September 24, 2022

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It’s Carlton and Collingwood. It’s navy blue versus black and white. It’s tens of thousands of screaming fans at the MCG — and it’s the biggest rivalry in the AFL.

The 262nd and latest instalment will come on Sunday afternoon at the headquarters of AFL, as the Blues and Magpies come together in front of an expected crowd of 85,000-plus, with a lot on the line for both sides.

But why is the rivalry so intense? What are its origins? What keeps it going to this day?

1910 — The brawl, the statement and Tom Baxter’s clearance

The 1910 VFL grand final at the MCG is widely accepted as the source of all the animus between the two teams and their supporters.

That year, the Collingwood side contained two members of the Magpies’ eventual Team of the Century, in future legendary eight-time premiership coach Jock McHale playing in midfield and Dick Lee — who would go on to kick more than 700 goals for the club — at full-forward.

The Blues’ side was led by captain-coach Fred Elliott, who would become the first man to play 200 VFL games. The side also contained half-back flankers Billy Payne and Norm Clark, who had been part of Carlton’s first three flags between 1906 and 1908 — and Clark would later coach Carlton to two more premierships. 

That 1910 match was won by the Magpies, but was overshadowed by a wild brawl in the final quarter involving most of the players on the ground and a few people from off it.

The fallout saw one player from each side banned for 18 months, and one each for 12 months. The Pies appealed against the decision to ban rover Tom Baxter for a year, producing a written statement from teammate Richard Daykin that he had been in the brawl, not Baxter. 

That move paid off: The VFL accepted Daykin’s written explanation, Daykin retired from the league and headed to Western Australia. Baxter got off and went on to be Collingwood’s leading goal-kicker in 1911.

The Blues have not forgiven their rivals in more than a century since.

1979 — The Blues prevail over the Pies, thanks to Wayne Harmes and THAT punch from the boundary

However, if 1910 still burns in Carlton hearts, then the mere mention of the 1979 decider is guaranteed to produce a fiery response from any Pies follower, muttering about umpires and boundary lines and Wayne Harmes.

In the midst of the infamous ‘Collywobbles’ — the Magpies’ run of eight grand finals made over 32 years for eight straight losses — Collingwood played Carlton in 1979, and led for much of the first half before the Blues hit back to take the lead.

With the game in the balance in the final term, and Carlton leading by four points, Harmes skewed his kick in wet, muddy conditions. He then chased after his own footy and launched himself at the ball on the boundary in the right forward pocket.

This was one of football history’s big moments. Tens of thousands of Magpie fans at the ground, and countless more elsewhere, would forever swear the ball was over the line when Harmes punched it back inboard with his fist.

On the other hand, Blues supporters would remain gleefully adamant it was perfectly fair, with the ball sitting up in the goal square for Ken Sheldon to run in and shark it for the sealer. 

Blues president George Harris did his bit to ensure the rivalry would not lose its bite any time soon, with his one-liner:

“What’s better than beating Collingwood by 10 goals? Beating them by five points.”

That day of controversy has spurred arguments, set up bragging rights and filled quiz nights for two generations.

What makes a rivalry? ‘Hatred’, Blues’ Maclure says

A Carlton VFL player with a clenched fist watches his handball fly through the air as a Hawthorn defender closes in.
Former Carlton captain Mark Maclure played 243 times for the Blues, including 28 matches against rivals Collingwood.(Getty Images)

At centre half-forward that day was Blues great, now ABC Sport broadcaster Mark Maclure. 

Asked about 1979, Maclure says: “Harmes won it … [Collingwood] lost it, like every grand final they’d got to [during the Collywobbles], they lost that.”

Maclure played 243 games for Carlton — including 28 against the Magpies — won three premierships and was captain for his final season in 1986. The excitement is clear in his voice as he talks about the history between Carlton and Collingwood, and his own experiences.

“What makes a rivalry? ‘Hatred’,” he says. “Have you heard of that?”

“The players, they have a job to do. I played a lot on Billy Picken, who sadly passed away recently.

“He was great. I liked him. I loved [playing against Collingwood].

“If you played [Collingwood] in a grand final back then, there could be 113 [thousand], 115 thousand people there. it was just incredible.”

(Seating at the MCG has since been refigured and the stadium holds far less these days.)

