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The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - Geelong

I like to think that I am a fair and balanced person. Yes, I am passionate about my own team, but I reckon I am far from one-eyed. As such, it gave me no pleasure to see Geelong fail the way they did in 2018.

I was waiting for things to click for the Cats, and at times, they threatened to. But they never really did, did they? They were a team that, on paper, looked as though they could tear the competition a new one, but as a young fella, I was always taught never fear the person who makes threats – fear the one who doesn’t say much and just does something.

The Cats didn’t do much of anything in 2018. A middle of the road team, stacked with A-Grade talent, they needed to do a lot more. A first week finals exit was not what supporters envisioned when Gary Ablett came back to the fold to complete one of the most celebrated midfields in recent memory. If anything, 2018 raised more questions about Geelong than it provided answers.

Let’s see if we can answer a few questions of our own with our “ifs” and “buts” of Geelong in 2019.

 

IF…

… Joel Selwood has another season like 2018 and doesn’t make the AA squad, it’s a joke.

Those who’ve read my columns before know of my love for Selwood. An absolute warrior, I am pretty sure he’d put his life on the line if there was a loose ball he was capable of getting to. I have the utmost respect for the way he leads his team, and the way he goes about his footy.

Looking at his 2018, I am not sure what else he could’ve done (aside from not give away that free kick 100 metres off the play in the Elimination Final). 27 touches per game, 15.26 contested disposals amongst them, and 5.3 clearances puts him right at the pointy end of midfielders in the game. But it’s not just about numbers for Selwood – it’s about influence.

Trent Cotchin may have won “best captain” last season, as voted by his peers, but there is no player I’d rather follow into battle than Joel Selwood.

Cotchin made the AA squad in 2018. Selwood was left out. How?

Cotchin had less disposals, less contested touches, and less clearances. It’s not as though he ran forward and slammed home goals, either – Selwood had more. The Geelong captain also bested Cotchin in score involvements. I think at times selectors get a little caught up in residual glory. Yes, Cotchin led a team that finished on top of the ladder, but on-field, in terms of individual production, Selwood had a better year.

Yet Selwood wasn’t in that squad of 40, and if you’re going to sit there and tell me that he wasn’t in the best 40 players in the game in 2018, I’ll seriously continue eating this pack of salt and vinegar chips I found in the cupboard at my workplace ten minutes ago! Actually, I’ll do that irrespective of what you tell me.

Joel Selwood is a victim of his own high standards. His season was at least of equal to that of Cal Ward, Shane Edwards or Dev Smith. His 39 disposal performance in Round One was just as responsible for Geelong’s win as Max Gawn’s errant late game kicking for goal. His warrior-like performance against Hawthorn was vintage Selwood, and his 37 touches against Richmond were a Gary Ablett miskick away from being lauded as one of the great captains’ knocks.

So whilst others get rewarded for average years (and elevated to captaincy in the AA team, in some cases), if Joel Selwood has another year in 2019 like he had in 2018, and doesn’t even get considered for an All-Australian squad berth, we have to stop looking at his performances, and start looking at those who make the selections.

Yes... I like Joel Selwood. Shoot me. 

 

… Paddy Dangerfield goes forward and doesn’t kick goals, he’s being wasted.

Are you aware that our old mates at Champion Data rated Dangerfield as the best mid/forward in the game last season?

They did that despite a 21 goal drop off from his 2017 goal kicking – the year in which he WAS the best mid/forward in the game. Danger snagged 45 goals in 2017, and backed it up with just 24 in 2018. If I’m looking at that, seeing where he’s come from and weighing it up with a healthy dose of expectation, I would surmise that sending Danger into the forward line in 2018 was an abject failure.

Geelong caught teams on the hop in 2017. Coaches were not expecting Danger to play deep forward at times, and those coaches paid dearly, but it’s amazing what a bit of preparation can do, isn’t it? When Chris Scott pulled the trigger last season, and sent his best midfielder inside 50 to generate scores, teams adjusted, and they did so in such a manner that they not only stifled Danger up forward, but got the upper hand in the midfield as well, with Geelong short-handed in there as a result.

