THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – GEELONG CATS 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

A Geelong season preview written by a Hawthorn supporter… has hell frozen over?

The Cats once again failed to fulfil their promise in 2019. After a blinding start to the year, and even a great first half against the Tigers in the Preliminary Final, they were overrun, and their season was ended without a Grand Final appearance again.

It was the seventh finals appearance since their 2011 flag, and though they have remained around the mark, the Cats have been unable to capitalise on what has been a sustained run of success.

Preliminary Final losses in 2013, 2016, 2017 and 2019 have the Cats looking like perpetual bridesmaids in a league that doesn’t care what dresses they’re wearing. All the focus goes on the bride – it’s time for the Cats to walk down the aisle and make it all the way to the altar in 2020, but can they get past that hurdle on the second last weekend of September?

The Cats were brutally efficient early in the 2019 season, and a similar start could see them in an advantageous position to rest stars and have the best preparation in the league for an assault on the crown in 2020.

Let’s explore the 2020 Cats, and their chances with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

SUSTAINED SUCCESS

I know I tried to rain on the Geelong parade in the intro, but you have to respect the way this team has consistently maintained a level of competitiveness, refusing to bottom out at any stage in the last decade or so.

The Cats missed the finals in 2015, and many predicted it was the end of the Cats’ run at the top. It was… for that year.

Geelong returned with a new acquisition in 2016, Patrick Dangerfield, and he became the centrepiece of the next Geelong phase – one that has seen them reach three Preliminary Finals in the last four seasons.

Since a horrible 2006 season, they have been out of the finals just once, in what is a truly remarkable effort. Names like Bartel, Ablett, Johnson, Scarlett, Selwood, Taylor and Dangerfield have carried the team to heights no other in the modern era can match for longevity – not Hawthorn, not Richmond… not even Brisbane were able to stay up as long as the Cats have.

But it all comes down to the ultimate success, and the Cats need to cap this stellar run of sustained form with a premiership cup to justify their list decisions over the journey.

The Cats are well and truly in the premiership window. With most of their top tier of stars all on the wrong side of, or about to turn 30, the Cats are in a win-now position. They have some kids who look good, but ultimately, it will be the Dangerfield-Ablett-Selwood combination that defines this era of the Geelong Football Club.

A premiership or bust in 2020 – that is the only goal for the Cats. Some nice improvement in the kids would be nice, as would another deep finals run, but if this team falls over again without even getting to the Grand Final, I’m not really sure how history will view them.

 

SOMETHING FOR NOTHING

You don’t pick up four-time best and fairest winners from other clubs cheap.

Unless you’re Geelong.

In a recruiting coup, The Cats landed Jack Steven from St Kilda for… well, for bugger all really, due to the perceived risk attached to the deal.

Steven is coming off a season with the Saints he’d probably like to forget. Fighting both mental health and weight issues, he was nowhere near the player he was even just 12 months prior, when he collected his last B&F award from the club he’d been at his entire professional life.

He needed a new start, closer to home, and something to inspire him back into the form that saw him collect 26+ disposals in five seasons.

So, let’s assume for a moment that everything goes swimmingly, and the Cats get the version of Jack Steven that the Saints wish they could’ve held onto. What can they expect?

25 touches per game and between four and five clearances sounds like the kind of return that would have Steven Wells and Chris Scott salivating. The hard run from Steven as a line breaker would add a dimension to the Cats they haven’t had since… well, last year when they had Tim Kelly, BUT a good form-line from Steven would mean they aren’t really missing a beat with Kelly’s departure.

Is that enough to see the Cats assume the same status in the league that they had with Kelly?

I can’t see why not.

Geelong have not pulled off the magic trick just yet, but their hand is in the hat and they’re feeling around for a rabbit. If they can get some positive play out of Jack Steven in 2020, there will be a lot of smiles at Kardinia Park – most of all on the face of Jack Steven. He’ll be going back to the finals for the first time in a while.

