A WINNING return to September.
Carlton has outlasted a rampaging Sydney to come home with a six-point win in the first elimination final.
In front of 92,036 people at the home of football, the Blues produced a rampaging second quarter to open up a five-goal lead, but were forced to hold on with all their might against a surging Swans.
Triumphant by a solitary goal come the final siren, it sets up a return to the MCG against Melbourne next week in a semi final.
So often in finals, it’s about who can settle the quickest: there could hardly have been a more popular man to ease the nerves. Receiving a handball from Harry McKay, Sam Docherty - playing in his first final after arriving at Carlton a decade ago - kickstart proceedings in front of a sea of Navy Blue in the Great Southern Stand. It wasn’t long after that where McKay turned provider once again, flicking one over to Charlie Curnow for the Coleman Medallist to open his account in September action. From there, it was a much more even affair, with Carlton on top at the centre bounce but Sydney winning the ball back and counter attacking as it does so well. Errol Gulden pounced on a Carlton turnover to see the Swans hit the scoreboard, as the visitors peppered the goals to no avail there on in. Tom De Koning signalled Carlton’s intent with an early chasedown tackle, while the rest of the term turned largely into a scrap as the pressure was red hot. Just as the quarter looked to be petering out to a first break which would see the Blues take a one-goal lead, some combative forward pressure and an opportunistic finish from Matthew Cottrell (six first-quarter disposals) gave the Blues some breathing room.
Second quarters have been the strength of both sides in 2023, so there was plenty of intrigue how this one would play out given how tense the opening term was. From the outset, Caleb Marchbank set the tone, taking a courageous mark back with the flight of the ball to get the Blues going. There was a heart-in-mouth moment at the Blues’ attacking end when Matthew Owies nearly fluffed his lines being too unselfish, but he managed to sneak one home to open his account. Playing an inspired first half of football, Cottrell was once again involved, winning a ground ball and snapping truly to become the first multiple goal-kicker on the night. Carlton’s prime movers in the middle did brilliantly to get the ball going the team’s way, and nobody was more influential in the second term than Sam Walsh, accumulating nine disposals, five inside 50s and three clearances — the most of any player on the ground in all three categories. The Blues kept the Swans scoreless for a large portion of the term on the back of territorial dominance (16-8 inside 50s), but Joel Amartey’s long-range major brought the Swans back as the rain arrived at the home of football. However, in the dying stages, a courageous mark and classy finish from David Cuningham meant the Blues went into the main break with a 29-point buffer.
Opportunities going forward went begging for the Blues in the opening minutes of the third term, and it was a crucial flashpoint in the game. Three goals in a rush for the Swans brought the margin back to 11 points, the smallest gap in the game since the quarter-time break after a long spell of Blues domination. The Swans started to get their offensive game going in the premiership quarter after just two goals to half time, with the Blues backline struggling to limit a wave of opposition pressure. A moment of respite came courtesy of Jack Martin’s second goal from long range, before Carlton’s ever-trusty midfielders got involved: first, it was Adam Cerra with a typically classy finish that had Carlton fans in raptures, before Patrick Cripps marked his finals debut with a holding-the-ball tackle and goal to reinstate a handy buffer. Blake Acres began to get busy on the wing with eight third-quarter disposals and some crucial one-on-one wins, and his team needed it, with the Swans starting to rise once more. Back-to-back goals made it a 15-point ball game, as an injured McKay came from the field in the hands of trainers and didn’t return. Just as it looked like Sydney would have one last attack to solidify their momentum, the brilliant Cottrell ran down Gulden in the middle of the ground to ensure the Blues still had a bit of breathing room.
McKay was subbed out of the game at three-quarter time, replaced by small forward Jesse Motlop: it meant the Blues were a forward target short when under serious Swans pressure. An error in the defensive goal square allowed Luke Parker to pounce, bringing it back to a single-digit margin for the first time since quarter one. Close September action meant the game was played completely on edge for all players, coaches and the 92,036 in attendance at the MCG. Adam Saad was crucial as Carlton was camped on its last line for large portions of the term, putting in their experience of closing out wins against Collingwood, Melbourne and Gold Coast late in the season to good effect. When the game needed a hero, Blake Acres - from the same goal line as Jeff Garlett 10 years ago to the day - stood up, belying his injury from a fortnight ago to ram home a crucial major. As they had all night, the Swans didn’t go away, with a goal at the 30-second mark making for some nervy moments. However, the blissful siren sounded around the MCG with the Blues a goal to the good, ensuring their return to September action was a winning one.
CARLTON 3.2 7.5 10.6 11.8 (74)
SYDNEY 1.5 2.6 7.9 9.14 (68)
Carlton: Cottrell 2, Martin 2, Acres, Cerra, Cripps, Curnow, Docherty, Owies
Carlton: Walsh, Cottrell, Acres, Cerra, Saad, Hewett