Forget Cripps, Curnow and Walsh – the unsung Blues heroes driving Carlton’s premiership push


The Blues are on fire and while all the justifiable fanfare is justifiably on how well their stars are playing, it’s Carlton’s unsung heroes who will validate the club’s premiership push.

We’ve arguably never seen the Charlie Curnow/Harry McKay connection as dominant as we’ve seen it now.

Patrick Cripps has had a strong start to the season, Sam Walsh’s return has been typically prolific and Jacob Weitering’s barely missed a beat – but none of this is surprising.

What really separates the best teams in the league from the rest is depth and the ability to rely on role players and those outside the best team, to realise the potential that the “next man up” mentality seeks to bring.

Carlton has had an impressive injury list over the last few seasons, even as they’ve risen into a regular finals team.

The number of times they’ve had a full-strength squad heading into games has been pretty minimal, especially compared to other contenders, which makes their evolution into their current form pretty impressive.

When we assess the most successful teams in recent memory, we must laud the bottom half of their best 22s for raising the floor of the group.

Sure, the stars are the headline acts and their performances are the difference-makers, but without the security blanket of the reliability their teammates provide, their efforts would prove to be futile.

This Carlton group feels different for a number of reasons and Michael Voss and his coaching staff have certainly adapted their approach for the better, which includes the freedom afforded to players to just have a crack.

Even with the likes of Adam Saad, Adam Cerra and Mitch McGovern unavailable, Sam Docherty and Jack Silvagni’s absence for the year, Weitering and Walsh missing the first parts of the season and a host of other names, the Blues have covered them superbly.

Jordan Boyd, for instance, has overcome his own injury struggles to secure his spot in the Blues’ backline.

“I’ve spoken about it before, but it’s a bit of maturity, understanding your role and getting it done.”

Our two most inexperienced defenders on the weekend were quick to draw the praise of Jacob Weitering.

Is Jordan Boyd your most improved Blue so far in 2024? ????

— Carlton FC (@CarltonFC) April 23, 2024

To many, he’s emerged out of nowhere whereas in reality, he’s been seen as around the mark for a few years – not many 15-gamers are trusted to go straight into a preliminary final team as he was in 2023.

Rated as one of the AFL’s best kicks, granted his are more controlled, shorter uses by foot, his closing speed and pressure as a small back operates as a slightly different function to Saad’s making him a nice complementary, reliable piece to the puzzle.

Speaking of Saad’s absence, perhaps the Blues’ recent drafting has gone a little unnoticed overall, and we saw a bit of Lachie Cowan in 2023 when perhaps he wasn’t ready to be involved.

But that kid has the perfect mix of defensive aggression and offensive use that would suit most teams right now as a second-year player, but he’ll settle for his current role on the fringes.

The tall defensive spots are a bit of rotation for the Blues but it’s ultimately about the best fit for the structures.

While the sample size is limited, Brodie Kemp’s defensive work has improved significantly this season to go along with his natural intercepting flair, which helps counteract the absence of the oft-injured Caleb Marchbank, and McGovern looks to be a bit of a roaming star in full honesty.

The opinion will not change, probably ever, that Blake Acres is the most underrated wing player in the AFL and is one of Carlton’s most important players in their bid for a flag.

There is no comparable player in his position that covers the ground as intentionally and impactfully as Acres and if he was truly noticed, he’d be a multiple-time All-Australian.

Josh Barnes – Inside the two trades that led to Blake Acres being a perfect Carlton fit:

Blake Acres had a bit more warning ahead of his second trade.

The first came in a rush after a phone call interrupted a gym session, but the second came from a more…

— Carlton News & Stats (@UptheBaggers) April 12, 2024

Whatever key defensive issues that could arise at the Blues, the 28-year-old is always pushing back to fill a hole.

When the opposition takes control of field position, Acres positions himself in spots where he can impact a contest and start a counter-attack.

He’s the best-tackling wingman in the game, who rarely shirks a contest, he’s averaging over a shot on goal per game and his ball use is well above average.

Acres is rated elite for marks, intercept marks and intercepts in general, while rated above average for a wingman in tackles inside 50.

Maybe he’s just the most underrated player in the league full stop and his lack of injury interruptions since moving to his third club has been vital to the Blues getting some season points in 67% of games he’s played.

Offensively, Lachie Fogarty’s the one that raises the floor the most and his absence certainly hurt – he’s averaging five tackles and nearly two goal assists a game.

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But in that true sense of fitting depth in, Corey Durdin getting full games and averaging four tackles himself, while being more of a scoreboard threat, has been good for the 22-year-old.

Jack Carroll too, while being slotted into a perma-sub sort of role seemingly, is prodigiously talented and is the sort of guy who can slot into the midfield or forward half and influence games in minimal time. He’s had an impact in every single game.

Then there’s Matt Cottrell, who has taken headlines recently with his match-winning exploits against Fremantle but around that, is one of the Blues’ hardest workers and most reliable runners.

He’s the sort of player that isn’t going to wow anyone statistically, yet go to a Carlton game and watch his running patterns and you’ll see the space that he ends up creating by causing mayhem simply by moving around.

Just imagine, landing arguably the most talented player in a draft class for an inconsequential swap of picks.

Elijah Hollands is perfect for Carlton. His brother has popped up a couple of times too, and don’t forget about Tom De Koning’s breakout season.

Jon Ralph & Josh Barnes – Blues look to lock in recruit Elijah Hollands:

Carlton is open to talks on recruit Elijah Hollands as he settles in at his second club.

The former Sun has played all four games for the Blues since seeing through his…

— Carlton News & Stats (@UptheBaggers) April 23, 2024

Overall, that’s really what’s most exciting about Carlton in 2024.

This isn’t just a list of naming nice players, but to be able to see and analyse the roles they play in freeing up the stars to have impactful games and not worry about having to do everything at both ends themselves.

Traditionally, that’s never worked for the Blues.

Their VFL team has young talent, particularly in attack and through the midfield, that will be rewarded with opportunities in a season where they’re a top threat because we can trust Michael Voss to do that these days.

When the current 15-man injury list comes down to something a lot more manageable, 80 per cent of whom could plausibly feature in the best 23, it might be worth following the reserves’ results.

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Yes, Carlton has one of the best key forwards duos of the modern era, they’ve got a generational full-back and a midfield that includes a skipper that’s thrown this group on his back way too many times, and a potential future Brownlow winner, but somehow, it’s not really about them.

Teams have had talent for years, every team has at least one star player, but only one team wins the flag, and for the majority, they don’t have a chance for years on end.

What makes a difference is being able to rely on a group of players underneath the upper echelon of talent and Carlton is able to do just that.

They’re playing Geelong, Collingwood, Melbourne and Sydney in the next month. As a neutral observer, that’ll be footballing bliss, to see how the team handles more challenges and steps up.

The Blues have truly stood up and are a genuine flag threat in 2024 and they have their unsung heroes to thank for it.

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