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When Patrick Cripps attends this year’s annual reunion of Brownlow medallists – at the count as the latest member of their exclusive club – the Carlton captain should seek out Bob Skilton.
Skilton, a three-time Brownlow medallist, did not play in a final – a semi-final against St Kilda – until his 218th game. It was 1970. A year later, Skilton retired. The storyline has always been defined by that long wait to play a final.
Blues captain Patrick Cripps has won a Brownlow but never played in a final.Credit: Getty Images
Cripps this weekend will play his 170th AFL match. He, as Skilton did for 13 years after his league debut with South Melbourne, is waiting to know what September is all about.
Cripps will be 29 next year – and we are watching, as the game did with Skilton, a superb individual be denied team success through no fault of his own.
Skilton played in 88 wins and three draws through his 237 games with South Melbourne from 1956-1971. Cripps has 53 wins and two draws from his 169 matches. The comparison is striking and disheartening.
Skilton was South Melbourne by the fortune (or misfortune) of his birthplace. Cripps is Carlton by the lottery known as the AFL national draft – the No.13 pick in 2013.
In that same draft, the Western Bulldogs took Marcus Bontempelli at No.4. He has played 12 finals, including a premiership in 2016 and a losing grand final in 2021. He will add to this tally again in September.
Does Cripps, a Western Australian, ever wonder what could have been if he was drafted to a team in his home state? Had he stayed in Perth rather than been sent to Princes Park, he could have been a West Coast premiership player in 2018. The Eagles took Dom Sheed with pick No.11 in that 2013 national draft.
Carlton – and Cripps – once again find themselves at the crossroads and under pressure. After losing three consecutive games against the Brisbane Lions, Western Bulldogs and Collingwood to slip to 11th with percentage now below 100, the Blues are in a must-win situation when they take on Skilton’s “Bloods” in Sydney on Friday night.
Cripps will be looking at his 11th season without finals.
Cripps is from WA and would have played in a premiership in 2018 had he been drafted by the Eagles.Credit: Getty Images
Not even Bobby, for all his want for the Swans to rebound after last year’s grand final misery, would wish that on Cripps.
Everyone felt the same with the late Trevor Barker, who was the spirit of St Kilda when Moorabbin was a quirky part of the suburban battles of a VFL competition. Many clubs tried to poach the high-flyer, but he stayed loyal to his Saints despite the club collecting seven wooden spoons during his exciting 14-year career that featured just 60 wins from 230 games … and no final.
Inaugural Gold Coast midfielder David Swallow will play his 208th AFL game on Saturday night against the Western Bulldogs in Darwin. He has no finals appearances to his name, and has watched his teammates at the Suns vanish for premiership glory elsewhere – Tom Lynch and Dion Prestia at Richmond, Steven May with the Demons.
As Skilton knows, loyalty has its price. Swallow is on the wrong side of 30 – and his Suns are still treading water in the middle third of the ladder. There is no prospect of finals action on the Gold Coast horizon.
Bob Skilton didn’t play a final until 2018 games into hs career.Credit: Getty Images
Unlike Barker, Skilton and Swallow, Cripps is surrounded by quality teammates and fellow All-Australians: Coleman medallists Harry McKay and Charlie Curnow, Jacob Weitering, Adam Saad, Sam Walsh and Sam Docherty.
Understandably, the lack of success brings into question the tactical strength of coach Michael Voss and his ability to maximise the talent on the Carlton list. Voss is a brilliant motivator with a commanding presence. But his game plan has no identity.
There are deficiencies in all three phases of Carlton’s game.
The Blues are the definition of mediocrity. They rank 12th for defence and 13th in offence and, alarmingly, have lost midfield dominance which was the cornerstone of the side’s success during the first half of last season when they won eight of the first 10 games.
Cripps is a calm figure who rarely loses his cool. It was unusual to witness him exchange robust words with Voss on the sidelines during last Sunday’s loss to Collingwood – perhaps this is a sign of his frustration with his team getting repeatedly out-coached.
Carlton have no flexibility with their salary cap, having dished out ludicrous long-term contracts to Zac Williams, Adam Cerra, George Hewett, Curnow and McKay. Even battling ruckman Marc Pittonet received a four-year contract extension.
Pittonet’s extension means young ruckman Tom De Koning, the side’s most talented young player outside of Sam Walsh, will most likely demand a trade at season’s end. This will further expose the dearth of young talent at Carlton.
Cripps is contracted until the end of 2027, and his dream to play and win finals hinges on this playing group. Carlton have cashed in all of their poker chips.
Cripps’ best asset is his powerful, contested ball-winning ability. Like Skilton, he is best suited to succeed in big finals.
It’s scary to think he may never get the chance.
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