As I write this, it has come to light that he has tweaked a calf muscle at training after a solid start to his pre-season campaign. Not ideal, but fingers crossed he can get right quickly and work into the midfield sooner rather than later.

 

SOMETHING FOR NOTHING PART TWO

You don’t pick up a two-goal per game forward for cheap.

Unless you’re Geelong.

In one of the unsung recruiting coups of the off-season, Geelong played the game brilliantly and brought Josh Jenkins to the club as a fantastic back-up option to Tom Hawkins.

And they paid very little for the privilege.

You may have heard some things about Josh Jenkins that worry you. People have speculated that he was a player who got cheap goals by sneaking out the back. Well, he does do that, but the people who say he ONLY does that couldn’t be more wrong.

Cast your mind back to the last time Jenkins encountered a certain Richmond defender hailed as one of the best in the league. JJ destroyed Alex Rance, marking and goaling at will to the point where Rance was moved off him and allocated Darcy Fogarty in his first season in order to play his natural game. JJ had his number.

He didn’t get that number by sneaking out the back and doing nothing else.

What you are getting in Josh Jenkins is a player who, despite having issues in 2019, still managed to average over two goals per game for the sixth straight season. Playing a secondary role to Tex Walker, Jenkins was actually Adelaide’s most consistent forward over the last several years.

Yet he was made the scapegoat for the lacklustre form of an entire team. No wonder the bloke wanted out.

Jenkins arrives in a Geelong side with an established attack and will be the designated second option. It is the perfect role for him. At 30, he has a bit left in the tank and that suits the Cats just fine. He is not here for a long time – just a good time, and if that good time ends in a premiership, people will look back at this move as one of the most underrated acquisitions of the year.

I’m on the JJ bandwagon – I’ll reserve a place for you when you’re ready to jump on.

 

THE NO-NAMES THAT STOOD UP

Who was Tom Atkins before 2019? Who was Gryan Miers? What about Mark O’Connor?

I know them now, and so does anyone who followed footy in 2019. Atkins was promoted to the list to provide tackling and pressure, and he responded well. Combining with fellow new-Cat, Luke Dahlhaus, the pair were one-two in tackles at the club last season and it added a new dimension to the team. They were also both ranked in the top seven in the league for tackles inside 50 in the league.

Gryan Miers stood out like dogs balls on the field, and had the play to back it up. He ranked 14th in the league in total goal assists in 2019, behind Gary Ablett and Tom Hawkins on the team. With a bit of a flair for the dramatic, and the ability to shine on a big stage, Miers – a fourth-round draft pick, was one of the best recruits of the year. Pity he can’t spell his surname the correct way.

Then there is Mark O’Connor, who was able to find himself a place in this stingy Geelong defence and played 23 games in 2019.

When you look at what Dahlhaus (not a no-name, I admit), Atkins, O’Connor and Miers were able to add to this team in 2019, you have to wonder if the Cats have something more up their sleeves for 2020.

Does Sam De Koning make an early statement? Could Cooper Stephens be the bolter that forces people to sit up, take notice and admit that the Cats have done it again and unearthed a ready-made AFL player? Or will it be an established player that takes a significant step and commands the footy world’s attention? James Parsons is past due for a breakout year, as is Brandan Parfitt, and Nakia Cockatoo needs to repay the faith as well.

Rest assured, it will be someone at Geelong that jumps out of the gates. It’s someone there every year – why would 2020 be any different?

 

POTENTIAL

I touched on a couple of the young players earlier (sounds a bit suss, doesn’t it?) and I want to go a bit deeper (and the plot thickens).

Jordan Clark was being mentioned as a potential Rising Star in 2019, and for good reason. He played 18 games before a nasty arm injury forced him to sit out the remainder of the season, robbing him of the chance to play finals in his first year, but that should not detract from how good he was in the season to that point.

I have a section on just how good the Geelong defence is as a whole coming up – that Clark was able to slot into that elite defensive six and retain his position for the entire season until his injury is testament to just how good he is, and just how good the Cats think he will be.

