After the heights of 2022, the Cats fell back to earth in 2023.
For some, it was seen as the inevitable fall, after finally ascending to the top of the mountain. To others, it was an injury-induced loss of footing that saw a stumble, and nothing more.
2024 is the season we find out which party is right, and perhaps the season we find out whether the era of the Cats as perennial contenders is over, or just looking to restart.
Geelong get a shot in the arm with the return of a healthy Cam Guthrie – a major factor in their midfield engine, Jack Henry to become even more potent in the back six, and Rhys Stanley to contest int he ruck. Those three additions should make a huge difference, but the development of some of their kids will be the key to, not only this season, but the next five or six.
2024 – the year the Cats turn it around? Or the year the Cats finally tumble down the ladder?
It’s that time of year, already.
The break after Christmas and New Year is over. The holidays are finished for AFL players, and the hard stuff starts now. Yes, the teams had been training for well over a month prior to Christmas, but as we head into 2024, the ante is upped and the intensity increases.
This is where premierships are won and lost. This is where improvements are made and lists come together. New faces, new colours, old heads with renewed passion… so much feeds into the making of a contender. And as the days tick down toward to the intra-club clashes, practice games, and eventually the real stuff, questions are raised about each team and how they’re going to perform in 2024.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel Punt. When we do a season preview, we go all out to make sure it is the best, most comprehensive coverage you’ll receive. We pride ourselves on it. If you are going to read one season preview for your team, or any team, this series provides it.
The way it works is as follows.
Each club has a minimum of 15 questions asked about the upcoming season, their coaches, their players, and their expectations. The answers are not glossed over. We dive deep on each and every one – some singular answers would normally be long enough for an entire column. The first five questions/answers are free for you to consume. The next 10-14 for each club are for our members, including a special appearance from Mrs Mongrel to throw her two cents in the mix.
Isn’t it a bit early for a season preview? Well, I suppose, but do you know how long it takes to write seven thousand words? That’s 18 x 7,000… gets out the calculator… that’s 126,000 words. The average novel is about 85,000 words, so buckle the hell up with these previews.
Also, if there are any issues that arise after the publication of the preview, they will be covered in standalone articles to act as additions to this preview.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it. This is where we start the run to the new season and believe me – nobody does it better than The Mongrel.
CAN TANNER BRUHN BECOME THE NEXT GREAT GEELONG MIDFIELDER?
If the Cats are going to bridge the gap between having a wonderful group of veterans and a younger cohort that can pick up the slack once they’re gone, it almost has to be Tanner Bruhn making the leap from talented youngster to star of the competition. It’s a big leap to make, I’ll admit. Particularly this season.
Bruhn is still just 21 years old, but he also has 49 games under his belt and at 16.32 disposals per game in 2023, big things are expected. He may need to start producing at a higher level quicker than expected.
He made his way to Geelong to join a premiership list, leaving GWS in his rearview mirror (he looked like someone had stolen his lunch money when he was drafted there) and has been given the opportunity to have 12 months pinch-hitting in various roles, the midfield being one.. He is entering the purple patch for rapid development and, given what we saw from the Cats in 2023, they need more from him immediately.
Bruhn has shown flashes of brilliance, but in his defence, Geelong may have been a little cautious with asking too much, too soon from him. Perhaps they protected him, even just a little. It is that reason that I hesitate to say he may have underachieved in 2023. Maybe it is time to ask a little more?
Elsewhere in this article, we have looked at that mature (a nice way to say it) Geelong midfield group and how there is a gulf between those older blokes and the young ones. Sure, players like Tom Atkins can slot in and do the grunt work, but even he is 28 now. The Cats need some fresh blood in the guts, and Bruhn should be one of the players leading the way. Max Holmes will make good company, as well.
To put things in context, we can look at blokes in the same age bracket with around the same number of games.
There’s that Daicos bloke at Collingwood. That’s a little unfair, though – the guy is a freak. 47 games at the age of just 20 for him. Errol Gulden is another who has made that leap to star of the game. He has 67 games and is aged 21. It can be done, but the players need to be exceptional. Is Bruhn capable of being exceptional?
Those fellas are at the pointy end of the spectrum, but at the other end, you have Will Phillips at North. Taken with pick three in the same draft as Bruhn, he has fought Glandular Fever and struggled until last season. Braeden Campbell at Sydney hasn’t really got a licence to play in the midfield, as yet, and as a result has not set the world on fire. And both Elijah Hollands and Nik Cox have promised a bit, but are also yet to deliver.
I suppose it comes down to what is expected from Bruhn, whether the Cats are looking at current and future in balance, and whether he wants to be in that class with Daicos and Gulden, or at the other end with Hollands and Phillips. Patience is great… to a point. I’m not sure how patient Geelong can be.
