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A great traditional rivalry

David McKay of the Blues leaps high above the pack for the mark during the 1972 Grand Final. (Photo: Carlton Football Club)
David McKay of the Blues leaps high above the pack for the mark during the 1972 Grand Final. (Photo: Carlton Football Club)

Many believe that Carlton’s most intense and bitter rivalry is with Collingwood or Essendon, but in terms of an overall history there is a case to argue that the rivalry with Richmond is even more entrenched and bitter than that with any other foe.

The statistics back this rivalry up as arguably being Carlton’s most significant. First and foremost, Carlton has lost more finals matches to Richmond than any other club. In total, Carlton has had 16 finals losses to the Tigers, with as many as 10 of these finals losses occurring in a row between 1921 and 1972. Carlton has also had four grand final losses to Richmond (1921, 1932, 1969 & 1973). This is the highest number of grand final losses to one team (alongside Essendon) that Carlton has received. 

There are many reasons why the Carlton vs Richmond rivalry will endure and have relevance for future generations. To highlight the significance of this rivalry, the five worst moments for Blues supporters in matches against the Tigers are listed alongside the five greatest moments. 

The five worst moments in the Carlton versus Richmond rivarly – from a Carlton perspective:

1) The Geoff Southby broken jaw incident- the 1973 grand final

In poll position as the worst moment in Carlton’s battles against the Tigers is the broken jaw incident from the 1973 grand final. If there is one piece of footage that gets the Blues supporters riled up more than anything else it is viewing Neil Balme’s hit on Southby during the 1973 grand final.  Besides the injustice of Southby having his jaw smashed with a swinging fist from behind, this hit also effectively signalled the end of Carlton’s chances of winning that year’s grand final.

Up to the point of Balme’s hit, Carlton was still in the match with the Blues being only three points behind the Tigers.  After the hit, Richmond racked up six goals to Carlton’s two in the time remaining in the second quarter. Three of the goals came from free kicks as Carlton players lost focus on the match and instead sought retribution for the Southby hit, the other two came after a groggy Southby failed to punch the ball away from his opponent and one goal came after a mark. 

2) The Nicholls/Fowler incident- 1973 grand final

It says something about the impact of the 1973 grand final that the two moments deemed most demoralising in Carlton’s rivalry with Richmond came as a result of this one match.  The Fowler shirtfront on Nicholls has been replayed thousands of times on TV retrospectives, and has resonated over the following decades as a result of its impact.  

John Nicholls, the man with the nickname of “Big Nick”, had been an indestructable force, an enforcer and a player that opponents cowered before (with good reason) for well over a decade. Yet to see the giant man felled with a high hip and shoulder was startling, as Nicholls had the image of being above all other players in the physical stakes. More significantly, the physical and psychological battering Carlton took in this match had a large impact on the club where it hurt most – in finals, as Carlton was unable to win a finals match for another five years.

3) Throwing away the lead in the 1969 grand final

Carlton had a four point lead at the end of the third quarter of the 1969 grand final and looked capable of a stirring victory, but the Tigers kicked four goals to nil in the last quarter to decide the result of the match. Kevin Bartlett’s reputation as Carlton’s main nemesis began in this match, as he dominated during the last quarter and then repeated the dose in many more finals matches against the Blues during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Carlton’s coach Ron Barassi stated at the end of the match, “Unfortunately we moved the ball down slowly to our forwards but it is amazing that players of the calibre of Alex Jesaulenko, Robert Walls, Syd Jackson and Brent Crosswell could all play so poorly on the one day.” As a combined total these forwards only kicked five goals for the match. In the 1972 grand final these forwards, minus Brent Crosswell, tripled their output and kicked 15 goals between them.

4) The 1932 grand final

For Carlton fans, the 1932 grand final should have been the moment to finally see their star full-forward Harry Vallence crowned a premiership player. The Carlton star kicked an average of 6.66 goals per final in 1932, with 11 in the preliminary final and five in the grand final, but it was not enough to overcome the Tigers. 

As a finals goal kicking average it should be noted that Vallence’s record in 1932 was only slightly less than Gary Ablett Senior’s record in the finals of 1989. Ablett, in that finals series, kicked an average of seven goals per match. On a positive note, Vallence (Carlton’s most effective forward prior to Stephen Kernahan) was able to salute as a premiership player in 1938, his last year in the VFL.