Still 19, Clark makes Cats fans smile when they think about the future. As much as this team is in a win-now position, it is the presence of players like Clark that would have them buoyant about the years ahead as well.

At 21, Jack Henry is the other young star that has made a home for himself in the Geelong defence. He has been a fixture in the Cats’ back six since almost the word go on his AFL career. Whilst he didn’t really progress on his 2018 output last season, the fact that he was able to retain his place in this team speaks volumes about where he is at, and where he could be headed.

At 191 centimetres, Henry could easily start to take responsibility for the role currently occupied by Harry Taylor as early as this season.

And then there is the midfielder-in-waiting, Charlie Constable. He is my prediction for the breakout star of 2020. As the Geelong midfield redefines the way it plays amid the Kelly departure and Steven arrival, Constable has the opportunity to step into the rotation.

If he gets that chance early in 2020, I would back him to hold onto his spot for the duration of the season. Ideally, I would love to see him make a significant leap and keep Mitch Duncan in the role of third to fourth midfielder in the rotation. If Duncan is elevated to the role of second-best midfielder behind Danger, I don’t think it is a positive sign for the Cats.

When you add in the potential of players like Lachie Fogarty, Esava Ratugolea and Quinton Narkle, the Cats may hang around the upper sections of the eight for a while once the Ablett/Selwood/Danger cohort ride off into the sunset.

 

A SURPRISE PACKET?

The Cats need someone to jump out of the box in 2020 – most teams that make a big step find someone who has a blinding pre-season and elevates those around them in the process of playing their best footy.

So, who are the candidates to make a big impact on 2020 and act as the poster boy for training hard?

Quinton Narkle – With six games in each of the last two years, Narkle needs some consistent minutes to refine his craft. 17 disposals per game running through the midfield is acceptable, and was +5 on his 2018 numbers, but Narkle needs to add the steak to his sizzle in 2020.

Nakia Cockatoo – With just two games in the last two seasons, Cockatoo’s career is hanging by a thread. Out of contract after this season, he needs to a) get on the park, and b) remind people of why the Cats have hung onto him for so long.

Jordan Clark – I’m not sure he can be the player that breaks out in defence, but with his leg speed, I wouldn’t mind seeing him move to the wing permanently. I could see him really doing some damage in that role, and I’d love to see him as the running target for the likes of Stewart or Tuohy as they exit the defensive 50.

Charlie Constable – Here we go. This is my guy. Hard worker, in-and-under and likes to sneak forward and hit the scoreboard. Constable can make things happen and ease the load on Dangerfield this season. The Cats need someone to stand up, and after a year of mostly VFL action, Constable should be ready to up the ante in 2020.

 

THE HOME GROUND ADVANTAGE

Ah yes… Kardinia Park. A blessing and a curse.

And what a distraction it proved on the eve of finals in 2019, as Chris Scott stamped his feet and pouted about the club not being permitted to host a ‘home’ final.

Look, I am being harsh on him here – he was continually asked about it, and simply answered the questions, but it was portrayed in the media as being driven by the Geelong coach, and that was a real negative.

The Cats can draw a crowd, and the AFL knows it. They’re going to schedule Geelong to host MCG finals if they’re in that position again, so the Cats should start getting used to the idea.

Kardinia Park is a great tool to secure finals berths – the Cats play their home turf as well as any team plays at home in the league, and the results there in 2019 indicate they will continue to be a very tough assignment for any visiting team. Their 8-1 record gave them the necessary leg-up into top spot, and the double chance.

Oh, and it was combined with some pretty damn good football as well.

Defend Kardinia Park, and lay siege to the MCG in September – this is the Geelong plan in 2020. Forget securing a true home final – it’s not going to happen. Go into the season knowing what’s ahead and plan accordingly. The Cats’ record at the ‘G was 4-1 until the finals. It was 1-2 in September.

