On a day where odds-on favourites failed to live up to hype and expectations, Geelong not only withstood a challenge from the Western Bulldogs at GMHBA Stadium, but ended up running away with a comfortable 44-point win, after looking down and out late in the third quarter.

After a brilliant Marcus Bontempelli-led Bulldog fight back left many onlookers wondering if the Cats were about to drop their load like they were at Engadine McDonalds circa 1997, it was the Cats’ young brigade who stepped up to launch a counter attack of seven unanswered last quarter goals and set up top spot for the Cats.

But for most of the game, the margin flattered the Bulldogs – Geelong let down by some lax defensive structures that could prove to be some interesting talking points for opposition coaches to scout as the season progresses. We saw North Melbourne were able to take advantage of the Cats backline last week when Tom Stewart left the field for assessment of a head knock, leaving the Cats’ defence not only undermanned but also lacking a leader to marshall the troops around, and comfortable in playing the third man up role as Stewart often does to perfection.

As North Melbourne also did, it appeared the Dogs were keen to focus their inside 50’s through Zach Tuohy’s man and attempt to expose his lack of close checking on his opponent by trying to isolate him in a one out contest as much as possible. Tarryn Thomas used this to good effect last week – and now Toby McLean was busy early but wasted some golden opportunities; lacking the penetration in his kicking to really make the Cats pay. With several long opportunities, McLean twice failed to make the distance from 45-50m out.

The other interesting aspect to the Dogs’ forward strategy was effectively using Aaron Naughton as a decoy to lure Mark Blicavs away from the drop zone (for a better example – look how Melbourne’s forward line played Jeremy McGovern last night) to get better looks for their smaller forwards, and rob Geelong of their best intercept mark.

By half time – Naughton had just the one grab, McLean had 1.1, and probably should have kicked three from his opportunities. At this point – you’d have expected Luke Beveridge to have either cleared the forward line and given Naughton a one out opportunity with Blicavs; or swapped McLean with someone more damaging in that role and a penetrating kick from outside 50. Sam Lloyd would have been perfect.

Instead, enter the Bont. Switched forward and with two huge goals to give his team all the ascendency heading into three quarter time was enough to see Blicavs switched onto him temporarily, as we saw Aaron Naughton now able to break the shackles and hit the scoreboard also.

In the end, the Cats’ midfield proved too strong. A dominant amount of inside 50s was only really mired by a lazy defensive pressure focus throughout the game that allowed the Bulldogs to still maintain an arms’ length distance for the whole game. For the Dogs, I feel like they still are yet to get their centre bounce set up right, and subsequently see teams dominate the corridor against them as a result.

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Since the introduction of the 6-6-6 is that teams’ midfield structures are aping both netball with a wing attack and wing defence employed for the most part of the match, and within the centre square itself, various forms of soccer midfield formations. A lot of teams using with their centre square clearance specialist (think a Cripps, Kennedy or Bont), their outside receiver/wingman (a Brayshaw, a Libba or a Pendlebury), and then a defensive player – either a run with player (Hewett, De Boer etc), or someone that’s employed to stay a kick back and guard the space between the 50 arc and the centre square. (If you ever played Football Manager – think two central midfielders with a holding defensive mid?)

The Dogs seem to employ the extra defensive mid to over compensate for not having a dominant ruckman in the side, as a result, the corridor is absolutely there for the pickings. Watch the first quarter back on replay and see how easily Hawkins finds the footy on an easy leading route as no Dogs midfielder got back to fill the hole in front of him.

The talk about the Bulldogs getting an unfair advantage out of Tom Boyd’s retirement, through his salary not counting towards the cap, or being able to top up with a state league player seems a pittance, compared to the sort of ruckman they’d have been able to recruit had Boyd pulled the pin at the end of last season. Would they have been able to get the Stefan Martin trade done for example? As honest and workmanlike Jackson Trengove’s efforts are, the team end up structuring way too focused around losing the ruck contests to not have this addressed at the end of pre-season.

Speaking of trade week, though. Gary Rohan again continued to show what teams are missing out on with a Best On Ground performance today. An electrifying first quarter and then bobbed up again late in the game to hammer home beyond all doubt where the Recruit of the Year award would go to….if it were such a thing.

Also perhaps adds another dimension to the debate about Hawthorn’s trade for Chad Wingard. Rohan does everything that the Hawks want from Wingard, yet at about a 10th of the price (trade and contract respectively). In a trade period that was flush for small forwards – and let’s not pretend that Rohan was in high demand when he left the Swans – it still remains bizarre that the Hawks would pay such a high price with so many other options floating around to address needs.

One player the Cats would be glad to have hung onto would be Cam Guthrie, who is starting to regain the form shown from 2016 that would see him a regular in the Cats’ midfield. On a day that wasn’t fantastic for tackling numbers from the Cats’ small forwards – Guthrie’s seven were a noticeable standout in a team devoid of forward pressure.

To round out my votes – Mitch Duncan gets the final vote for a fantastic last quarter and three big goals.

For the Dogs – Toby McLean got plenty of it without ever looking dangerous. Josh Dunkley looked every bit as dangerous as Gary Rohan in the first half before fading out of the game, and Doggies supporters would have to be rapt with what would arguably be Bailey Smith’s best game of his short career to date.  Whilst Tom Hawkins ended up with four goals, the repeat forward line entries and midfield dominance of the Cats make it almost a passing mark for Fletcher Roberts’ efforts on the day against the big Tomahawk.

Concerns would have to be held at the Whitten Oval over some of the younger players having hit a wall yet still a fortnight away from the bye. Will Hayes and Lachie Young having little impact on the game, whilst Ed Richards continues a month-long form slump.

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For the Cats continuing on their winning ways, would be rapt to get games into the impressive looking Darcy Fort, without ever really compromising the ruck ascendency. The inexperienced pairing of Fort and Ryan Abbott (a late replacement for Rhys Stanley) largely broke even against Jackson Trengove – I’m struggling to think of a less crucial ruck battle to a game of AFL footy in a long period of time. Is Zach Tuohy still in the Cats’ best 22? Am I failing to cut the man some slack after an injury interrupted pre-season and forget that at one point was rated the best small defender in the AFL? Was there a lack of faith in Harry Taylor shown by Chris Scott today? The Dogs’ capacity to isolate Blicavs away from the major contests inside 50 was very effective, but rather than move Blicavs up the ground, either directly opposed to Bontempelli or onto a wing, seemed to be uncertainty that the veteran Cat could still hang with Naughton, so dominant in the air.

I suspect barring injuries at this point, teams are simply not going to be able to stop Geelong’s firepower often enough to deny them a top two finish. I’m not convinced that their backline and defensive pressure is currently at a point that stands up to finals footy. This last fortnight may go a long way toward clubs working out how to expose this issue.

For the Dogs – they still maintain an exciting brand of footy that lacks the personnel to get it done more and more each week. I hope that they manage to become a major player at the trade table with the recently freed up cash in the salary cap to make things happen. No point being that entertaining if you’re constantly playing in timeslots no-one wants to see.

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