Gather Round – Geelong v Western Bulldogs – The Prophet’s Perceptions

With Gather Round in full swing, we bring to you Saturday’s second game of a double-header.

The Dogs are building into the season nicely. Preseason yours truly predicted that they’d lose to West Coast – somewhat tongue in cheek. They have galvanised, and we are starting to see the best of the Dogs. Their opponents, Geelong, have navigated missing some of the midfield generals, but have been spurred on by milestones in each game. With another one tonight to running unicorn man Mark Blicavs, will they be able to continue their mantra of winning the milestone games for their mates? Well, I’m the Prophet and these are my Perceptions.


Midfield Battle

On paper, this presented itself as a potential bloodbath. By the end of the game, it did somewhat represent a massacre, however, for most of the game the Cats inexperienced midfielders held their own.

Tom Liberatore led the way convincingly. He set a new PB with 19 clearances (the next best for all players was eight), 35 disposals, and 28 contested possessions. He was clearly the best player on the ground and tried his best to get his team across the line. He was well supported by Adam Trealor (37 disposals) and Marcus Bontempelli (35 disposals) around the coal face. The Bulldogs mids gradually wore the Cats mids down, but they showed some fight.

Brandan Parfitt continued his career renaissance with 19 disposals and eight clearances, while Tanner Bruhn continues to build with his seven clearances and seven inside 50’s.

The Cats pressure was elite early, but their heavy legs took their toll late, allowing the Dogs to dominate field position, and the weight of numbers around the ball gave them plenty of good looks. Where the Cats mids were able to significantly impact the effectiveness of their opponents in the first half, the fading pressure allowed the Dogs to cut through stoppages by hand with much more efficiency late.

It was a bruising battle, and the Dogs mids couldn’t have done much more to secure the points for their side – and they almost pinched it. Bont built into the game. Even with his 19 disposals at half-time, he had had no real impact on the contest, but he threatened to rip the game from the Cats in the final quarter, showing his class.


Cats Ruck Conundrum

Much has been made for a long time about the Cats ruck challenges. Since Brad Ottens lifted the Cats off the canvas and out of mediocrity, they’ve failed to have a consistently productive ruckman. This Cats fan has often thought Rhys Stanley was best suited to playing Centre-Half Back given his athleticism, however, he took the points tonight.

Early in the game, the Dogs ruck threatened to blow the game apart. Tim English was damaging at both ends, pushing forward and intercepting behind the ball, with Stanley not in frame. That said, Stanley had the better of the initial ruck duels and distribution in those contests.

For much of the game, they cancelled each other out. What was the most surprising aspect was Stanley’s ruck craft and his winning the hit out count and giving his mids, on numerous occasions, very good opportunities to clear the ball forward from stoppages.

Players being managed can be confusing to some, but this proved to be a good decision from the Cats coaching staff, resting Stanley against the Hawks knowing there was a five-day break and Tim English waiting at the end of it. Stanley looked refreshed, and played well. It will be a very interesting watch for the remainder of the season as to how the balancing act with Rhys Stanley and Toby Conway plays out with the Cats.


Transition v Pressure

Pre-game, Chris Scott remarked on some of the hallmarks of Bulldogs footy – uncontested marks, and transition from defense to attack. With that in mind, he stated that the Cats pressure would be essential to limiting the Dogs holding sway in field position, and disrupting what the Dogs do. How did that eventuate?

As the game unfolded, we saw the Cats giving away some field position and ball movement, allowing them to keep a spare behind the play meaning the Dogs have to slow down or go sideways. This enabled Geelong to keep a spare behind the ball. The challenging aspect for Geelong in the long-term is how prepared are they to concede clearances (ranked 18 currently in the competition) and allow teams to have an extra around stoppages, and trusting their defense to hold up? Yes, they are missing Patrick Dangerfield and Cameron Guthrie, but they cannot be bullied around the ball like they have been.

The Dogs struggled to transition for much of the first-half. They weren’t making good decisions (a credit to Geelong’s pressure on the ball carrier), but you could see that after half-time there was a shift going forward. They were more prepared to lower their eyes and be a little less precise going forward. While Aaron Naughton had a relatively quiet night, Sam Darcy had a career night – when that lad fills out, good luck to any defender trying to stop him. His reach is his biggest weapon right now, and he gets to great positions. Jamarra Ugle-Hagan is the other key weapon the Dogs have up forward. He just needs that one game where he marks everything, and kicks his six or seven, to really build and become the consistent game-breaker he has shown glimpses of. He threatened to be the difference in the last quarter, but couldn’t quite make the most of his opportunities.


The Man They Call Tom (Stewart)

Tom Stewart is arguably the best defender in the game at present. Tonight, while not his most prolific game – and he was uncharacteristicly fumbly at times – he still marshalled his defensive group well, and was there when the Cats needed him.

