The city of Melbourne is abuzz at this time of year. Not because the sun is out and the birds are getting it on with the bees, but because there is the smell of a premiership in the air.
For either Geelong or Melbourne, that scent wafting on the breeze is either reminiscent of times not so far removed, or a faint aroma that launches you back into memories you forgot you ever had. For the Cats, it’s been seven years since they held the cup aloft. For the Demons… well, anyone under 55 would have no memory of premiership glory at all.
And yet, come Friday night, one of those teams will walk off the MCG with the smell of a flag a little stronger. The other, with only one smell hovering around them – the stench of failure.
Their two previous 2018 clashes have had an eerie familiarity, with late-game shots at goal dictating the result, and both have fallen Geelong’s way. Had we witnessed just one of those kicks, the first from Max Gawn, and the second from Zac Tuohy, provide the opposite result, we could be writing about the upcoming Port Adelaide v Melbourne game. It may have completely rejigged the first week of the finals. Yes, the Cats snuck into the final eight on the back of some luck, but fortune favours the brave, and against the Dees in 2018, the Cats have thrown caution to the wind.
Since we’re in a previewing kind of mood at The Mongrel (and given I have a day off actual work – go me!) I thought we’d have a look at some of the issues that are tickling my fancy as we head into the Elimination Final between the Cats and the Dees.
HOW CAN THE CATS LIMIT MAX GAWN?
So, if we’re being honest here, which I hope we always will be – it’s how good relationships are built – Geelong simply cannot stop Max Gawn. Not in the ruck contests, anyway. They have to find a way to minimise the impact those who benefit most from Gawn’s excellent ruck work most.
Angus Brayshaw constantly has the ball put right down his throat by Gawn, and Clayton Oliver is offered the same kind of silver service on a regular basis. Geelong need to go and take a look at the way the Sydney midfield negated the clearance work of those players. The Swans out-tackled the Dees in Round 21, and did a lot of their defensive work at stoppages.
George Hewett, Josh Kennedy, Luke Parker and even Cal Sinclair made every effort to ensure that every clearance a Melbourne player had was under enormous pressure. Did it work? The Swans dropped the Dees by nine points.
Can the Cats replicate that pressure? They’ll need a big defensive lift by Dangerfield (four tackles per game), Ablett (three tackles per game) and Joel Selwood (five tackles per game), who have all been accused of not applying the kind of defensive pressure required at points this season. An improvement is also required from Mitch Duncan (three tackles per game) and Tim Kelly (three tackles per game) when they’re in at stoppages as well.
A clean clearance for the Dees is like the cardinal sin for the Cats. They simply cannot lapse in their concentration or their diligence. To do so may see a season’s work undone in just a quarter of football.
As for the Geelong ruck stocks… they’ve been thin all year and that doesn’t look like it’s going to change. The re-emergence of Esava Ratugolea is tempting, but he struggled for match fitness earlier in the season, looking like he was jogging up and down on the spot late in games. Do the Cats take the punt and throw him into the mix? His athleticism would be very handy, but for mine, he is a risk too big to take with so much on the line. The other option is fourth gamer, Ryan Abbott, who has been good in his short AFL career, but climbing Mt. Gawn requires some experience. The harsh conditions, the wear and tear, and the sheer size of the task are vastly too much for one so young.
CAN THE TRINITY ALL GET IT TOGETHER?
If ever the Cats needed three huge games from their three huge superstars, it’s this Friday night. One of them will have to overcome some close attention from James Harmes, and all three will need to lead by example – not only in how often they touch the ball, but in how accountable they are for their direct opponents
As stated above, none of the big three can be one-way players in this game. Earlier in the season, Gary Ablett was accused of not working hard on the defensive end after laying zero tackles. He rebounded the next week, laying eight. That is the sort of performance the Cats need from him. They need the desperation of Dangerfield, the relentless determination of Selwood, and they need these efforts on the defensive end.
But they also need offence generated as well. I don’t think I am being too harsh when I say that Dangerfield drifting forward this season is nowhere near as potent as it was in 2017. He currently sits on 24 goals, down from 45 last season. The masterstroke from Chris Scott – throwing Danger forward to cause chaos is looking less like a masterstroke, and more like an act of desperation this season. That said, in Round 23 we saw Danger slot home a season-high four goals, albeit against the lowly Suns. Danger will need to have an impact forward, and a couple of snags from the Little Master won’t go astray, either.
IS RUSHING JACK VINEY BACK IN THE RIGHT MOVE?
Whilst my mouth is watering at the prospect of seeing Jack Viney and Joel Selwood head to head with so much on the line, part of me looks at Viney, who has spent more time on the pine than on the ground this year by a significant margin, and wonders whether he is right to go.
Viney has played just seven games in 2018, but has posted impressive numbers of 25 touches and six clearances in those contests. He last played in Round 16 and with his toe injury, you’d have to wonder about his match fitness.
Sure he’s training the house down. Sure he’s the spiritual leader of the club… but he’s also severely underdone, and could pose a significant risk. Is the risk of Jack Viney being exposed as underdone worth the reward of him playing well? It’s a gamble, and the funny thing with gambling… nothing is ever certain.