He recalls the roar of the crowd in those matches as “extraordinary” and “unparalleled”.

While there was respect and fierce competition between players, things could go a step further when it came to the fans. 

“I went there one day for a game. I parked my car out the front of [Magpies home ground] Victoria Park,” Maclure says.

“We played. We won. I came back afterwards, the windscreen wiper was taken off. They’d let one of my tyres down!

“I thought to myself: ‘This is a bit over the top.’

“Another time, after a game there, a sheila came out and tried to stab me with her umbrella.” 

Times have changed since the old days.

It’s now 34 years since the Blues and the Magpies have met in a final — the last time was the qualifying final of 1988, when Carlton emerged victorious by 38 points.

Two AFL club presidents stage a mock fight for the cameras ahead of a match between the two sides at a suburban ground.
The days of Carlton and Collingwood playing at suburban grounds are gone, with the last match at Princes Park in 2000. (AAP: Joe Castro)

Traditionally, most games between the two teams would be played at their suburban home grounds of Princes Park and Victoria Park.

However, the last time the Blues and Magpies met outside of the MCG — aside from one game at the Gabba two years ago — was in 2000, at Princes Park.    

Of the 40 times the teams have played since then, only four times has the crowd been less than 50,000 — and one of those occasions was round 18 last year, where the familiar sounds of football echoed in an unnaturally empty stadium because of COVID-19.

The ball flies high as players from two AFL teams leap to contest, with a floodlight and empty stands in the background.
It didn’t feel right when Carlton and Collingwood played in front of an empty MCG in 2021 during COVID-19 restrictions.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Michael Willson)

This Sunday afternoon, the two teams will meet again in front of a sellout crowd — a win for Carlton will see them make the finals for the first time since 2013, and push Collingwood into an elimination final in week one.

A win for the Magpies could well mean their arch-rivals miss finals altogether, and leave the men in black and white in the top four, a year after finishing 17th.

The rivalry does not require both teams to be competing at the pointy end of the season — but it doesn’t hurt, according to Maclure.

“It’s fabulous for footy! They’re the two biggest names in the country. It’s like Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman,” Maclure says.

“They [Collingwood] are just doing their best as well. We’ve been failing for 20 years. They’ve come good [in 2022].

“They are well capable of making top four … but will they? If we take that away from them [by winning on Sunday], they’ll hate that too.”

‘When players ran down the race, they felt it,’ Malthouse says

A picture of a coach talking to his team between quarters, taken from between the players facing him.
Former Magpies and Blues coach Mick Malthouse says he tried not to make too much of the rivalry to avoid “players who’ve already played the game before they run out”.(Getty Images: Mark Dadswell)

Another person who knows the rivalry well is former Collingwood and Carlton coach Mick Malthouse, who is now a commentator for ABC Sport.

He played for St Kilda and Richmond, then coached at Footscray and West Coast — where he won two premierships — before arriving as coach at Collingwood, a team he had barracked for while growing up.

Malthouse won a flag with the Magpies in 2010 and took the team to four grand finals before later taking over the Blues.

“As a coach, [the rivalry] didn’t worry me … but you knew the committee members who had grown up playing for, or supporting [the team], got into it,” he says.

“For supporters, there was definitely a ‘suburb v suburb’, ‘culture v culture’ history to the games.

“By the time I was coaching, football was more about strategy than the ‘stir-up’.

“But, obviously, when players ran down the race, they felt it. They were big crowds, and often hostile crowds.

“I’m a lover of football history. I don’t want to downplay [the rivalry], but I didn’t want to make too much of it [as coach], and have players who’ve already played the game before they run out.”

A big group of Collingwood AFL fans celebrate in the stands,  as one woman holds a giant wooden spoon above her.
Collingwood fans are never slow to put one over on their Carlton counterparts, such as when the Blues won the wooden spoon in 2002.(Getty Images: Hamish Blair)

Malthouse points to the excitement from having both the Blues and Magpies still live chances this late in the season.  

“These are the games you just have to go to. That’s when the past enters into it. You have older players or older supporters relive those days in the 70s when this was probably at its peak,” he says.

Malthouse says a Carlton win this weekend, and another meeting in an elimination final “wouldn’t surprise”.

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