EVERYTHING went to plan for Carlton on Sunday, with the team's gritty victory over Collingwood preceded by Charlie Curnow taking a significant step in his long road to an AFL comeback.
Competing in an unofficial hitout at Ikon Park, Curnow played just over three quarters and kicked one goal in what were his first minutes in well over two years following a series of debilitating knee injuries.
MAGPIES v BLUES Full match coverage and stats
Curnow jumped for a series of trademark high grabs and showed no discomfort in his right knee, playing in a hastily arranged fixture made up of non-playing Carlton, Collingwood, Hawthorn and Melbourne AFL-listed players.
The 24-year-old had originally been slated to make his return in a VFL clash against Collingwood on Sunday morning, though that match was postponed due to Victoria's recent COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown.
But his performance in the non-competitive fixture still delighted Carlton officials, who believe the athletic key forward remains on track to return at AFL level at some stage later this year.
Curnow hasn't played for Carlton since suffering medial ligament damage to his right knee in a game against Fremantle in June 2019. He has since suffered a dislocation, a fracture and a hairline stress response to the same knee.
"They had a bit of match simulation and he looked good. He got out there, he ran around, he was smiling. Everyone was really happy to see him out there," Blues coach David Teague said after his side's 29-point win.
"From a performance point of view, he was a little bit rusty. He actually looked really good on ground level, his groundball takes were really clean. He did go for one big grab late in the game, but he didn't quite mark it.
"It was exciting to see him launching at the ball the way we know Charlie can. He'll get a lot of confidence out of that. Now we need to see how he pulls up and the recovery phase, but it was a pleasing outing for him."
Carlton's relief as Curnow finished the match unscathed turned to ecstasy later in the day, with the AFL team keeping its faint finals hopes alive with a comeback win over arch rivals Collingwood.
The Blues moved to within a game of the eighth-placed Bombers by the end of the match, with winnable fixtures against North Melbourne, St Kilda and Gold Coast – all at Marvel Stadium – slated for their next three games.
However, with work – and a slice of fortune – still required for the club to play finals, Teague rejected suggestions the 2021 season would be deemed a 'failure' should his improving team not make it to September.
"I don't think it's a failure," Teague said.
"It's about getting better, it's about connecting and it's about this group going forward. I think particularly over the last four or five weeks, we've seen some growth and we need to continue to grow.
"That's where we're at right now. Yes, this football club wants to play finals and we want to play finals every year, but where we're at right now, I'm really enjoying seeing some of the guys' individual improvement and then the collectiveness and the cohesion.
"Guys are getting to play games together. To look at Zac Williams and Adam Saad playing together across half-back today, their ability to gel with their teammates … that will only get better going forward and will give us the best chance of playing finals in the future."
Collingwood had stormed to a 24-point lead in the second quarter and threatened to take the game away from Carlton completely, only to concede six unanswered goals in the final quarter.
Having finished matches strongly against St Kilda and Richmond over the last fortnight, the club's interim coach Robert Harvey questioned whether the fadeout was due to a hint of complacency.
"I felt like stoppage was a bit of an issue all day," Harvey said.
"We were masking over that a little bit with some of our ball use, which was really sharp in the first two-and-a-half quarters. But the dam wall broke a bit in the last quarter.
"We'd been finishing games well recently, so whether there was a subconscious expectation that we were going to do that again … obviously, they were all over us in the last quarter and we couldn't win a contest anywhere.
"In the end, they just overran us in that last 70 minutes of the game."