So regardless of what Champion Data thinks, there is no way Danger was the #1 mid/forward in the game last season. Dustin Martin was better than Danger in that role. He had 31 goals resulting from his efforts in drifting forward – teams weren’t waiting for it early in the season, and their adjustments on the fly weren’t great. It resulted in Martin having bags of five and six in the first four weeks.

Dangerfield belongs in the middle. He is a ball-winning, hard-running, line-breaking beast. He was recruited for his ability to beat opponents and kick long inside 50, and on too many occasions in 2018, he was taken out of that role and thrust into the role of deep forward. He was confronted on one occasion with Alex Rance. Now don’t get me wrong – I loved seeing this. It’s about as good a marquee match-up as you’re gonna get, but it was also one of the most clear-cut wins for Rance for the year. I’m not sure Danger even won one contest between the two in the time they spent opposed to each other. And whilst Danger was wrestling with the AA full back, his presence in the midfield is non-existent.

The failure of Danger to be a weapon up forward in 2018 doesn’t mean it won’t work this season, but if the plan is to plonk him down there and hope he can do something special, it might be time to rethink it and start setting up the forward structure to best suit his strengths. If they’re going to bomb long and hope, the Cats would be better off looking for Hawkins.

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… Luke Dahlhaus can provide some run and carry and free up Gary Ablett a little, the Cats midfield looks better.

The addition of Luke Dahlhaus is flying under the radar a little in terms of recruits who could have an impact on their new teams. The Cats have enough big guns in their midfield – they have game-changers in there. Selwood, Dangerfield and Ablett are offensive weapons, but there was a lot of talk during 2018 about whether the balance was right in the Cats midfield.

A lot of people thought that Geelong lacked the defensive capabilities to trouble teams in the midfield. They were all about winning the ball and running forward, which is great… when you are winning the ball, but you’re not always going to win it, are you?

Luke Dahlhaus doesn’t have the sort of numbers that blow you away. In his 17 games in 2018, he was -3.58 disposals per game on his 2017 numbers. Yes, fitness may have been an issue, but the Cats don’t need him collecting 26 touches per game. They’d settle for the 21 touches, sprinkled with some defensive intensity. They need him doing some of the dirty stuff in the middle that’ll allow their big three the space to move.

A midfield with Danger, Selwood and Ablett at centre bounces sounds ominous, but a midfield with any two of those three and Dahlhaus would probably be more effective, particularly if Dahlhaus comes in with a defensive mindset. He’s not a huge clearance winner, anyway, so if he starts to makeit his mission to hamper the ability of an opposition player to win the footy, it allows more freedom for his highly decorated teammates to work their magic.

Gaz’s legs are now 34 years old. Amazingly, so is the rest of him (except his teeth). He’s not going to have the same drive and ability to accelerate away from packs as he once did. Despite criticism about how much ball he was winning, he still amassed over 10 contested touches a game in 2018 (-2.87 on 2017 numbers) and 4.53 clearances (-3.11 on 2017… that’s a pretty big drop off) to become much more of an outside player.

At this stage of his career, that’s where his value lies.

Ablett streaming down the wing, or the flank, on the receiving end of some tough inside work is where his bread is now buttered. If he can transition successfully to a floating half forward role, or even onto the wing at times, skirting packs and making teams pay for loose checking, the Cats may well be better off. Gaz on one wing/flank, Tim Kelly on the other… Tom Hawkins would be licking his lips.

 

… Harry Taylor is fit, he is a complete luxury.

Bold statement, but the Cats no longer need Harry. If their current predicament were a movie, it may be titled ‘Harry Taylor and the Perfectly Functional Backline.’

With Taylor injured for much of 2018, Geelong was forced to experiment a little with its defenders, and in doing so, they found a wonderful mix. Mark Blicavs is close to the most underrated players in the league, and his second best and fairest award at Geelong demonstrates that he is only underrated externally. Tom Stewart has emerged as an All-Australian, whilst players like Jake Kolodjashnij (yes, looked it up again) and Jed Bews really came into their own.

But the player that makes Harry a luxury is Jack Henry. The youngster played 22 games for the Cats in 2018, and started to show signs that he had both the ability, and the courage to fill Taylor’s role. His penchant for dropping in the hole, and putting himself in harm’s way to take a gutsy mark turned heads all over the league, and cemented his place in a very slid back six.

