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How Carlton reset its start line after 22 post-season injuries

Canberra Times logo Canberra Times 26/05/2014 Emma Quayle
Chris Judd and Andrew Carrazzo were two of the Carlton players who needed end-of-season surgery. © Mal Fairclough Chris Judd and Andrew Carrazzo were two of the Carlton players who needed end-of-season surgery.

Slow starts are not always cancelled out by fast finishes, even for the very best teams. Hawthorn had barely finished celebrating the 2008 premiership when it sent three-quarters of the team off for post-season surgeries, and the club spent much of the next year getting players back, getting them fit, losing others in the process and never looking like a settled side.

The Hawks won just nine games in 2009, never more than two in a row, and not enough to make the finals. “We had 15 post-season surgeries after the 2008 grand final and that in itself is one example of just how difficult it is to prepare properly for the following season,” said coach Alastair Clarkson at the end of his side’s latest (and much more stress-free) summer.

“We just had so many players who didn’t have perfect preparations. That makes it look like they’re tardy in their approach, but they just didn’t have really good pre-seasons because so many of them had surgeries.”

Carlton now knows the feeling. And the Blues are a side that snuck into last year’s finals series; there was no flag to wipe their tears on when 19 players needed post-season operations, and three more were injured in January.

Chris Judd, Andrew Carrazzo and Matthew Kreuzer were among those who needed end-of-season surgeries, with some of them going back for second or third operations. Lachie Henderson, Dennis Armfield and Sam Docherty were all held up after Christmas, just as others were starting to get back. The likes of Docherty, Troy Menzel, Nick Graham and Andrew McInnes also had chunks taken out of second, third or fourth pre-seasons that would have a) helped their development and b) left them better prepared to hold the fort until some of their more experienced teammates were feeling fully fit again.

First, Carlton needed to get its players back on the track. Then, new high-performance coach David Buttifant had to help them get fit again. The players who were healthy trained incredibly hard. For the others, as much work as possible was crammed into the last six weeks of pre-season, but a lot of it has been done in the first 10 rounds, simply because there was no other option and no other time in which to do it.

“It’s been hard. It’s been a real balancing act between pushing the guys as hard as possible and building their fitness up within games, but not overloading them. The last thing we wanted was for them to go backwards or get reinjured, but there comes a point where you have to push it and see what they can do,” said football manager Andrew McKay.

“Dale Thomas is a good example because, ideally, he wouldn’t have played until we were five or six weeks in. That was the plan we had for him, but he was good enough to come in and get his fitness up in the seniors, and there’s a fair bit of difference between what you can do in senior footy compared to VFL footy, so we’ve just had to be patient with him.

“We did a pretty good job getting almost every player up for the start of the season, but we knew we were a little bit underdone. And we knew there was an element of risk there, but we were willing to take that risk with a few of them.”

The club also needed the players to understand – to realise where they were at and what they could do, to trust the club and to realise their first handful of games were about more than winning and losing, while still trying to win as many as possible and not get too despondent when that didn’t happen or they didn’t play as well as they had hoped to.

“A lot of the boys pride themselves on training well and need to feel like they’ve trained well to play well. So when they hadn’t had the pre-seasons they wanted to have and weren’t playing as well as they’d planned to, it did play on a few of their minds,”  McKay said. “That was a battle for some of them, thinking: ‘I can’t train like I normally, how am I going to play well?’ and when you’re bringing players back when you’d ideally give them a little longer, you can expose them a bit.

“There are often things going on that people outside the club don’t know about –  someone might have the flu early in the week but has to get up and play, and when he doesn’t play well people starting questions. In a perfect world, they’d have a week off or you’d play them, but the need for their impact wouldn’t be as high because everyone else is fit and up.”

Slowly, the Blues have reduced their injury list. Gradually, they’ve gotten fitter. In the past five rounds, they have won four games. Now the question is: have they left their run too late? “I hope not. I’m confident we haven’t,” McKay said. “We need to win this week. That will get us back on an even keel, and if we can do that I think we’ll start feeling even better. We’re starting to show some real fight, and that’s giving us confidence.”

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