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Cats and Tigers brilliant, but brutal Blues are Melbourne’s biggest threat for the flag

If you were looking for thrilling finishes this ‘Finals Round’, you’d have been thrilled with what you saw at the MCG today.

Geelong’s three-point win over Richmond, in as good a home-and-away match as you’ll see, had absolutely everything: controversy, villains (Richmond fans are unlikely to forget Tom Stewart’s hit on Dion Prestia anytime soon), heroes (Tyson Stengle, you magnificent bastard), and some of the most thrilling, end-to-end footy you could see.

Point out that game to anyone yet to be converted to this game of ours; if they’re any chance at all of falling in love with it, this is the one.

But as good as both these sides were, across the other side of Melbourne, a story just as meaningful was brewing. Carlton’s ruthless 31-point takedown of Fremantle, though unlikely to be rewatched by any but rejoicing Blues fans, was captivating for a totally different reason.

This was always going to be a weekend of statements. And so far, we’ve learned three things.

One: Geelong and Richmond are going to be right up there come season’s end. Two: Melbourne is still the clear premiership favourite in 2022. And three: Carlton are the team most likely to take the flag off them.

That doesn’t mean that they should be higher up in terms of flag favouritism: the Blues have chinks in their armour that can be exposed by another team, on another day. At present, they sit fifth. But get to that last Saturday in September at the MCG – and that’s still a massive if – and the Blues have the weapons that spell trouble for the reigning premiers.

The Blues’ performance in the midfield against Fremantle was surely the most dominant of an already outstanding season. The Dockers’ midfield, while not normally a major strength, has been solid as a rock, and good enough to conquer the Demons’ famous on-ball brigade. Under the roof, they were glorified witches hats.

Control the stoppages in modern footy, and you control territory. Control territory, and provided your defence isn’t wafer-thin (hello, Western Bulldogs and Essendon) and your forwards competitive (hello, Port Adelaide), you’ll win more often than not.

The Blues didn’t just have control at the contest – they ripped the game to shreds from the source. 41 clearances to 30 is actually better than it felt, with the margin 13-5 from the centre bounce. With the Blues as aggressive as any team in the game in moving forward with the ball in their keeping, that meant a staggering 62-39 inside 50 differential. Not even Freo’s miserly defence is built to cope with that weight of chances.

When these two teams met in Round 6, the Dockers broke even at the coalface, with the Blues only shading the clearance count 36-33, and able to dominate the inside 50 count 38-56 as a result.

This time, though, the Blues were able to shut down any of Freo’s usually damaging rebound from defence – just 82 marks on Saturday is substantially lower than the 111 they managed at Optus Stadium two months ago. Yet again – if you don’t have the ball, you don’t have control.

Even more impressive for the Blues is the plethora of options they have as part of their midfield rotation. It didn’t matter one iota that Patrick Cripps was, by and large, restricted by a tag team of Caleb Serong and Will Brodie. He’d still manage eight clearances, but lacked his usual brute strength in tight.

Adam Cerra, behind only Cripps in Round 6 against his old side with seven clearances, was missing with injury this time around. So up stepped George Hewett (again) and Matt Kennedy, with six and eight respectively, to not let a Dockers midfield bolstered – theoretically – by the return of Nat Fyfe a single moment of respite.

Then we get to Sam Walsh. You’ll struggle to see a better performance by a midfielder in modern footy. There is absolutely nothing that he lacks – he’s genuinely quick, runs all day, wins the footy as well as anyone in the game and uses it wonderfully and dangerously.

He had 40 disposals, went at 85 per cent efficiency – including a perfect 13-touch, three-clearance second quarter to turn the game that I’d have as the best by a mid in 2022 – and not a single one of those stats was padded.

He turns 22 next week.

Sam Walsh in action.

Sam Walsh in action. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Not since Chris Judd, a very different player in a very different era, has a midfielder been this dominant this early in his career. If he can take it to another level – perhaps having more of a scoreboard impact is his last hurdle – then he’ll be an all-timer by the time he finishes. Even if he can’t, another ten years of exactly this makes him an undisputed modern great.

No Docker had a hope of running with him around the ground, and Justin Longmuir had seemingly made his bed with the close checking of Cripps. But even when the great Fyfe was sent to directly quell Walsh’s influence after half time – a greater compliment surely can’t be paid – it had no impact. Even the dual Brownlow Medallist simply couldn’t get near him.

An underrated trick of Michael Voss’ this year has been the insertion of Zac Fisher around the ball whenever the Blues need a spark. Walsh aside, none of the inside bulls possess genuine leg speed, which Fisher does in abundance. Zooming from the back of a stoppage, trusting his teammates to win it and then breaking away has become a trait of Fisher’s, and with 29 disposals, this was his most complete performance yet. Again, Freo had no answer.

Up forward, Charlie Curnow is one of those rare talents that can still kick four goals from, for all intents and purposes, a quiet day. Griffin Logue copped some criticism, particularly from Fox Footy’s Jonathan Brown, for not sticking close enough to him, but to my eye he didn’t do a whole lot wrong.

He didn’t clunk the ball like he usually does, his leading wasn’t always spot on, and he was up against the best defence going around. And yet he kicked four goals from six shots at goal. There’s so much about him that compares favourably with, say, a 2007-era Lance Franklin.

Harry McKay was equally impressive on a very, very good defender in Alex Pearce, who couldn’t have played much better either. Like Curnow, his overhead marking wasn’t at its best; but one key aspect of both the Blues’ big boys is their follow-up work at ground level. Not many spearheads lay five tackles a game as McKay did, with one drawing a holding the ball free kick for the game-sealing goal in the final term.