5) The 2001 semi-final – the Koutoufides injury and Silvagni’s last match

Richmond hadn’t played in many finals over the previous decade prior to this 2001 match, but they made up for lost time by beating Carlton in this final. Of more disappointment than losing to Richmond was witnessing the tackle of Knights on Kouta, which resulted in a serious knee injury that kept the Big Blue out for most of 2002. Carlton’s fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worse in 2002 and the pain of that year could have been mitigated to some extent if Koutoufides had been playing. 

Before the injury, Kouta had kicked two second quarter goals and as Bruce Eva stated in his match report Kouta had, “threatened to become the difference between the two teams”. After the injury, Carlton had no general to lead them out of the trench warfare that Richmond was engaging in during this low-scoring, high intensity match.  

This final is also remembered as being the last match for the club stalwart Stephen Silvagni. A club legend who was deemed the best fullback of the 20th century, Silvagni did his job as usual and kept his opponent Matthew Richardson to a couple of goals, but it wasn’t enough for the Blues on this day and his career ended with a disappointing loss against the old enemy in an important final. 

The five greatest moments for Carlton against Richmond

Whilst the 1973 grand final provided arguably the two worst moments in Carlton’s history with Richmond, on the flipside the 1972 grand final provided arguably three of the greatest moments in their rivalry with Richmond. As a result, the 1972 grand final trumped much of the disappointment of the 1973 final.

1) Despite being rank outsiders, Carlton won the 1972 grand final

Of the eight experts for Inside Football, which included Norm Smith, Des Tuddenham and Ted Whitten, only one expert tipped Carlton to win. That one person was Kevin Murray. Rarely is a grand final predicted to be so one-sided, only to find the underdogs, the rank outsiders, come home in the most spectacular way. There is not much better in football than being written off by nearly all the pundits, yet proving them wrong. This match is arguably Richmond’s most disappointing loss in their club history, as it not only ended the winning streak they had over Carlton in finals (dating back to 1921), it was also done in a humbling fashion as the Blues went on an unprecedented goal-kicking spree. 

2) Carlton – the underdogs in 1982

Carlton had also been rated poorly by the media experts coming into this grand final of ’82. Much like in 1972, Carlton surprised all the pundits to win another flag against the Tigers. So underrated were the Blues that not one of the seven Sporting Globe experts tipped the Blues to win this grand final of 1982. 

If there was one moment that captured the Blues’ frenzied desire for victory it was Wayne Johnston’s brutal and vice-like tackle on Martello that resulted in Carlton’s 2nd goal within two minutes of the match starting. Determination, grit and an emotional intensity for the contest was what Johnston brought to this match and it proved to be arguably his greatest day in the navy blue guernsey.

3) Carlton’s record grand final score in 1972

In the 1972 grand final, as early as the 23rd minute mark of the second quarter Carlton had already scored 100 points. The Blues century was reached with amazing accuracy with 16 goals and only four behinds.

The Blues then proceeded to break the grand final scoring record of 150 points as early as the 30-minute mark of the 3rd quarter. Carlton ended up kicking a grand final record score of 177 points. Even Geelong in 2007 grand final when they went on a rampage against Port Adelaide couldn’t surpass this 177-point mark.

4) Robert Walls’s 78 points

There have been many dominant performances in grand final history, but there have been few as emphathic in terms of a scoreboard contribution as what Robert Walls contributed in the 1972 grand final. Walls kicked six goals and directly assisted in seven more, meaning he contributed 13 goals – or 78 points - to the scoreboard. 

No wonder Richmond people had trouble accepting Walls as their coach in the 1990s, as he was the the personal architect of Richmond’s most embarassing finals moment back in 1972. This dominant performance must have had an impact on his lack of support amongst Richmond people. After all, Walls was the living embodiment of the annihilation that was the 1972 grand final.

5) 1920 semi-final vs Richmond

Carlton has had some good winning runs against the Tigers in the home and away season, but they count for nought unless they are replicated in finals. Just prior to the finals of 1920, Carlton had applied plenty of pain on Tigers supporters by having an extraordinary winning run against the Tigers of 24 home and away wins against them in a row between 1908 and 1917. Yet the Tigers during the following decades took their revenge in the finals and racked up 10 finals victories in a row against the Blues.

The 1920 finals victory against Richmond was bittersweet, as it proved to be Carlton’s last finals victory over the Tigers until 1972. The benefit of winning was also cancelled out in effect, as Richmond had the automatic right (despite the loss) to go through to the grand final. They had this right as they had finished on top of the ladder. In an odd finals set up, Carlton was forced to play Collingwood in the preliminary final, which the Blues lost. As a result, Carlton’s semi-final victory effectively counted for nought.