Right now, I’d say Bruhn sits right in the middle of those two groups, and 2024 will see us get a very good indication as to whether he can start catching the top group, or whether we’ll see him hanging out with the bottom group eventually.
Signs are great. Flashes of brilliance are encouraging. But 16 touches per game, and a ton more games where he has disposals in the teens as opposed to in the twenties are not what you want to see from someone you have pegged as a star.
He could be the future of the Geelong midfield. Time to start playing like it.
IS SAM DE KONING READY TO BECOME THE MAN IN THE BACK SIX?
At just 22 and with 43 games under his belt, has Sam De Koning shown you enough to convince you that he can be the centrepiece of the Geelong defence over the next seven or eight years? Does he really have to be?
He had his breakout season in 2022, and was pivotal to the Geelong charge toward September. Often out-muscled in a contest, he used his superior reach to lunge at the footy at the last possible moment to either spoil, or occasionally mark, which caused some of the seasoned forwards he was playing on to become quite frustrated.
I know supporters of the opposition teams were becoming more and more flustered as he kept using those big testicles… err… I mean tentacles (thanks Jack Dyer), to make spoils other defenders usually wouldn’t get near. He took on big jobs and he did them well.
Last season, the Cats used Esava Ratugolea as their intercept defender, and in all fairness, despite my assessment of him further down the article, he did a pretty damn good job when he was permitted to play his own game and was injury free. That said, with another pre-season under his belt, I much prefer the footy smarts of De Koning in the role of key defender and would love to see him take on the responsibility of being The Man back there.
It’s a pretty difficult thing to achieve when you’ve got a defensive general like Tom Stewart patrolling around, but picturing De Koning as the defensive anchor is not a stretch, especially when you consider he’ll be around for a fair while after Stewart has hung up the boots.
His 2023 didn’t provide the leap he was probably looking for, but that may have been part and parcel of the way the team performed. Most were down on expectations in some way, shape, or form. Either down, or injured. 2024 could be a different kettle of fish.
So, let’s say the Cats get a clean run at it. Jack Henry is healthy and playing down back, Tom Stewart is doing what Tom Stewart does, and Geelong gets a mix of very good to serviceable games from blokes like Jed Bews, Zach Guthrie, Zach Tuohy, Jake Kolodjashnij, and a couple of others. What would the numbers look like for SDK?
Well, before I jump into this, I have to say that the real numbers that matter when it comes to this kid come in the form of how well his opponent plays. In 2023, when SDK had what are considered good numbers in the back half, the Cats didn’t get great results. It is when he plays a team-first game that the Cats were able to succeed.
When he had seven or more intercepts, the Cats had a record of one win, three losses, and a draw.
When he had seven or more one-percenters, Geelong were 1-4.
Big numbers do not equate to great games where De Koning is concerned, He performs best when he is part of an in-sync back six, and that has been the strength of Geelong for so long. When he is doing the heavy stuff off the footy, the Cats fare much better.
So, do we want to see him become a shrinking violet in defence?
No, no. But what we do want to see is a style of play that allows Tom Stewart to be that intercept player, that allows Henry and Kolo to come in and kill just as many contests as De Koning does, and allows Tuohy, Duncan, and Zuthrie to run the footy out of defence.
De Koning does not have to be everything to everyone in this defence, but he has to hold his own until the cavalry arrives, and he is now putting on the muscle to add to that reach. He’d be horrible to play on, and you have to love that.
Forget the numbers when it comes to SDK this season. It’s the eye-test that will tell the true story. And when he is able to do what he does best, the Cats should win. Ask him to be something he’s not, and well… maybe those numbers will look great, but if they don’t translate to more wins than losses, are they really what you want to see?
HAS OLLIE HENRY JUSTIFIED THE MOVE?
Oh, absolutely, he has. He fit into this Geelong team like a man with five penises into a glove – as in, it was a little difficult to start, but he soon got the hang of it.
There are players in the league who are like square pegs in round holes. They may be natural forwards, or natural defenders, but the coach attempts to get tricky – a little too smart for his own good – and decides to play them elsewhere.
Ollie Henry is one of those players who is a natural forward. It’s what he is and there can be no doubt about it. He just knows how to play the game in that role and has this innate ability to be in the right spot at the right time to benefit from a quick ball drop or a strange bounce. His hands are clean, and he does not hesitate to take his chances.
Oh, and after a bit of an issue with talking and peripheral vision, he quickly became more aware that jumping ship from a team puts a pretty decent target on your back. That tackle from Darcy Moore in the season-opener was unbelievably good… not sure what Brad Close was thinking by not shepherding, but… that was then.
This is now.
Henry finished the year with 41 goals last season, playing behind two Coleman Medallists, in Tom Hawkins and Jeremy Cameron. In that type of role, players have floundered at points, with the big boys having their own gravitational pull, but Henry is an intelligent forward – a natural, remember – and he went to wherever Hawkins and Jezza did not. When they drew the heat, there was Ollie, waiting with a lesser defender on him, ready to capitalise.
