy hand of God’. Carlton rode their luck, and are riding their winter wave right through to September. Cripps, unless the hairy hand intervenes, is on track to play his first ever final. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest he’ll be well suited to the format. No footballer deserves the chance more.