Carlton need to bridge the gulf between Patrick Cripps and next best

In this season, providing greater support for the 195-centimetre packhorse in the Carlton midfield will be important for the Blues, whose young midfield colts – now including Will Setterfield and the exceptional first-year player Sam Walsh – will need time before they have the strength, stamina and experience to ease the burden on their captain.

In 2018, no AFL player appeared in more centre bounces than Cripps, who was in the centre square a whopping 511 times, which was 25 more than the next highest player, the Brownlow medallist Tom Mitchell.

If Cripps appeared to cop quite a bit of punishment in the trenches last year, neither Cripps nor the Blues view the physical toll as a major issue. They note – as Greg ‘‘Diesel’’ Williams, perhaps the greatest of all inside midfielders, did – that Cripps is built to play his game of extraction.

‘‘I don’t think it matters at 25,’’ Willams said (Cripps is actually 24). ‘‘He’s super strong, he’s fit and he’s in his prime.’’

Williams had a simple solution for supporting Cripps, whose output relative to his teammates is redolent of Nathan Buckley in the late 1990s at Collingwood, albeit Buckley’s style involved far fewer collisions and perhaps more burst running.

‘‘The only way to help is to have better players around him.’’

Carlton reckons that the likes of Dow, Petrevski-Seton, Fisher and Setterfield – the latter having serious height (190 centimetres) – have gained body strength and will be the engines of midfield improvement this season.

Williams believes that it is the hard running that would a greater toll on Cripps than the thwack of bodies. ‘‘The tough stuff in there wouldn’t worry him a bit.’’

Of the many balls Cripps gets, 58.5 per cent are contested, which is the third-highest percentage in the competition, behind (surprisingly) Hugh Greenwood of the Crows and North’s midfield tractor, Ben Cunnington.

Improving his running and outside game would serve two purposes: it would give Cripps a skill set more comparable to Dusty, Fyfe and Dangerfield – making it harder for taggers to lock him down – and perhaps enhance his capacity as a part-time forward. Cripps is understood to have improved his running capacity further over summer, reducing his two-kilometre time significantly. The Blues, acknowledging that he will never be a super aerobic runner, say that he’s a very good AFL runner today.

The burden on Cripps has arguably increased off the park, given that he was appointed captain and then saw the man he shares those duties with, Docherty, grounded again.

If Cripps’ captaincy is a blank canvas, Carlton insiders reckon the country lad from Northampton, WA, will be a ‘‘knockabout’’’ style of skipper, with strong opinions and a hard edge. In style, he seems more likely to emulate Jonathan Brown than, say, Tom Harley – and, indeed, as Mark Maclure discovered when Brown stood next to Cripps at Fox Footy, Cripps is even taller than the Lions’ centre half-forward.

In 2019, Carlton’s fortunes will rest more on what the Blues do to help Patrick Cripps than what Cripps does to help Carlton.

Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age. He writes news, commentary and analysis on a variety of other sports.

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