So where does that leave Harry Taylor? Well, we’ll get into the forward set up for the Cats soon enough, and with his marking prowess, he makes a great replacement across half forward, or out of the goal square when required. He can still slot into a spot in defence when required too, making him the ultimate swingman.

 

 

BUT IF…

… Tom Hawkins does not perform as he did in 2018, the Cats’ forward half looks pretty shaky.

There are those who don’t rate Hawkins. Despite career-high numbers in possessions, marks, and contested possessions last season, apparently people don’t see him as one of the best power forwards in the game.

But I do.

He had the kind of run in 2018 that was as consistently good as anyone in the game. Over 11 games from Round 7-19, Hawkins kicked 42 goals, at a rate of 3.81 per game. He was clunking marks (7.63 over that period) and putting the Geelong forward line on his back. Whilst it wasn’t quite the 2011 Grand Final last quarter stuff… it was good, consistent footy.

Hawkins provided that which he’s been maligned for most of his career – a reliable forward option, and if he continues in 2019, we could see him contend for the Coleman.

The new rule interpretations, combined with a more effective Geelong midfield, could see some good results for Tomahawk. For starters, on a quick break out of the guts, Hawkins will not have a spare defender propped in front of him – that’s the 6-6-6 rule in play. On a long ball inside 50, he is now able to use his hands again to hold off an opponent (even in the back… I don’t know why this was changed in the first place – stupid Kevin Bartlett) and should be able to use that superior strength to take a few more contested marks.

So let’s pencil in 60 goals as the baseline for Hawkins. Anything above that starts to take him into rarefied air. Last year was just the third time Hawkins has been over the 60-goal mark, without ever getting to 70. Could 2019 be the year he cracks that mark? And what happens if he falls away a bit? Dan Menzel was really good early in the year, but once he limped off, only midfielders were able to hit the scoreboard.

Hawkins has not kicked under 46 goals since 2011. If he dips to that level, what are the Cats’ other options? We’ve touched on Danger going forward, but that’s proven to be hit and miss. Jamaine Jones looks promising, as does Nakia Cockatoo, and I’m a bit of a wrap for Brandon Parfitt and Esava Ratugolea (I’ll get to him in a bit), but none of them have the presence of Hawkins. None of them have the power, and the experience that Hawkins brings to the table.

Except maybe old Harry Taylor.

I’m not saying that Taylor is the panacea should something go awry with Hawkins, but in short bursts, Taylor has proven that he can go forward and offer something, and he has a few bags of five goals to prove it.

Cats fans will be hoping they don’t need to see Harry up forward unless it is as a second option, but it’s good to know that when fit, Taylor can offer something that the Cats may just need.

 

…  Tim Kelly’s heart is not in it this season, it spells huge trouble.

This may be a little contentious, and I don’t mind if you whack me for it, but if Tim Kelly had his heart set on heading back to WA (but only one WA team, mind you), and now finds himself at Geelong for another year, could there be an issue with his heart not being in it this season?

I suppose we should address the fact that Tim Kelly is a professional footballer, and as such, should act accordingly. He was given a shot by Geelong, and is contracted. It would be in his best interest to perform at a high standard and pave the way for a return home to Western Australia after the season if that’s what he desires.

But wanting out, and being forced to stay can sometimes have a detrimental effect on a player. Perhaps in Kelly’s mind, he is already looking forward to 2020 and wearing blue and gold? Perhaps his missus, who from all reports wasn’t too pleased with staying in Geelong another year, and voiced it in a newspaper article, will cause an issue?

Who knows what’ll happen? But what we do know is that Tim Kelly, at his best, is a damaging player. He turned on the sort of quarters at points in 2018 that blew the game apart. Against the Western Bulldogs, he had 19 touches in the last quarter. Seriously, I reckon I went half a season in the juniors without that many touches.

I’ve heard people saying he owes Geelong. I’ve heard just as many say that Geelong should’ve done the right thing and let him walk. I lean toward the former – he does owe the Cats. He owes them this season, and I hope he is prepared to give it everything he’s got. A switched on Tim Kelly could mean the difference between a successful Geelong, and a middle of the road finish.