The Cats will be good again in 2020. They will own their home ground and will more than hold their own at the MCG. They just have to do it when it matters most

 

THE CAPACITY TO REST PLAYERS

If the Cats had their time over again, do you think they may have lightened the load on Gary Ablett during the season?

Gaz looked spent in the 2019 finals, and was running up and down on the spot. After sitting at 10-0, the Cats had the capacity to sit the old fella out for a couple of games. I can understand why they didn’t – Ablett was in excellent form, and had the season ended right then and there, he would have been a lock for an All-Australian berth.

But the season didn’t end there, and as it became more of a grind, it seemed to grind the ‘Little Master’ down. I watched his duel with Brayden Maynard in the Qualifying Final, and it was a little bit sad. Gaz had none of the zip and power he had been renowned for – he was continuously thwarted as he tried to find space, and Maynard, who is definitely no slouch, wore him like a glove.

It was around this point I started wondering how much a fresh Ablett could have added to the Cats. How could he have benefitted from a rest in Round 10 when the Cats took on the Suns, or in Round 17 when they played the Saints? And how would a rested Ablett have impacted that game against the Pies?

Probably in a larger way than it did with Gaz looking cooked.

The other factor here is that we saw a reduction in the effectiveness of one of the greatest leaders the modern era of football has seen – Joel Selwood.

The Cats actual played this one really well in 2019. Selwood was removed from the action and out to the wing. As a result, when the heat of finals rolled around, he was able to step back into the middle with a body that wasn’t as bruised and battered from the constant beating of the AFL midfield. He stepped up in the finals, and I believe he was probably the Cats’ best player overall in those three games.

So, what does Chris Scott do with his ageing champions this coming season? Ablett needs a rest – possibly even two weeks off at a time, twice during the year, and it can’t be due to him jumping up and elbowing people in the head.

And the Cats should look to do something similar with Selwood if their record permits. He is already on an individual program this pre-season with a sore hamstring – the utmost care is required for this champion of the game. He only knows one speed, so he has to have the brakes pumped for him.

If they can get Selwood to rest now and get away to a great start again, having the luxury of sitting out him for a couple of games might make a lot of difference come the pointy end of the season.

Looking at the fixture, games that immediately jump out are as follows.

Round 5 – St Kilda @  Kardinia Park

Round 19 – Melbourne @ Kardinia Park

Round 21 – GWS @ Kardinia Park

Round 23 – Adelaide @ Kardinia Park

Sure, it might be robbing the Geelong faithful of watching their favourite sons on their home deck for a couple of games, but if it means these two are fresh for finals, would you consider it? Do you even have to think about it?

 

THE ROCK-SOLID DEFENCE

I watched with interest last season when Jed Bews made his way back into the Cats’ side. It was Round 15 – Bews’ first game for the season and the Cats were up against the Crows.

Bews was brought in at exactly the right time – you see, he is the Eddie Betts killer.

And that’s what he proceeded to do. Bews had a belter of a game, collecting 18 touches and even running off Betts to slam home a running goal. Betts returned nine touches, and no goals  – he made a habit out of failing against good sides in 2019, but Bews really gave him a bath.

It was amazing that this bloke, out of the side all season could come back in and so seamlessly slot into a defence that was already one of the best in the league.

Names like Blicavs, Stewart, Tuohy, Taylor, O’Connor, Clark, Henry and Kolodjashnij (which I just spelt without looking it up… risky) fit together like fingers in a glove… albeit for a deformed person, containing a few extra fingers.

The Cats’ defence looks solid again in 2020 – the ascension of Tom Stewart from unknown to dual All-Australian has been one of the great stories of the past few years and is one of the biggest factors in Geelong’s ability to remain at the top of the AFL heap, but there will be a changing of the guard following this season, with Harry Taylor looking as though this will be his last in the league.

How Taylor is used will be interesting. There is an heir apparent in Jack Henry, waiting to usurp his position, and he has shown plenty of courage in the way he attacks the footy. Jordan Clark was a revelation in 2019 before injuring his shoulder and will bolster that defensive six whilst adding the kind of youthful exuberance that can be so valuable.

