Thursday, March 26, 2009

The triumph and tragedy of opening night

Nearly the biggest opening night crowd in the history of AFL football turned out to watch the much anticipated clash between two sides expected to feature prominently towards September, and two players who once climbed the September Mountain together but now opposed each other for the first time.

But in the end the 86,971 fans in attendance left the MCG short-changed after Carlton mauled Richmond 23.12 (150) to 9.13 (67).

To make matters worse for the Tigers, if 83 points wasn’t bad enough, their messiah, the returning star Ben Cousins, limped off with what appeared to be a nasty hamstring injury that may keep him out for an extended period.

The former Eagle was the night’s star attraction and it took him all of 12 seconds to have an impact getting an early touch that resulted in a shot for goal for Matthew Richardson. But Richardson’s attempted conversion typically punched the post and hope vanished as quickly as it had been harboured.

Richmond were plagued by skill errors in the back half and in Terry Wallace’s fifth and most important year in charge it seems little progress has been made. Wallace and his medical staff may also come under fire after Cousins complained of a niggle behind the knee at three quarter-time, only to return in the final stanza to damage his hamstring properly.

The Tigers night resembled a Shakespearean tragedy. Tim Lane rephrased it a “Richardsonian” tragedy.

But for as bad as Richmond was, the Blues stamped themselves as the real deal with a polished display. Richmond led briefly after two early goals to Mitch Morton, the lowest profile former Eagle on the ground. Morton finished the night with four goals and, along with Jack Riewoldt and Nathan Foley, he was among the few Tigers who could hold their heads high.

The momentum swung with Jarrad Waite who ignited the Blues early. Lining up on the dangerous Richardson he pushed forward twice to kick early goals and help guide Carlton to an eight-goal opening term to lead by 30 points at the first change. They extended that lead to 40 at half-time before exploding in the second half.

All their young stars got involved. While Waite owned the first half, Marc Murphy was probably the Blues best in the second, showing leadership and class by bringing teammates into the game. A sublime 30 metre handball in the third term set up one of Eddie Betts’ five goals, while Murphy himself jailed a Betts-like check-side on the run in the last to finish with two goals of his own.

Chris Judd was hardly dominant but his fingerprints were all over Carlton’s victory with important and efficient touches, plus a brace of goals to boot. But the biggest indicator of Carlton’s improvement was the fact that their spearhead Brendan Fevola bagged just two of their 23 goals. While his impact did not feature heavily on the scoreboard he was brilliant throughout the night consistently doing the unselfish one-per centers that his game has lacked in the past. He chased hard, used his physicality, and laid important shepherds, all of which aided Carlton’s dominance.

Brett Ratten and his match committee can feel particularly proud tonight after the gamble of playing four debutants well and truly paid off. Mitch Robinson, a young Tasmanian who has been likened to Anthony Koutoufides, was outstanding in booting three goals. Jeff Garlett, the lightweight Western Australian at just 74 kilos was possibly the biggest gamble but he showed tenacity and liveliness up forward. Aaron Joseph had the unenviable task of running with Cousins on his first day in senior football and did it with aplomb while Sam Jacobs held his own the ruck.

Terry Wallace and the Tigers have plenty to ponder with the prospect of facing Geelong and the Western Bulldogs in the coming fortnight without Cousins and perhaps also Andrew Raines who limped off with a knee problem.

Brett Ratten meanwhile can look forward to Nick Stevens returning for next week’s encounter with Brisbane. The only concern for the Blues is a sore heel for Fevola, who no doubt will be nursed through the week.

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