IT WAS Hansen's Blues, and there was plenty of MMMBop at Marvel Stadium.
Stepping in for an absent Michael Voss on Thursday night, Ash Hansen masterminded a masterclass. A hardened Carlton withstood everything thrown at it against last year's Grand Finalists, the Western Bulldogs, grinding out a 12-point victory.
After a summer spent preaching team-over-individual, the Blues had part-timers filling vacancies in the coaches' box and on-field contributors in every phase of the game to edge to a significant 16.6 (102) to 13.12 (90) win.
BULLDOGS v BLUES Full match coverage and stats
Patrick Cripps (35 disposals, 11 clearances, two goals) continued an outstanding start to the year to once again establish himself as the game's best player, while Sam Walsh (34 disposals, five clearances) was prolific in a brave comeback performance.
Charlie Curnow looked like the Charlie Curnow of old, kicking five goals to go with 16 disposals and four marks. Most pleasing was the partnership he formed with Harry McKay that Carlton has long dreamed of, with the reigning Coleman Medal winner chipping in with four goals of his own to complement 15 disposals and 12 grabs.
The Bulldogs, now 0-2 to start the year, had started slowly but made a contest of the game in the second half. Jack Macrae (34 disposals, five clearances) won the footy at will, while Tim English (24 disposals, 21 hitouts, one goal) was arguably their best player.
But this was a night about Carlton, whose resurgence was reflected by Curnow's performance.
The young key forward had himself set the pace of the game when he snapped truly within 20 seconds of the bounce. It kickstarted a frenzied, ferocious quarter of football where Carlton made most of the running. Three straight goals midway through the first term, combined with four more to start the second, opened a 31-point lead by the main break.
But the Blues had thrown away a sizeable lead to the Dogs in a frustrating loss last year, and threatened to do likewise again. A careless off-the-ball free kick against Mitch McGovern sparked a run of four Bulldogs goals out of five to start the third term, as the deficit was quickly whittled back to just 12 points.
Carlton needed a steadier. If Curnow's third was just the tonic, then his fourth – a classic set-shot from deep inside the forward pocket – was enough to have the Blues faithful dreaming of their first 2-0 start in a decade.
The Dogs fought valiantly. Marcus Bontempelli converted a composed shot, Mitch Hannan snapped a bending effort around his body, while a number of others missed gilt-edged opportunities. But a newfound sense of maturity saw Carlton pass its next test with flying colours.
Quick comeback sparks speedy Sam
It was hard to believe it had been just 38 days between Sam Walsh suffering a syndesmosis injury and his remarkable comeback game on Thursday night. Walsh's performance was almost just as incredible as his speedy return, with the reigning Blues best and fairest producing a dazzling display to emerge as one of the game's most influential players. Walsh had 10 disposals to quarter-time alone, before finishing with 34 touches that complemented five clearances, four tackles and seven score involvements. With the COVID-stricken Adam Cerra set to return in round three, the Blues' midfield is growing more dangerous by the week.
Dogs can take heart despite gloomy start
The Western Bulldogs are 0-2, but they have been here before. Of the 63 teams that have started 0-2 in the AFL era before this season, only eight have made finals. The Dogs, having done so in 2020, are one of them. Losses to Melbourne and now Carlton to start the year isn't ideal, but Luke Beveridge has roused his team from positions like these before. What's more, of the eight to have made finals from 0-2 starts, three were achieved last year when Brisbane, Greater Western Sydney and Essendon did so. It's going to be a tough task, but you can never write off this Bulldogs outfit.
Carlton's COVID blues prove no issue
With senior coach Michael Voss, football boss Brad Lloyd, midfield coach Tim Clarke and important playing duo Adam Cerra and Jack Martin stuck in the AFL's health and safety protocols, there had rightly been concern over Carlton's focus leading into Thursday night's clash. It proved no issue. With development coaches Dan O'Keefe and Torin Baker filling line duties through the midfield and forward line respectively, and with retired former great Kade Simpson volunteering on the bench, every Blue was asked to step up. One-game interim coach Ash Hansen filled in for Voss in the big chair and led Carlton to one of its most satisfying wins in recent memory.
WESTERN BULLDOGS 4.1 7.3 11.5 13.12 (90)
CARLTON 5.2 12.4 14.5 16.6 (102)
Western Bulldogs: Liberatore 2, Scott 2, Hannan 2, English, Ugle-Hagan, Treloar, Naughton, Dale, Weightman, Bontempelli
Carlton: Curnow 5, McKay 4, Cripps 2, Silvagni 2, Kennedy, Owies, Fisher
Western Bulldogs: English, Macrae, Treloar, Liberatore, Bontempelli, Dunkley
Carlton: Cripps, Hewett, Curnow, McKay, Walsh, Kennedy, Fisher
Western Bulldogs: Crozier (fainted)
Carlton: McDonald (back)
Western Bulldogs: B.Williams (replaced H.Crozier)
Carlton: L.Plowman (replaced O.McDonald)
Crowd: 34,961 at Marvel Stadium