Down back, holding the Dockers to just seven goals was largely down to a lack of supply – when it got down there, Matt Taberner looked dangerous, clunking four contested marks in the first half alone. There’s a Jacob Weitering-sized hold down there, though, and once he’s back, that unit will begin to look imposing. As it stands, though, even against Richmond, the ragtag band held it together as well as could be expected given they were faced with 76 inside 50s.

Only percentage lies between Carlton and second spot on the ladder. They’ve got challenges to come in a tricky fixture, with St Kilda next week and all of Brisbane, Melbourne and Geelong in the final rounds.

But you can’t put anything beyond this group. Weitering will return soon, as will Marc Pittonet, with the latter’s absence seemingly proving the making of the ultra-impressive Tom De Koning. Cerra, as well, slots back in.

Being a key defender short can be managed against the Dees – Sam Weideman and Ben Brown aren’t Tom Lynch. Equally, Steven May is going to have his hands full coping with Harry McKay, while Jake Lever and Harry Petty too will get a major test against Curnow and De Koning.

As for the midfield, well: if the Blues smashed Freo in the centre, and the Dockers did likewise to the Dees, what does that mean for September?

Next year, when the likes of Hewett and Cerra have had a full 12 months to gel in their new home, this group will surely only get even better. But put the future aside for the moment – right here, right now, they’ve got everything they need to give the reigning premiers a run for their money.

Richmond do things differently. Their game against the Cats essentially followed the script between these two sides in big finals in their quirky recent rivalry: the Cats get the jump early, the Tigers look gone, and then they flip the switch so quickly and so emphatically that even when they’re still a few goals behind, it feels like they’re in front.

No team in the history of the game has applied more pressure than this mob. Good luck getting a second of space when they’re on. The Tiger intensity is back with a vengeance this year, after seemingly being sapped in 2021. No wonder they’re back as a force.

35 points down at one stage against Geelong, with their best midfielder Dion Prestia in Disneyland after a horrendous high bump from Tom Stewart, the Tigers unveiled their underrated trump card: versatility.

Liam Baker moved onto the ball; Shai Bolton, hitherto all but unsighted, was stationed deep into attack; Jayden Short switched to his old role between half-back and the wing; Tom Lynch, beaten all ends up by Tom De Koning, began to move further up the ground. And they exploded.

As always, Dustin Martin was the firestarter; few right-footers in the game could make a terribly difficult shot on the boundary look as easily as he did. Geelong were 23 points up after that goal: it felt like the scores were tied.

Under suffocating pressure, the Cats’ laser-like forward ball movement slowed to a crawl. Nick Vlastuin feasted on any errant balls sent in his direction, then fed Daniel Rioli and Short for the quick rebound. Defence into attack in the blink of an eye.

Up forward, Bolton was everywhere; too quick and too smart for Mark O’Connor, he found himself with plenty of space inside 50, and used it brilliantly. But for a close-range miss early, he’d have had three for the term. As it was, he was nothing short of electric.

If anything summed up the change, it was this.

The Tigers weren’t chopping off that inward kick at all to start the game; by the third quarter, any Cats risk was pounced upon with maximum ferocity.

Amazingly, though, this Richmond outfit, having won six of its last eight, with its only two defeats in instant classics, currently sits in ninth, and barring a shock Collingwood loss to GWS on Sunday, will spend the week outside the eight. Because even better when it counted was Geelong: as unlikely as the Tigers’ comeback seemed at the time, the Cats coming off the canvas from 17 points down early in the last was even more remarkable.

Slicing through the corridor with pinpoint passing and incredible speed throughout the final quarter, they did what Richmond did: make a very, very good opponent look thoroughly second-rate.

This was so antithetical to the Cats of the second and third terms, but also of 2021 as well. They took the game on, lost none of their precision by foot, and produced the comeback that turned an already brilliant game into a footballing masterpiece.

With Tom Hawkins a non-factor, Jeremy Cameron had to do his customary roaming up the ground and be the focal point in attack; but the story was clearly Tyson Stengle.

Sorry, Charlie Cameron, but right now Stengle is the best small forward in the game. Everything he does oozes class, he tackles like a maniac, his pace is enough to terrify any defender in the game. His effort in the final minute, with Richmond having kicked their way back in front, to attack a 50-50 ball at full speed, turn, and hit the hot spot perfectly for Jack Henry’s heroic last-gasp mark, was outrageously good.

There’s nothing quite like an exciting small forward lighting up a big game; this one had two. How lucky we were.

Bizarrely, though, I came out of this contest thinking the Tigers were still probably the better shout for the flag. Stewart’s absence over the next four weeks will test the Cats, for sure: but more than that, the Tigers dominated the final minutes, only for their usual composure to desert them instantly.

They lost the plot – it’s so difficult to imagine that happening again in a major final.

The MCG factor will be at play should the Tigers make it to the finals: yes, the Demons play there plenty too, but 80,000 screaming fans in a cutthroat final has always been a shot in the arm for these Tigers, and a debilitating influence on whomever they play.

A weaker Tigers outfit came up against the Dees at their full might on ANZAC Day eve, and couldn’t stop them. They are a much better, much more menacing outfit now. With their history, few teams will be giving the Dees more sleepless nights this September. The Cats, for all they do right, have still got to prove their September credentials fully.

As for the Blues; well, it might be time to start daring to dream.

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