So, if we have the starting six out there, fit for Round One, who misses out?

Tom Stewart is a lock on the half back flank

Mark Blicavs plays his best footy as a full back, but go on Chris Scott, start playing him on the wing in the finals, you tactician, you. Blicavs should line up at full back, and he should stay there.

Jack Henry on a flank, Jordan Clark and Jed Bews in the pockets leaves just one spot. Zach Tuohy? Or does he move onto the wing? Mark O’Connor? Jake Kolodjashnij? Looking to the future, I’d have both of them ahead of Harry Taylor as we start the year.

So, where does that leave Harry?

He’ll be a wonderful player slotting in to cover for the inevitable injuries that’ll strike a couple of players over the course of the year, but at 33, how much longer can he go on? And how long can he go on at a high level?

He played 24 games in 2019 – can he surprise again and play a full season, beating back Father Time, and the teammates looking to cement their place in defence?

It’s a nice problem to have if you’re a Cats fan – depth to the point where quality players might miss a spot in the best 22. It will be interesting to see which players want it most, and whether Harry Taylor can fight off Father Time for one more year.

 

STILL A BEAST

People love throwing a bit of shade at a player. It usually happens once they become a star – everyone loves the star on the rise. Look at the way people rave about Sam Walsh, or Connor Rozee, or Ben King – you wouldn’t read a bad word about them.

But once that player is established, and once they make the step into superstardom, often the knives come out. Sometimes it is due to the high expectations that come with being a superstar, but other times, people just love to knock someone off their perch.

And that’s the case with Patrick Dangerfield.

About a month ago, I wrote an article asking if Danger’s legacy would end up being damaged by his team’s inability to make a Grand Final, and whether he would be the kind of player who gets the “he was great, but…” kind of comments. Whilst you could see that as a dig, I stand by it, and it isn’t intended as malicious – I would prefer great players remembered as completely great, not spoke about with a caveat because they haven’t won a flag.

Anyway, Danger turns 30 in April – you know, that age where footy players start to be viewed as middle-aged men about 15 years too early. He is still playing at an incredibly high level, and has shown no signs of slowing down.

The explosiveness is still elite, the desperation is still outstanding, and the picture of Danger in full flight, running out of the centre is one of the greatest sights in footy. Does he have it in him to be recognised as the best player on the best team?

What does he need to happen for that to be the case?

Well, the flag, for one thing. I want to see him win one. As much as people will argue that a lack of team success does not diminish the career of an individual, I reckon it does. Robbie Flower, Bobby Skilton, Nathan Buckley – amazing players with a glaring hole in their CV.

Danger is a monster. He is basically the complete player and will most likely win another Carji Greeves Medal if he repeats his 2019 form, but he is the complete player with one little piece missing. If he gets it this season…

… the best player on the best team – I always liked the sound of it.

 

THE BAD

 

STILL AN ISSUE

I like the way Rhys Stanley competes. He is athletic, will test the opposition ruckman going the other way, and has the ability to hurt teams by drifting forward.

However, the Cats were a middle of the road team in hit outs in 2019, indicating that their mids were forced to read the taps of opposition ruckmen just as much as their own player.

It is testament to how good the Cats’ midfield was in that they positioned themselves third overall in clearances last season (behind only GWS and Brisbane) despite having an average performance at stoppages.

Stanley is supported by a young fell with springs in his legs – Esava Ratugolea. He is only 21and is built like a block of flats, but his tank has been a little suspect thus far in his AFL career. Let’s face it – only the naturally gifted aerobic athletes have huge endurance at 21 – Ratugolea needs to work on it.

If Ratugolea is the future of the ruck for the Cats, you can understand them being content with Stanley for the time being. That’s all well and good if you were building toward something, but the Cats’ building is complete – they are in the window now, and they need someone to start winning the ruck contests more often than not.

