Cat-astrophe? Are Geelong set to slide in 2019?

Like a deflated balloon, the air of expectation has completely gone out of the Geelong Football Club.

After the long-awaited return of their prodigal son, Gary Ablett, the Cats assembled one of the most decorated midfield trios in recent history, and perhaps one of the most offensively gifted of all-time. Ablett joined fellow Brownlow Medallist, Patrick Dangerfield, and inspirational club captain, Joel Selwood to form what the media dubbed the ‘Holy Trinity’.

Many speculated as to how opposition midfields would be able to contend with this much elite talent jam-packed into one centre square. On paper, they were a match-up nightmare, and curbing the influence of all three looked to be an impossible task. Selwood and Dangerfield are contested beasts, and the addition of Ablett was meant to be the cherry on top. But as we rounded the home turn towards the 2018 finals series, Geelong were in danger of missing the finals all together.

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A two week home and away finale against the league's two worst teams all but certified their finals berth in eighth position, and a loss by the equally disappointing Port Adelaide in the final round allowed the Cats to play Round 23 without fear of a massive upset against Gold Coast. In the last two rounds of the season, their cumulative winning margin was 235 points. Whether that is good preparation for finals football or not can be debated, but the Cats, irrespective of the quality of their opposition, were flying.

And then it all fell apart.

Against a team they’d already claimed two wins against during the season, Geelong capitulated, spectacularly crashing and burning in a first half that saw them kick just two goals. They walked to the sheds with 16 points on the scoreboard, yet somehow remained in the game. Right up until three quarter time, the Cats were in the hunt. Down by 23 points at the last change, the Cats found themselves in a familiar situation against a familiar foe.

Could lightning strike three times? And would the Dees be standing under a tree using a sheet of metal for cover when it did?

There would be no miracle comebacks this time. Geelong's luck had run out, and the Demons held solid, stretching the margin to 29 points as the siren sounded to send the Cats crashing out of contention and into an early off-season.

So, what went wrong? How could a team with the Holy Trinity fall so far so quickly? And how do they recover from yet another early September swansong? As a matter of fact, can they recover at all?

It was telling that neither Gary Ablett nor Joel Selwood made the squad of 40 for All-Australian selection this season. Whilst Ablett may have been a victim of his own lofty standards, ignoed despite a stellar season, Selwood not getting a look in raised more than a few eye brows as well. Over the course of the year, you could easily argue that Selwood was the most consistent of the Geelong midfielders, often putting his head over the ball to win contests others wouldn’t bother competing in. Only the close checking of James Harmes in Round 18 was able to restrict Selwood to under 20 possessions as he averaged right on 27 for the year, leading his team in total clearances along the way.

Ablett was a different player to the one we knew at Gold Coast. Without making any disparaging remarks, he is older and looks a bit thicker through the torso than in his time up north, but that is to be expected at 34 years of age. It happens to the best of us. He is no longer the player that will win contested ball and sprint away from an opponent. That burst of speed is no longer as explosive, but he is still a damaging force, especially forward of centre.

He has had to modify the way he plays, which made him less effective at centre bounces than he once was. His clearance work, in truth, was down by three per game compared to his 2016-17 numbers. He simply didn’t have the body to compete in that environment anymore, and his presence in the guts has hurt the Cats as much as it's helped them, something Chris Scott came to understand as the season wore on.

Gary Ablett 2016-18

That left Dangerfield, who was last week named the All-Australian Vice Captain. His clearance work was also down to its lowest level since 2011, and his disposals per game numbers continued to trend downwards since his stellar 2016 season.

Patrick Dangerfield 2016-18

 

Though Danger would still be considered well within his peak years, Selwood may have just gone past his, and Ablett, at 34 years old has definitely seen his best football in years past. It is not a stretch to think that the Cats could see a serious decline in the next few years as Ablett wanders off into retirement and both Selwood and Dangerfield slow down. I mean, who takes their place? Who steps in to carry this midfield? Sadly, the pickings are very slim.

Tim Kelly showed plenty this season, but the Western Australian drums have been beating loudly since around June, indicating that there is a spot for him “back home”. He is contracted for next year, but if the Cats want bang for their buck, trading him after his stellar first AFL season may be a wise move. I’m not sure he will have more currency after next season when he is out of contract. He averaged 22.87 possessions and a goal per game in his debut season and was the undoubted bright spot of a season best forgotten. If he planned on staying in Geelong, he would be the logical choice to build around in the midfield, but all signs point to a trade back home for “family reasons” this off-season.

What the Cats get for Kelly will be pivotal. If West Coast are eager, rumours of Andrew Gaff’s desire to return to Victoria may work out brilliantly for them. Gaff’s run and carry, and enormous aerobic capacity would complement the three-some of Ablett, Danger and Selwood in the short term, and give the team a great transition from the current era into the next one, where Danger may move from mid to forward and plenty of spots would be available in the guts. But does he want to go to Geelong? With West Coast right in the mix for a flag, the lure to stay may be too great, and the guilt of sitting out of the finals series due to a momentary lapse of control, may compel Gaff to stay at the Eagles for the long haul. maybe he thinks he owes them something?

