There is arguably no bigger rivalry in Australian club sport than between Collingwood and Carlton.
There has been little love lost between the two sides since 1892, when Collingwood were beaten by Carlton in their first game ever as a club.
Since the start of the VFL in 1897 (which later became the AFL), the Pies and Blues have faced each other more than any other team.
Their record after 261 games stands about as close as could be — 129 wins to Carlton, 128 to Collingwood and four draws.
In recent years, the time-tested rivalry has been short of big games.
The last final that the two teams faced off in was in 1988. Despite both teams winning flags since then, the success of each side has often been accompanied by the struggles of the other.
The old rivals came into 2022 in a similar situation: having missed finals the year before and with a new coach in tow.
Carlton — under coach Michael Voss — started the year hot and were in the top four after 13 rounds.
Collingwood — under Craig McRae — have picked up steam as the season has progressed, embarking on a remarkable 11-game winning streak.
The Blues and Pies face off for the 262nd time in VFL/AFL history on Sunday, with the stakes as high as they have been for decades.
A Carlton win will guarantee a spot in the top eight, while a loss might send them on holidays early.
Collingwood needs to win to secure a place in the top four and earn the double chance, while a loss could see them face Richmond (or Carlton again) in week one of the finals.
The game has already been declared as a sell-out. Home-and-away season games just don’t get much bigger, or more important, than this.
Victory is rated
The modern AFL has a variety of different styles of play on show on a week-to-week basis. Coaches have a tough job of balancing the players they have at their disposal with successful strategies for creating a winning side.
Coaches are also a product of their experiences to date. Both McRae and Voss have leaned on what they have learned at their previous employers to underwrite their current success.
The Pies have leaned on a devil-may-care attitude to attacking quickly from turnovers, informed by Richmond’s recent success. Collingwood swarms ball carriers and counterattacks in waves, directly towards goal.
The Blues, by contrast, are informed by Voss’s most recent stint as Port’s midfield coach. Supplemented by solid off-season recruiting, the Blues have had a focus on winning games of footy through winning contested ball, and making teams pay when they do so.
However, both sides have evolved as the season has progressed, particularly in defence.
Through the first 13 rounds, Carlton scored the most points per clearance of any team.
The well-balanced midfield group led by Cripps, Hewett, Cerra and Walsh were able to not only win ball at the coalface but transition it to their deadly forward set-up.
Since then, teams have been able to mollify the Blues’ impact at stoppages, but at the expense of their own attacks. Carlton’s deadly midfield evolved into one that put the clamps on opposition sides.
Despite the league-wide focus on their attack — led by young future and former All Australians in Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay — it’s Carlton’s deeper defence that has shouldered the load in recent weeks.
Carlton’s back line has helped keep the Blues in games, despite injury-related absences for Cerra, Hewett and Kennedy.
This loss of midfield depth in recent weeks has hurt their ability to win and move the ball in the middle of the ground.
But, led by perennial All Australian candidate Jacob Weitering and recent recruit Lewis Young, the Blues have been able to cover a number of bases all at once.
Collingwood’s evolution through the year is similar. The attacking intent has largely stayed in the Pies rebounding attack, but the defence has stood up more and more as the season has progressed.
A freewheeling counterattack attack is all for nought if there isn’t solid support behind it.
Darcy Moore and Jeremy Howe have played massive roles for the Pies, and have allowed their rebounding defenders to create quickly to utilise the Pies’ plethora of explosive forwards.
Both clean up a lot of ball, loose and hard, due to the solid work of Collingwood’s swarming defence up the ground.
When opponents win loose ball in general play, the Pies often send multiple players to the ball. Usually, this results in a pressured kick and handball, sometimes resulting in a quick Collingwood counterattack.
This can run into issues if opposition sides can absorb the first wave or two of pressure, just as Sydney did last week.
The Pies have used the centre square on transition from defensive turnovers more than any other team this year, but couldn’t find this space against the Swans.
It’s also worth noting that the Swans are the only team to beat the Pies during the time Albo has been Prime Minister.
If the Pies can get the game on their terms, they are very hard for other teams to stop.
Meet me in the middle
The two teams have met once this year, playing out an absolute thriller in late May. The game see-sawed throughout, with Carlton mounting a mighty comeback deep into the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately for Blues fans, a Jack Silvagni snap at goal with 20 seconds to go slid wide and they fell just four points short. For Collingwood fans, it was a euphoric victory, and one that set the side firmly into finals contention.
Much of the game was driven through action from the middle of the ground, with the centre bounce proving to be a crucial score source for both teams.
Carlton were also able to lock the Pies counterattack down through the middle of the ground, forcing them wide when rebounding from defence.
If they can force the game into the clinches and out wide again, the Blues may have a real chance to earn their place in September.
We keep waiting
The last time that Carlton and Collingwood played in the last game of the season with a finals spot on the line for one team was a lifetime or two ago.
In 1928, the Blues entered round 18 needing to beat the Pies to make the final four in front of 30,000 fans at Victoria Park.
The Blues led all day, winning by 20 points. Ultimately, Collingwood had the last laugh, winning the premiership as part of their streak of four straight flags.
This Sunday’s match shapes as having the same significance.
While both teams have a real chance of deep September action this year, the focus is more about their respective builds for the future.
Both clubs have loaded up with promising young talent and will be hoping to be perennial contenders. Despite the long wait between finals between both teams, we could see several in the years to come.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC