‘Carlton vs. Collingwood’ (And Other Things That Used To Matter)

The Foxtel TV Guide describes Carlton vs. Collingwood as the greatest rivalry in Australian sports.

The description is not meant ironically. There was a time where presumably it was true, but 1970 isn’t walking through that door.

This rivalry has had relevant moments more recently than 1970, but it doesn’t feel like it, and in the first 15 minutes of Friday night’s anti-blockbuster – a confused, frenetic comedy of errors, of dropped marks, handballs to nowhere and uncontested Jack Crisp kicks out on the full – it really didn’t feel like it.

All the Carlton vs. Collingwood games of recent vintage have the same odd, clumsy, lethargic vibe to them. They’re always sloppy, always laboured, and most of the time they’re really cold. The games aren’t games as much as requiems – sad songs about a time when different things used to matter. It was, in a perfect, crushing way, fitting that Dale Thomas kicked the first goal on Friday night.

Rivalries are born out of closeness – geographical closeness or competitive closeness. Hawthorn vs. Geelong is the greatest rivalry in Australian sports right now, because they’re two teams whose greatness intersected at the perfect time.

Carlton and Collingwood haven’t truly intersected as two really good, evenly matched teams since the early 90s. The Blues were excellent in 2011, but the Pies were transcendent. Clashes in the Chris Judd era were built up as epics, but they never got there. Not since 1988 have both Collingwood and Carlton finished in the top four.

The result is a lot of games over the past two decades like Friday night, games defined by a handful of good players getting sucked into and lost in the night, subsumed by the mediocrity around them. Kade Simpson streams out of defence and fires a simple uncontested handball to Dale Thomas that skids across the ground and finds a different teammate that Simpson didn’t even know was there. Steele Sidebottom takes his time, gathers himself, then chips a 15 metre kick out of defence to a 50/50 contest in the corridor. So it goes.

Carlton-Collingwood clashes post-2000 have been defined by things that don’t really have much to do with winning games of football. There was the famous tank-off in 2005, the 2010 game where Chris Judd (deservedly) got three votes in a 53-point loss, the Luke Ball ACL game in 2012 that seemed to signal the end of Collingwood’s reign and the beginning of Carlton’s (Carlton’s reign lasted five or six days), the 2014 Sunday night game that was most memorable for being too cold, and last year in round 7 in the wet, where Ken Sakata and I sat in the stands and talked a lot about Nick Graham.

Friday night was another strange, stunted game, the type where a team doesn’t score a single point in the first 15 minutes then reels off ten unanswered goals in quick succession; the type where the continued absence of Caleb Marchbank is shaped as being meaningful.

The season was ‘on the line’ for both teams, in the sense that a loss would have further extinguished Carlton’s finals hopes that had been extinguished some time before round one, and might have signalled a ‘crisis’ for Nathan Buckley, whose team hasn’t won more games than it has lost for five years.

Ultimately, Collingwood had a few more accomplished bodies around the ball and a bit more dynamism and conviction going forward. Take Bryce Gibbs and Sam Docherty out of Carlton and the scales of competence that the Blues largely sat the right side of last season begin to tip the other way. Incompetence isn’t the worst thing – the Blues are building and they have enough curious pieces to make the present worth watching.

The Pies are fine – talented and powerful enough to dispatch inferior teams and give a scare to the elite teams. But unless they get more games out of Jamie Elliott, Ben Reid, Jordan De Goey and Daniel Wells than they’re going to, they will top out as masters of the honourable loss.

Both these teams are going somewhere. Collingwood’s present is more bearable but more confronting too. Both sides are a long way from playing games against each other that matter, though, and with each meaningless contest they labour through, the blue and white against the black and white begins to mean less and less, looking more and more just like a dull colour scheme on a cold night.