IS TOM HAWKINS THE DIFFERENCE?
He punished the Dees in their last outing, with a best on ground performance en route to seven goals straight, including four in the amazing last quarter comeback. He looked like a reincarnation of Tony Lockett, with the accuracy down-pat,
What do the Dees do differently this time around? Sam Frost will have his hand up for the job, as will Oscar McDonald, who will have to be at his grouchy best to limit the Cats spearhead. Yes, I enjoy Sesame Street.
I wonder if things start to get a little dire, whether we could see Tom McDonald drift down to defence and give his back six a bit of a chop out? It would certainly leave a huge hole in the Melbourne attack, with Melksham, Garlett and Petracca left to carry the load.
Hawkins has the potential to tear this game apart. It will be up to Simon Goodwin to be smart enough to drop someone into the hole when required, and up to the Melbourne mids to cut his supply. It will come down to desire as much as skill. The last time Hawkins kicked more than two goals in a final was way back in 2014 against North Melbourne, and before that it was the 2011 Grand Final.
He needs to add another finals highlight to his CV. His last five finals have been ordinary.
WILL THE DEMONS MISS JESSE HOGAN?
Yeah, this'll be popular, but hear me out.
Here's Jesse Hogan's returns for his games against fellow top eight teams. Six games for eight goals at 1.25 goals per game. And against the bottom sides? He played 14 games against the poorer teams and notched 39 goals at an average of 2.78 per game.
He plays well when there's nothing on the line, and goes missing when the big boys come to play. On the other hand, you have Tom McDonald. He played contenders on five occasions in 2018 and notched 18 goals in those games, at an average of 3.6 goals per game. Against the lesser lights, he had 30 goals from 12 games at an average of 2.5 goals per game. When the pressure is on, Tom McDonald doesn't wilt, Tom McDonald doesn't defer, and Tom McDonald doesn't panic.
Dees fans, you're not going to miss Jesse Hogan in this finals campaign at all. You have the bloke who stands up when it matters on the park, and his name is Tom McDonald.
IF THE SCORES GET TIGHT LATE IN THE GAME…
Melbourne have slayed a few of their own demons in recent weeks. Their win over West Coast was season-defining, and their follow up belting of the Giants emphasized a team starting to believe they belonged in September.
But there’s another psychological hurdle Melbourne has to jump before it can start eyeing the finish line. That being Geelong’s ability to get over them in the close ones.
We know the story this season. Two games decided on late game kicks at goal, one of them after the siren. In Round 18, the Dees were up by 29 points early in the last quarter. A goal to Tom McDonald should’ve nailed the Cat’s coffin shut, but there was a belief about Geelong that day, and they refused to go away. Melbourne felt the pressure, and they opened the for the Cats with some panicky execution and a distinct lack of poise. The Cats kicked seven of the next nine goals to snatch an unlikely win.
If the margin is within 4-5 goals going into the last, the Cats will fancy themselves. If the Dees are indeed the team they want to be, they will need to put the Cats down like an evil veterinarian, and do it early.
WHO DOES JAMES HARMES ANNOY?
It’s not as though he has a shortage of targets in this one, is it? He went to Joel Selwood in Round 18 and completely took the Cats skipper out of the game. Does he repeat the dose here? And if you’re a Dees supporter, who would you prefer he attempts to nullify?
With Selwood subdued, Dangerfield and Ablett combined for 60 touches and two goals.
So what do you do if you’re Simon Goodwin? Harmes has shown he can shut down Selwood, but Dangerfield is the key in the Geelong midfield. Does he try his luck on the Brownlow medallist (Danger, not Ablett)?
Irrespective of who Harmes goes to, there is going to be one Geelong midfielder having a pretty hard time of it on Friday night.
Personally, I’d throw him at Tim Kelly for a quarter and break up his game early. He is untested under this sort of pressure.
IS THIS THE TIME FOR CHRISTIAN PETRACCA?
Believe it or not, my jury is still out on Petracca. There are times he looks like a diamond, and others where he resembles a lump of coal.
He had three goals along with his 20 touches against the Giants, but he was often lurking out the back, and damn it, he’s better than that! Petracca has been threatening to take over a game since the JLT series earlier this year. He went forward and looked like a superstar in the making against the Kangaroos, but during the actual season, there’s been moments where I’ve wanted to grab him, shake him and scream in his face “you could be the best player on this f’n team!”
He is averaging 19.35 touches in losses and 21 in wins. He has averaged 0.62 goals per game in losses and 0.84 goals per game in wins. The difference between his best and worst is marginal, but his best simply needs to be better. What better time for him to step to the fore.
He is averaging 23 touches and a goal against the Cats, but that is too close to what he normally does. As much as Geelong require something special from their big three, Melbourne need Petracca to do something extraordinary. 23 touches and a goal is nice. 23 touches and a goal may not be good enough.
So there we go. Make no mistake – this is a monster game. Geelong have promised so much and delivered only a portion of what they’re capable of. They possess hardened finals competitors and a recent history of success. The Dees have finally made good on what they threatened to be all year. Their last two wins have been statements, but statements in the home and away season are quickly forgotten in the finals.
Win or go home, boys. Win or go home.
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