For most of the night, it looked like Rhylee West had the unenviable task of guarding Stewart. When are coaches going to get creative and tag Stewart? When are they going to make him accountable? By allowing Geelong a spare for most of the night, the Dogs played into Geelong’s hands. Were it not for their obvious fatigue, the Cats likely cantered home by a few goals, given the Dogs penchant for kicking it to where Stewart was. In a moment that won’t be talked about much late in the game, the Dogs had space and were transitioning from defense. They had open players everywhere. Stewart made the bold (and correct) call to leave his man, thus spoiling the kick, and ensuring the ball ended up with a stoppage. This act itself – not just the willingness to come off his man, but to execute as well – was a significant late act that prevented a Bulldogs goal.

The Cats stand-in skipper seems destined, at the moment, for a sixth All-Australian jacket in just eight seasons.


Khamis the Moment, Khamis the Man

Uneviable task of playing on Jeremy Cameron (to start the game).

Jez pushing up gets the ball, but two big wins from Khamis in the first – set the tone?

He and Liam Jones positioning really well to combat Hawkins and Cameron.

Those were some early notes I jotted down, and they were fairly accurate. Both Khamis and Jones were solid as a rock tonight. In the moments that the Cats had momentum and were threatening, their positioning, and how they read the ball was elite. Jones towelled up Tom Hawkins (for this Cats fan, that’s a hard sentence to write), and Khamis continues to grow in the role.

If Khamis continues his progression, he’s going to be a very good weapon for the Dogs for a long time. His athletic profile is enough to whet their appetite, but his continued development in the defensive craft with only make him a better player.


What Did We Learn?

Dogs – they will threaten a lot of teams. With the continued development behind the ball, and Ugle-Hagan and Darcy shining up forward – and we know how good their midfield is – the Dogs present a steep challenge to most sides. They will be a team no-one wants to play, regardless of how your form is. The one thing holding them back is some weird selections and strategies that seem apparent from Luke Beveridge and co. Sort that out, and there’s no reason why this side cannot go deep in September.


Cats – The Cats held on in a close one. They are yet to behind at the conclusion of any quarter in 2024, and are 4-0 for the first time since 2017. But, I still don’t think we have a clear read on them. They’ve won each game in different ways. While they rely on their intercept game, and lead the comp in scores from centre bounces (largely thanks to Tanner Bruhn), they rank 18th in clearances generally. There are gaps, and in the coming weeks they face the likes of Brisbane, Melbourne, Carlton, and Port Adelaide. We will know more then. For now, let’s just say they are building nicely.


Other Bits

Jack Bowes, after an interrupted start to the season, is building nicely. With two first-half goals, he set a new career best with goals. He was busy around stoppages, and is slowly reminding people why he was an early draft pick.

Speaking of career high goals, Sam Darcy joined that club as well. He led the Dogs with three goals from his 12 disposals, and had some really good moments; including a towering contested mark, surrounded by Cats defenders.

Gryan Miers is slowly becoming one of the Cats most important players. The man with the most awkward kicking style just makes good decisions, and executes well, most of the time. He picks off kicks others are reluctant to make, and is a vital cog in the Cats system – he runs all day, pressures the ball carrier, and is lethal when he has it. He was the Cats best, and in the top couple of players on the ground.

Oskar Baker instincts and knowing when to attack as a winger were definitely on show tonight. There were numerous times when he would come off his opponent and intercept in defense, or, he would break into space at the right time when the Dogs had the ball. Being a genuine wingman is an oft-forgotten role in the AFL these days. It is a vital role that players have, and when you do it well, the team definitely benefits.

Tom Liberatore deserves some more love. He was immense, is tough, and plays the game in the right way. Tonight will go close to the best game he has played. For any young, aspiring mids in the AFL or local footy, go and watch his tape on how to position yourself at stoppages, and how to stay engaged even when surrounded. It was a Libba masterclass tonight.

Say what you want about the umpiring – there was much said both ways in the Mongrel Writers Chat tonight – but the way the score review was handled in the third quarter should be the ongoing standard. Play it like VAR in soccer. Play continues, and if there was an error, bring it back. Yes, the challenges present when teams score and the clock runs down, but saying to the umpire before the kick-out is complete to stop the game, was a great call, and the decision proved correct … just. Perhaps the AFL are finally starting to get it.

Well, that’s all from Adelaide Oval. The Cats held on over the Dogs who dominated inside 50’s and field position late, and the Cats themselves had two opportunities to seal the game and missed. The Dogs will rue some costly erors, but it was a fantastic game nonetheless. The Dogs have six days to mull it over, and come out on the attack against the floundering Essendon edge on Friday night at Marvel. While the Cats can rest, jump in the ice bath, and take their time with an 8 day break before hosting the Roos at Kardinia Park in the early Sunday game.


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