If that midfield was third in the league in total clearances in 2019 with the Stanley/Ratugolea combination winning around 50% of the taps, imagine how good they’d be with an effective tap ruckman feeding them and giving them first use of the footy on a platter?

I’m sure Ratugolea will improve in 2020. Hell, at times he looked great in 2019, but the Cats should have addressed this issue in the off-season. With Sam Jacobs and Paddy Ryder both very available, the Cats could have added a genuine ruck threat to their team. They didn’t, and I will be interested to see how that plays out for them.

Of course, none of that matters if there is a touch of rain forecast and your coach drops your ruckman for a final though, right?

Right, Chris???

 

DAD’S ARMY

Gary Ablett is 35 years old. Harry Taylor is 33. Joel Selwood is 31. Josh Jenkins is 31. Tom Hawkins is 31. Jack Steven is 30. Zach Tuohy is 30, and both Patrick Dangerfield and Mark Blicavs hit 30 in the first month of the season.

Geelong has the third oldest list in the league right now and given the way some of the players looked toward the end of the 2019 season, you have to wonder how they’re going to go through another gruelling season of knocks, bumps, strains and tears.

But they’re going to have to find a way.

Already, we’ve got Jack Steven injuring a calf (the old man’s injury… ask me how I know), Joel Selwood nursing a hamstring, Mitch Duncan with both hip and shoulder injuries, and Tom Stewart with a groin complaint he opted to have addressed after his honeymoon… understandably. Let’s hope he didn’t aggravate it. It’s not the ideal way to hit this point of the pre-season, but you’d rather have this happen now than around Round One.

This season could really go either way for the Cats. The older brigade is quite a talented one – you have arguably the greatest player of the AFL era in Ablett, one of the best captains in the last 20 years in Selwood, and the reigning All-Australian full forward in Hawkins all on the wrong side of AFL middle age.

Can they do the miraculous?

If there is one thing that you can’t learn quickly, it’s experience. The players listed above have it in spades. They’ve talked the talk, and walked the walk at AFL level for years, and know what it takes to get through a season and walk out the other side. The pain will be no stranger to them. The hard work and aches will be as an old friend.

Yes, they are older. Yes, they may take a while to recover after an injury, but having been there and done that all before, this band of old-timers in the hoops may just have the experience required to have a cool head under pressure, and the demeanour to navigate through hard times and back onto the successful path.

I remember a team in the early 90s that someone dubbed “too old, too slow”.

By the end of that season there were two more words added to that saying.

“Too old, too slow… too good.”

Maybe, if things go right, that could apply to the 2020 Geelong Cats?

 

THE UGLY

 

ALWAYS THE BRIDESMAID

When something like losing in the finals becomes a talking point for the casual fan, you know you have an issue.

Geelong’s recent exits from September have cast them in the role of bridesmaid on the AFL’s biggest day, and not just the matron of honour kind of bridesmaid – I am talking about the ugly cousin who your mum insists has to be part of the proceedings. The team that loses in the Grand Final is the matron of honour – the Cats can’t even get a good spot in the bridal party!

As someone who watches footy keenly, and who talks about it a lot with most people I sit and chat with, there was a spectre of failure looming over Geelong heading into September. One Geelong supporter, who was normally so passionate, spoke as though the lack of a Kardinia Park final had condemned the team to lose.

I’d not seen that from him, or any Geelong supporter to that point, but I started to take notice of the online comments from Cats fans – they were almost talking a loss into existence.

Yet there they were – 21 points up on the Tigers with half a game to play.

We all know what happened – Dangerfield had a shocking third quarter (legacy…) Rhus Stanley was nailed in a tackle by Trent Cotchin at the first bounce (which Tim Kelly started on the half forward fucking flank!) and the dye was cast. The Tigers ran over the top of the Cats and the Grand Final eluded them again.

Geelong is a very good team. But will they ultimately be remembered as “also-rans” during this period unless they take the next step?

Sadly, I think the answer is a resounding yes.

 

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