Article by Jake Benoiton
Is it about redemption or is it about progression? Is it the battle of proving people wrong, or the war of proving your program right?
While no doubt many fans are clamouring for the feeling of avenging the pair of horrible defeats that ended Carlton’s season- if not the quartet of losses suffered in the last month, 2023 is about progression for Michael Voss’ team.
It’s hard to say Carlton didn’t deserve finals last year. The ladder after Round 23 is the greatest indication of where a team lies in the scheme of things, but Carlton was not the ninth-best team in the competition last season.
So what is the natural progression in 2023 and what is the pass mark? Carlton must simply make finals. While they blew their opportunity last year when their list was rife with injuries to key stars, there is simply no wiggle room in 2023.
Injuries have again played their part at the start of the new year with Sam Walsh looking likely to miss the first month of the season despite being on track to rejoin the main training group before Round 1. Zac Williams will miss the season after rupturing his ACL at the club’s Queensland pre-season camp and he will be joined by Sam Philp who was placed on the inactive list for 2023.
It’s not an easy start to the season with Carlton opening their campaign against traditional rivals Richmond before taking on reigning premiers Geelong. After that baptism of fire, the fixture opens up for the Blues with games against GWS, North Melbourne, Adelaide and St Kilda to follow. 4-2 looks the most likely outcome after the first six weeks but that could easily be 5-1 with the Round 1 blockbuster as evenly poised as it ever has been.
Having been fortunate enough to watch many clubs over pre-season, Carlton’s training standard looks to be in a good place with an emphasis on physicality and competitiveness- much like we saw last year.
New recruit Blake Acres has been a driving factor in this area with the former Docker spending a lot of time side-by-side captain Patrick Cripps in competitive drills and match simulations. The Western Australian duo have been unrelentingly physical with each other. You only need to look at the clip uploaded by the club when in Queensland where Cripps and Matt Kennedy laid in some heavy shots on each other off the ball to see the approach to the new campaign.
Watching training in pre-season leads to inevitable talk about who will take the next step and who will be the “breakout star” of the new season. For a few seasons now Paddy Dow has seemed to light up the track but not convert that work come mid-March.
He has again had a good lead-up to the season but the jury is well and truly out on the former pick number three this year as he enters the final year of his contract.
Jack Carroll is one who has stood out, with the midfielder adding some considerable size to his frame and benefiting from another pre-season under the wing of Cripps. Carroll featured in the middle of last season before dropping back to the reserves but looked good in patches during his stint in the senior side.
The other player who everyone is raving about is Jesse Motlop. Motlop already had garnered some hype with glimpses of his ability last season but his performance against Collingwood in Round 23 was a sight that has Blues fans excited to see the goal sneak develop.
He is another who has added size this off-season. The 19-year-old has been a standout at training with his ability to get on the end of the ball in dangerous positions and his silky finishing ability seemingly putting him at the top of the pecking order for the Carlton small forwards.
Draftees Ollie Hollands and Lachie Cowan loom as the most likely of the class of ‘22 to debut early in the season with Hollands’ running ability a standout and an asset that the Blues hierarchy admitted they needed to add to the list.
Cowan was the youngest player taken in the 2022 draft but could get an early look in with the injury of Williams and the potential move of Sam Docherty into the midfield perhaps opening a spot for the dashing half-back.
The Tasmanian has been a standout in training and has looked very comfortable at the level.
If the Blues are to make the leap into the eight this season there needs to be a focus on what “plan B” looms like. In 2022 Carlton were at their best when dominant at the stoppage and got their clearance game going, but when opposition took that away from them, they lacked a backup plan.
There’s little doubt that with another pre-season that Voss and his team haven’t installed at least a “break glass in case of emergency” plan.
Carlton’s best saw them kick seven goals in a quarter against Richmond and dismantle the Swans and Fremantle at Marvel Stadium. Undoubtedly, at the peak of their powers, the Blues are as frightening a team as there is in the competition. It’s about bridging the gap between their best and their worst.
That gap was somewhat closed last year but needs work again.
Another year in this program gives cause for optimism and a reason to believe Carlton will improve again. Is top four out of the question? Absolutely not.
It isn’t the expectation or pass mark but it’s well within the Blues’ capabilities if they can put it all together and maybe get a lucky break on the injury front.
Come September it’ll be a decade since the Blues graced the stage of finals football, it can’t become 11 years. It’ll be 12 years since the Blues have finished the home and away season in the top eight. It must change this year- the Blues need to begin to cash in on years of struggles and high draft picks.