The Cats flexed a little of their muscle, and the stars came out to play at Kardinia Park in the last pre-season game for both Geelong and Essendon.

Of the JLT games I’ve seen so far this year, this one appeared to have a little bit of niggle in it at times, which I loved seeing. Nothing too serious, but enough to see a couple of free kicks paid… soft free kicks. I’ll get to that later.

The results of these games don’t matter, but the style of play is important. Which team was willing to take a risk? Who stood up and put their hand up for a round one berth? And who underwhelmed?

Let’s jump in straight away and pull it apart.

So we’ll start with the move of Gary Ablett into the forward pocket. On face value, you look at his stats and immediately think that this game was un-Ablett-like. That may be so, as we’re used to seeing Gaz rack up those kind of numbers in a single quarter.

But in 2019, we are looking at efficiency as the measure of Gary Ablett’s success, and here’s something you can hold onto. A third of those twelve possessions led directly to goals. Yep, Ablett kicked one himself, but he also had three direct goal assists for the evening. That’s his role now – to create scoreboard impact, and in this final hit out before the real stuff starts, he was more than effective in doing so.

Between him and Luke Dahlhaus, they shared six direct goal assists, and with those two playing in the forward half, there will be many beneficiaries of their vision and creativity with the footy. Dahlhaus’ handball over his shoulder in the third quarter to set up Gary Rohan’s third major was an absolute ripper.

After a couple of early turnovers, the former Dog seemed to settle into his role at half forward, and provided a huge headache for the Bomber defence, particularly when they had the ball. He led the Cats in tackles, with eight for the game.

As I continued to watch, I started to wonder whether Ablett could be shifted to half back when a cool head is required in 2019. His kicking to position is excellent, and as players like Jake Lloyd and Wayne Milera rack up numbers off half back, the former without really doing much actual defending, I thought Ablett would be the perfect man to send the Cats into attack if things weren’t working out up forward.

As much as I think Gaz can play anywhere, I have to wonder whether he’ll actually be happy playing cameos up forward when he’s so used to being the leading man?

The Bombers will come away looking at a few bright spots, and also a few concerns that we’ll get to as well..

Jake Stringer looks set to have a big year. Numbers don’t tell the story with him tonight – he looked dangerous whenever he was near the ball. His burst off half back in the third quarter, leaving Tim Kelly in his wake to run through the guts and create a goal for David Myers was exactly what the Bombers need from him. They have class players, but only a few have that kind of explosive brilliance (Shiel and Merrett).

The work of Dylan Shiel would bring a smile to many Bomber faces as well. Whilst still a little messy by foot, his ability to win the ball and get Essendon inside 50 will add to their team this season, and we saw glimpses of it tonight. His creative handball off half back created opportunity from what easily could’ve been just another series of safe, expected handballs to a stationary player. He sees things unfolding within the game, and whilst he occasionally brings them undone by foot, his handball skills to set teammates running are excellent.

And then there was Joe Daniher. He is really still finding his feet, but there were definite signs, and that’s what you’re wanting two weeks out from the season. He got through another game without any signs of the OP that sidelined him last year, so hopefully it is smooth sailing into the season from here.

Whilst many will point to his big mark in the fourth quarter as the highlight of his evening, I much preferred his bustling work in the ruck late in the third. Daniher was able to outmuscle young Geelong ruckman, Darcy Fort, and feed the handball to the running Devon Smith for a goal. Forget about the mark – it was the heavy work that created a goal for a teammate that impressed me the most.

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Speaking of impressive… I know a lot of you think I have some kind of man-crush on Joel Selwood. You’re right – I absolutely love the way he goes about it, and he racked up a game-high 38 touches tonight. For context, he went over that mark just once in 2018 – in Round One against the Dees. Whilst he got plenty of touches late (I’d say 5-6 in complete junk time), seeing him moving the way he did tonight, and appearing very fit, he could be in for a big year.

Watching Selwood, and knowing what a competitor he is, it may have stung a little to not even make the AA squad last season. He was certainly worthy, but may have been more a victim of his own previous high standards. Perhaps in 2019, he rectifies that omission and we can have an actual captain worth following as AA captain again? Yeah, I went there.

As for the experiment of having him on the wing… he seemed to spend a lot of time at centre bounces in the second half for a wingman. I reckon that positional change is about as flexible as it gets.

I’m really not sold on this protected area 50m penalty at all. Coaches and smart players are already using that space to draw penalties, and I can see it getting ridiculous as the season goes on. Players trailing their opponent are being pinged too often.

Some of the decisions pertaining to this rule tonight just looked to be over-officiating. I don’t blame the umpires – they’re instructed on what to do. It is more the fact that players are being penalised for having zero influence on the play. Seeing 50m penalties for low-grade infractions is not what supporters want to see – have some common bloody sense with this rule, please.

It was interesting to hear the commentators talk about the SANFL now having a 25m penalty for these innocuous incidents. The AFL behind the times on a common sense adjustment? Who’d have thought…

Speaking of over-officiating, the free kicks for ‘punching’ against Baguley and Selwood were garbage. Neither man actually punched. Why bring a rule in and then penalise players for something else that’s not quite a punch but is close enough to have an excuse to blow the whistle?  Baguley’s was an open hand push. Selwood’s was a backhand chop. Neither were worthy of a free kick, and if anything, Baguley should be done for staging for his reaction. Pretty bloody soft, Mark.

