‘Flabbergasted, bemused, shocked’: Carlton back in McKay, Lions sweating on backman’s fitness

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Harry McKay has declared himself ready for Carlton’s push to their first grand final since 1999, but Charlie Curnow’s Brisbane conqueror faces a battle to be fit for Saturday’s preliminary final.

The Blues are adamant they are a better side with McKay partnering Curnow up front – and will put their faith to the test on the most daunting of stages at the Gabba, where the Lions have won 13 straight.

Harry McKay is poised to return for Carlton and partner Charlie Curnow in attack.Credit: Getty Images

Barring any late mishaps, McKay and X-factor forward Jack Martin will make instant returns to the Blues’ 22, leaving Matt Kennedy and David Cuningham as the men most likely to be squeezed out in what is shaping to be the toughest selection in Michael Voss’s two years at Ikon Park.

The Lions are sweating on the fitness of defender Jack Payne, who had his foot in a moon boot last week to reduce swelling in his ankle. He resumed running on Tuesday and was restricted to light duties.

Payne will undergo a fitness test on Thursday but is in considerable doubt. The Lions pulled Darcy Gardiner out of the VFL on the weekend as cover should Payne not be available.

An unheralded member of the Lions defence, Payne blanketed Curnow when the sides last met in round eight, holding the Coleman medallist to just one goal in a performance that earned him eight of a maximum 10 votes from Chris Fagan and Michael Voss in the coaches’ award.

McKay’s availability has sparked further discussions over his place in the Blues’ side. Former Port Adelaide star Kane Cornes has urged Michael Voss to leave out McKay, saying he can’t be trusted in a big final with his wayward kicking.

The Blues have won seven of eight matches and average higher scores without McKay but the sample size is not large enough to draw conclusions. He played five games in the Blues’ nine-match winning streak, and was a central figure in three of those victories. Of the top 25 forward-50 targets in the league, McKay ranks 17th for the percentage of times his team scores.

But his absence was keenly felt last week when Curnow was well beaten by Steven May, and often double- and triple-teamed, as the soul marking target in the epic semi-final against Melbourne.

The week before, he fluffed two shots from close range but set up two goals before he was subbed out with concussion just before three-quarter time. The Blues were outscored by 15 points with him out, and missed his presence as a down-the-line marking option.

Carlton’s senior assistant coach Ash Hansen quipped he was “flabbergasted, bemused and shocked” by the chat the Blues were better without McKay, the Coleman Medal winner two years ago.

“I understand that it creates great debate, like who’s the best – Michael Jordan or LeBron?” Hansen said. “It’s a hard question, but this is a really easy question. We’re a better team with him in it. He’s in our side.”

McKay said he struggled for a few days after being concussed against the Swans before improving quickly.

“The first couple of days yeah, it’s not a great feeling you’re a little bit headachy,” McKay said on the Ben and Harry Podcast he runs with his brother Ben McKay.

“The best way to describe it is, you’re not quite right for a couple of days and then you take it pretty easy.”

“After two or three days you kind of start to feel normal again and then it’s just overnight. I think it was maybe day three or four and just quickly felt pretty good again. So yeah, I was lucky that I responded pretty well and bounced out of it as good as possible.

“It’s all tracking really well, back full training this week and all going well, I’ll be all good to play.”

McKay was dismissive of his blunder from the goal square against the Swans but chided himself for not following his set-shot routine in his set-shot miss.

“I was flat with the second one though one because I should have been kicking the ball well,” McKay said.

“I just got rushed and got really close to the mark and I was disappointed in myself for that one.

“Take away those misses, yeah I thought I was going alright.”

Hansen gave Kennedy and Cuningham a glimmer of hope for keeping their places.

Hansen said Kennedy’s capacity to play midfield and forward helped his cause. Kennedy was serviceable after half-time in a defensive job on Jake Lever but with McKay and Martin back the Blues have the artillery to take a more proactive approach to Harris Andrews.

Cuningham was subbed out but Hansen warned against reading too much into it, though the forward’s form has tapered after being vital to the Blues’ resurgence.

Matt Owies and Jesse Motlop are also not guaranteed starters but the pair are equal second and fourth on the Blues’ goalkicking this year so would be extremely unlucky to make way.

Meanwhile, fan favourite Jack Silvagni has signed a two-year deal, keeping him at the club his father and grandfather played at until the end of 2025.

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