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The other Geelong mids have fallen away as well. Mitch Duncan is down in disposals and clearances. Sam Menegola is down as well, but only marginally. They have not continued their progression with Ablett coming back into the team and eating midfield minutes; they’ve gone backwards, which is in line with the rest of the team. For them, and for team balance, it may have been a case of subtraction by addition.

Ablett will play again next season – his form warrants it and his ability to influence the contest remains high, but he is no longer the player Geelong want in at the centre bounces. His body can’t handle the contact and he is neither the in-and-under player the Cats require at those stoppages, or the explosive break away player that can burn opponents off the way he used to.

With Duncan and Menegola stagnating, it’s time to move Gaz to a half forward flank permanently, or a wing if his legs can handle the run. With a bit of space to work in, Ablett can be as damaging as anyone in the game, and in a forward line that seems to struggle to do anything at times, Ablett skirting the pack, and concentrating solely on scoreboard impact may remedy some of the scoring woes more regularly.

Others who look likely up forward are Brandan Parfitt, Quinton Narkle and Jemaine Jones, but all will take time to gel at the feet of Tom Hawkins, and consistency will be a factor for them over the next 12-24 months.

One player who I can’t see being of benefit any more is Daniel Menzel. Oft-injured and with an undiagnosed allergy to physical contact, Menzel’s last month of footy was hardly inspiring stuff. He averaged his second lowest tackle count of his career this season, and in an age where pressure is king, he is a complete joker. I heard rumours that St Kilda were very interested in him – Geelong could do a lot worse than to allow him the opportunity to head to that basket-case of a club. He can team up with the rapidly breaking down Dan Hannebery to send the saints spiraling further down the ladder.

Down back, the Cats were very settled most of the year, and it remains their strongest asset. When Harry Taylor was injured, many forecast the floodgates opening in the Geelong defence, but Mark Blicavs, Zach Tuohy, Jed Bews, Tom Stewart and Jack Henry were solid as a unit… oh hell, I’ll try to spell his name again – Kolodjashnij was good as well. I don’t think they’re going to have many issues once Taylor does decide to hang them up. He has been a great servant of the club, and has allowed the current defence to continue to grow both with him in the team and on the sidelines.

And then we arrive at the the largest of their problems – the ruck. All season, Richmond have been running the Toby Nankervis gauntlet, playing their lone big man against tandems of big men, and playing to the opposition ruck’s taps when Nank takes a seat. Geelong have taken it one step further, and have played most of the year without a decent ruckman of any sort.

You would’ve read earlier the clearance numbers for the Geelong mids all dropping this season? Well, most teams get some sort of service from a ruckman. Geelong have been getting bugger all! Every touch they get in the midfield comes via hard work, and anticipating the opposition’s ruck work. A durable ruckman who can actually compete should be high on their list of demands if Tim Kelly does want out. Hello, Scott Lycett? I know he's been linked to Port Adelaide, but he would again be assuming a number two ruck slot there behind Paddy Ryder. A number one ruck opportunity beckons at Geelong. It must be tempting.

Geelong are in a precarious position at the moment. Their top end talent simply didn’t perform in the Elimination Final against Melbourne. Gary Ablett took a half to get going, Joel Selwood was taken out of the game in the second time in as many tries by James Harmes, and Dangerfield hacked the ball to hit the target on only five of his 11 kicks for the game.

Not only did the top end talent fail, those in the middle didn’t fire a shot either. Tim Kelly had one touch in the first quarter when the heat was on. Sam Menegola went at 22% efficiency by foot, and Mitch Duncan fumbled the ball more often than he took it cleanly.

The Cats were exposed under the bright lights of an MCG final. They collapsed to Melbourne the way you’d expect an eighth-placed team to collapse. The thing was, they’d fooled us into thinking they were more than a team destined to scrape into the finals and bow out meekly.

They picked up arguably the best midfielder of his generation. They had another Brownlow Medallist gracing their midfield, and they had a captain I rate as one of the top couple in the league. They were destined for big things in 2018, and they failed to deliver. They weren't even close. They promised us diamonds and delivered a lump of coal.

And with age catching up with some, and the development of others slowing or stopping completely over the past twelve months, I have to ask; have we seen the best Geelong has to offer for some time?

It will take some shrewd operating in the off-season for Geelong to make a statement in 2019; a task made all the more difficult by their trading of picks in previous seasons which precludes them off-loading their 2018 pick in the coming trade period. However, if things go awry, even just a little, we may see Geelong finally fall away from finals contention and unable to rebuild on the fly as they’ve been able to for a few years now.

Clubs like Sydney, Geelong and Hawthorn apparently don’t bottom out.

That's true, until they do.

The Cats are looking at an off-season that may well determine whether they have another crack at the top eight next season, or settle comfortably down with the St Kildas of the league… and that is a place no one desires to be.

 

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