Unless the umps see a punch, don’t guess at it!

I wonder how long until Ratugolea is moved into the second ruck spot? It was obvious that Bellchambers smelt blood when Fort was moved into the middle.  

I thought Brandan Parfitt found the going a little tougher this week. He had a ripper last week, but he seemed to double grab at the ball a bit too often this week, and in the league right now, if you double grab, you invite pressure.

A bit of a tough night at the office for Michael Hurley. I reckon he had a 50-50 split in his one-on-one contests, and probably missed Cale Hooker more than Essendon would like to admit. He also probably misses Brendon Goddard, but has taken up the mantle of making angry faces and gesturing at teammates. Big shoes to fill there – I wish him luck.

The Bombers’ defence looked iffy. Without Hooker they lack the commanding presence of a genuine intercept player. I’m not really sure how they replace him in the short term, as Hurley, despite usually being good one-on-one, is much better suited to getting the second option and zoning off.  

A second impressive outing for Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti. His tackle on Dangerfield in the last was brilliant. He just hovered over him until Danger grabbed the ball and went to make a break, and then… wham – got him. His two front-and-centre goals are something opposition coaches should be studying right now. He has a beautiful read on the ball as it comes in, and his positioning is second to none. In a final tip of the hat to him, his hands are always so clean. When the ball is headed in his direction, if he has the front spot, you know there’ll be no double-grab.

I’m not sure 28 touches reflect Tim Kelly’s game. I thought he hacked it a bit, but that may be due to the nature of the disposals. I certainly didn’t like the dropped mark when it appeared he heard footsteps in the second quarter as Tipungwuti closed in on him. That said, his hands at stoppages made up for any of those kinds of errors.

I reckon Jordan Ridley may have done enough to get a spot in the Round One team. His run down tackle on Gary Rohan when the open goal beckoned was the kind of stuff that John Worsfold would remember. It was by no means a flawless performance by Ridley, but the signs were there that he could be a best 22 player in the near future. The Bombers need as much help as possible in the back half.

Charlie Constable looked good again. It looked as though he was used sparingly, but he certainly knows how to find the pill when he’s out there.

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I thought Andy McGrath was shaky early, but improved as the game wore on. Once he gets a little bit of time to find his permanent place in the team, he will be great, but I am not sure whether it is at half back, or on-ball. If anyone reading has an opinion that can help the Old Mongrel out, give us a yell in the comments. I think this is the year McGrath needs to stand up – but where does he stand up? I reckon half back early this year, with a move into the middle around 6-7 rounds in. A couple of his kicks early on today looked like those of a man who thought there was more pressure than there was.

McGrath is a good user of the footy with time. He doesn’t need to rush things unless he absolutely has to.

A really nice game from Harry Taylor tonight, intercept marking and generally making life miserable for Mitch Brown. That second marking forward is a problem for the Bombers. I think their options there are too hit and miss.

A second quiet game for Darcy Parish. He and McGrath are the ones I expect a big improvement from this season. Back to back 14 possession games from Parish… it’s not filling me with confidence, but it’s not time to panic.

Not yet, anyway. 

I reckon with Taylor back, and Jordan Clark stealing headlines, Jack Henry is a man who is flying under the radar in the Cats defence. I thought he was excellent tonight, and will become the centrepiece of a Geelong defence for the next 7-8 years. The Geelong defence is a very tight unit currently, and with Jed Bews looking to muscle his way back in, they’re only going to get stronger.

Anyone seen Orazio Fantasia? If you were watching where the footy was, it’s more than likely you missed him. Horrid game from him. To counter his poor effort, I thought Zach Merrett was good once he got on the park. A couple of his efforts at stoppages were fantastic.

Gary Rohan… don’t let this game be a tease. If you can fill the hole Daniel Menzel left, you combine with Hawkins and Ablett to provide a very potent forward trilogy. Don’t allow your JLT game to be the highlight of your year.

And we finally get to Dangerfield. He didn’t touch it in the last quarter. He was hopeless! Couldn’t get his hands on it! It’s pretty difficult to do that when you’ve called it a night at three quarter time. Danger was fantastic, and his desperation isn’t toned down at all for the JLT series. He was hard at it, ran to assist teammates, and when he got the ball, he used it.

He was relentless in providing opportunity for his forwards, and some of his explosiveness at stoppages makes my mate Joe Ganino’s explosive diarrhoea look tame in comparison. Danger is a force of nature, and I am hoping that he gets an injury-free run in 2019. Seeing him in full flight is one of the joys of watching footy – there’s not many like him.

So has the JLT series changed any of your opinions on either Essendon or Geelong? What do you think about the return of Daniher, the Shiel acquisition, the supposed new positions for Selwood and Ablett, and how Luke Dahlhaus helps the Cats?

I’m genuinely interested to hear your thoughts. Twitter, Facebook, or the comments section below are your best bet.

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