I rated Henry at Collingwood, and reckon they musty have got wind of his intent to depart long before he did. There is simply no other reason to keep a bloke with this much talent out of the team for the last two months of the season. But that is where Henry found himself, and despite missing out on a flag in 2023, I reckon he has found his home at Geelong.
He will be cherry ripe to become a star once the careers of Hawkins and Cameron are over. Hawkins is now 35 and Jezza will be 31 in April. By 2026, this forward line will belong to Ollie Henry, and I reckon he is a 60+ per year goal kicker by that point.
Did he make the right move?
He was persona non grata at Collingwood in the back half of 2022. You’re damn right he made the correct decision. He would have excelled at any club he was at, but here, at Kardinia Park, he is home.
IS TOM STEWART NOW ENTERING THE ALL-TIME GREAT DEFENDERS LIST?
Get with the times, HB!
Okay, okay… maybe he’s already in there! Five All-Australian blazers and a couple of Carji Greeves Medals… he has entrenched himself as Geelong royalty, and you have to wonder how much he could have accomplished had he debuted a couple of years earlier – he debuted at age 24.
I’ve written something akin to this before, but after 2022/23, I seem to have made my peace with it. I have a love/hate relationship with James Sicily at Hawthorn. His best is brilliant, but a little too often prior to 2022, he would do things on the field that were… well, they were stupid.
And it would cost both him and the club.
I used to watch Sic and shake my head, because there was a bloke playing down the highway in the hoops who was doing exactly what I wanted Sicily to be doing. Tom Stewart was the player I wanted James Sicily to be! And as a Hawthorn supporter, that is something that should hurt to write.
Strangely, though, it doesn’t. I think it is because I have such a huge amount of respect for Stewart and the way he plays his footy. There was a period back in 2021 where he put together such a dominant run of games that our own in-house rankings had him as the number one player in the league! Of course, the very next week, the opposition played a defensive forward against him and brought that undone, but that was the first time a defender had led the rankings (they commenced in 2018, were published as The Mongrel 50 and later just continued in-house for my own amusement).
If I asked you the best defenders of the last 20 years, the names of Jeremy McGovern (5x AA), Alex Rance (5x AA), Harris Andrews (2x AA), and Matthew Scarlett (6x AA) would likely be at the top of the list, but if Stewart is not yet in that company, he is fast approaching it. Those blokes play key position, but as a flanker, he is right up there with the best.
What would a sixth All-Australian selection mean to Stewart’s legacy?
Well, it’d probably make Matty Scarlett walk even taller. After pulling him from the local league and chucking him the Cats’ way, he’d be all smiles. But it would also cement a legacy that is already pretty firmly set in stone.
He’s close to the best half-back flanker I’ve seen, and if he can work his way into the AFL’s team of the year for a sixth time, even the most Anti-Geelong people around would have to acknowledge that this bloke is an all-time great.
HOW IMPORTANT IS BRAD CLOSE TO THIS TEAM?
We got a lot of talk about what Gryan Miers brought to the Cats in 2023, with his goal assists finding plenty of time in the spotlight. He ended up with 41 for the year – 11 clear of the next best, Brisbane’s Hugh McCluggage, and was thoroughly deserving of the praise.
However, the one that consistently slipped under the radar whenever I’ve watched the Cats play well was Brad Close. He had 21 goal assist of his own, but tended to work much further up the field than Miers, often working right up to half back before doubling back and trying to beat his man back to the attacking 50.
It’s an exhausting role to play.
He did suffer a bit of a drop off in the number of disposals he averaged in 2023 (-2.6 per game on his 2022 numbers) but that is in line with many (as covered elsewhere, almost the whole team was down in certain areas). His impact on the scoreboard was around the same mark (but much more accurate) and I expect a lift from him in 2024.
At 25, this is the peak time for Close. He has a three year window where he will likely play his best footy, and the Cats will need him to do just that, running to fifty and putting the ball in the right spots for the leading forwards.
A return to 2022 numbers would be nice, but if the disposals remain at their 2023 levels, it is vital that he maintains the accuracy that was so good in 2023 (21 goals, six behinds) and continues to run at one, or a little more goal assists per game.
A couple of little stats to take away from this.
Over the last two seasons, when Brad Close kicks multiple goals, the Cats are 8-0. And when he has 20+ touches, they are 4-1. There is overlap in those two stats. When he has a good game, Geelong usually win.
And that concludes our free section of this season preview. The next five thousand-or-so words are for our members. I told ya, nobody dives in like us. You can join if you like?
As mentioned above, the first five questions are free – the next 14-15 are for our members. Yep, I believe my work is worth twenty-five cents per day. If you don’t, that’s fine. You’re welcome to join and keep reading