TAYLA Harris has answered her critics in emphatic fashion, delivering an impressive performance as Carlton responded from last week's disappointment to hold off a fast-finishing Western Bulldogs outfit in the Pride Game at the VU Whitten Oval on Saturday.
Having been described as 'useless' by opponent Stacey Livingstone last week, Harris was a constant threat both in the air and on ground level in the Blues' forward line to inspire her side to a comfortable 21-point victory over the Dogs.
BLUES BEAT BULLDOGS Full match coverage and stats
The 8.3 (51) to 4.6 (30) win was Carlton's second victory in three matches to start the AFLW season, ensuring the Blues remained in the hunt in a competitive and strong Conference B.
Harris finished with one goal to go with 13 disposals and four marks, also playing a key role in a number of other Carlton goals, while clever forward Georgia Gee kicked three majors as the duo combined to produce a lively display in attack.
Young midfield pair Madison Prespakis (24 disposals, six tackles) and Lucy McEvoy (19 disposals, one goal) were also dominant, as the Blues held off some late nerves to secure a crucial win.
Skipper Ellie Blackburn (20 disposals, four tackles) was her side's best, but she couldn't drag the hosts over the line as a slow start came back to haunt the Bulldogs.
Ironically, after the week she had endured, it was a clean Harris groundball get that resulted in a nice handball to Gee for the game's first goal.
That sparked a run of three straight majors to open the game for the Blues, with a Lauren Brazzale bomb from outside 50m and a maiden AFLW goal for McEvoy stretching their early lead.
Fortunately for the hosts, a clever Bonnie Toogood snap stemmed the bleeding just prior to quarter time, before Elisabeth Georgostathis kicked the second term's only major to reduce the margin to just four points at the main change.
Carlton needed a steadier and fortunately Gee was on hand to provide it, restoring order to a suddenly shaky Blues outfit when she crumbed nicely and put through her second to start the third quarter.
Another nice pick-up on ground level from Harris resulted in a high free kick and her first goal for the afternoon, as slowly but surely the visitors rebuilt their early advantage.
However, the Dogs were kicking into a handy breeze in the final quarter and were inspired by the sheer brilliance of Kirsten McLeod.
After nearly kicking one of the all-time great goals, only for her sublime running effort to be touched on the line, the speedy forward then snapped the first of the final term from deep inside the pocket to reduce the margin.
With the Blues in need of a steadier, Darcy Vescio – who had alternated between either end of the field throughout the afternoon – crumbed at the back of the pack to give the visitors breathing space again.
But the drama wasn't over, with Kirsty Lamb snapping through a nice goal just moments later to whittle the margin back into single figures.
However, just when the Blues looked nervous, Nicola Stevens finished a flowing attacking move and Gee added her third to ensure the points were secured.
It was over when…
The Blues looked rocky when the Dogs reduced the margin to just nine points in the final term, but an impressive flowing move resulted in Nicola Stevens marking deep inside the pocket and converting. Stevens had struggled in her new position up forward throughout the first two weeks of the season, but was much more of a threat on Saturday and deserved to kick the sealer.
Carlton will soon start running out of superlatives for Madison Prespakis. The young midfielder was again superb on Saturday, constantly willing her side forward at stoppages and spreading around the ground. She finished with 24 disposals and six tackles in what was a clear best on ground display.
The ladder now
It already looks very congested in an even and competitive Conference B. Nearly halfway through the home and away season, four of the seven teams in that particular division are locked on two wins. Fremantle and Collingwood will get the opportunity to surge ahead when they meet on Saturday night, but Carlton and Melbourne are trailing narrowly. Each game is now becoming nearly make-or-break for the Western Bulldogs, who have only one win.
The first blow
After the week Tayla Harris had endured, having been labelled 'useless' on ground level by her opponent Stacey Livingstone after last round's loss to Collingwood, the Carlton star couldn't have got Saturday's contest off to a better start. Collecting cleanly on ground level after a marking contest, Harris dished a lovely handball to Georgia Gee for the game's opening goal. What a way to answer her critics.
"Brave is a really good word (to describe the performance). At one stage in the last quarter, I was looking for some fresh legs and [football boss] Debbie Lee was the only one sitting on the bench. I looked at her and she said 'no' and that was it. We had to keep pushing on. In the end, there were quite a few of them out on their legs, but they kept battling on." - Western Bulldogs coach Nathan Burke.
"We had a breeze (in the first quarter) that we wanted to maximise. We were able to capitalise with three goals early and that made it difficult for them chasing. We knew that the last quarter was going to be in their favour a fair bit … it was just like Test cricket. What you make in the first innings is the number the team batting second needs to make." - Carlton coach Daniel Harford.
The Western Bulldogs face a daunting road trip when they travel to Leederville Oval to meet West Coast next Saturday night, while Carlton also heads interstate to meet reigning premiers Adelaide at Hisense Stadium next Sunday afternoon.
WESTERN BULLDOGS 1.0 2.3 2.3 4.6 (30)
CARLTON 3.1 3.1 5.3 8.3 (51)
Western Bulldogs: Toogood, Georgostathis, McLeod, Lamb
Carlton: Gee 3, Brazzale, McEvoy, Harris, Vescio, Stevens
Western Bulldogs: Blackburn, McCarthy, Lochland, Newton, Lamb, Toogood
Carlton: Prespakis, McEvoy, Laloifi, Harris, Gee, Egan, Vescio
Western Bulldogs: Gogos (knee), McCarthy (nose), Berry (concussion)
Western Bulldogs: Nil
Carlton: Wilson (illness) replaced in selected side by Vernon
Official crowd: 8259 at VU Whitten Oval