And once he’s repaid the faith, he can then start focusing elsewhere.

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… the Cats can’t solve the ruck puzzle, they’ll be chasing tail.

I wrote above about the Geelong midfield being offensive-minded, and I want to drill down on that.

With a good ruckman; one who will at least win 50% of the taps in any given game, the Geelong midfield should excel. But how can they excel when their ruck division is headed up by Rhys Stanley?

The Cats had 835 hit outs in 2018, total. Brodie Grundy topped 1000 by himself. As did Max Gawn. Jarrod Witts had 854 by himself as well.

If the Geelong rucks are not getting their hands on the ball first, how can the midfield be expected to win the clearances necessary to give the forwards one-out opportunities? I’m amazed that Tom Hawkins was able to have the year he had when he basically got very little in the way of clear centre breaks to get him genuine one-on-one contests.

Readers will know I am a big wrap for Esava Ratugolea, and before he injured his ankle last season, he was showing plenty. He is a big boy, and he has a great vertical leap – he is a bit of a game changer at centre bounces, because he can match it with the league’s best big men when he doesn’t have to deal with body contact and jostling for position. In some cases, he can jump right over them to get his hand on the ball cleanly. THAT is what the Cats need in there, and they’d be hoping like hell that can recover enough to become an important ruck/forward for the team.

Ryan Abbott came along nicely as well, but for mine, Ratugolea is the one who can start the ball going the Cats’ way in 2019. If he starts getting his hand on it early in the season, and his endurance has improved, Geelong could have a star in the making on their hands.

Is it a bridge too far to think that Zac Smith may have pulled his finger out of his rear end to the point that he can make the senior side in 2019? What a waste he turned out to be in 2018. In his eighth year in the system, he looked increasingly like a bloke who was just content being on an AFL list. I don’t think he’ll be winning any awards that factor in work ethic…

If you want your midfield to star, you have to give them first opportunity. And Geelong have not done the right thing by their star mids in a while. It needs to change in 2019.

 

OTHER STUFF

Interesting to hear Gary Rohan come out and speak about the Tom Mitchell injury this week, stating that he is in for a looong recovery. Rohan would know – I’m not sure he ever regained the pace he has before his broken leg. But being down at Kardinia Park, in a new atmosphere… I think Rohan could find a new lease on life and have a couple of standout games for the Cats. 11 games, 8.5 touches per contest and only seven goals for the year – he needs to do something to rebuild a career that was going nowhere in Sydney.

I heard quite a few Geelong supporters lamenting the disappearing acts of James Parsons in 2018. It shocked me that he is only 21 years old. Really, going missing is more common than not at that stage of a career. That said, with 31 games now to his name, the time is right for him to be a more important fixture in the Geelong team.

Mitch Duncan became almost the forgotten man in the Geelong midfield in 2018, at least according to news reports. Truth be told, he did drop back to numbers akin to his 2016 production last season, but he was forced out of the midfield rotation at times. He averaged 29 touches per game in 2017 – the Cats need that kind of output again to help them become a legitimate contender.

Love the way Brandan Parfitt goes about his footy. He looks like a player. He’s smooth when he gets the ball, has a bit of poise about him, and was good for 15 goals last year. If he hangs out around that forward 50 arc, I could see a significant increase in goal production for him. I’ve been thinking about what kind of ceiling he has in the AFL, and a lot depends on whether he’ll be pushed up the ground, or settle into that half forward spot permanently. In year three, he is the one that can make the leap necessary to help the Cats… but in what role? As a running half forward, which is where I’d love to see him, I could see him slotting 30 goals this season. He’s elusive, a very good tackler, and is developing a pretty string body. maybe he is the player that makes the loss of (a fit) Daniel Menzel less of an issue? Also, I reckon he has the name of a seventies rock star. “And now… with the Parfitt family… Brandan Parfitt!”

I love that the Cats have been able to work themselves into a position where they’ll be playing nine games at Kardinia Park – I’ll be screwed if I’m gonna call it whatever acronym they call it these days… its stupid. Kudos to the footy club for making that ground a viable option for that many home games, and I am hoping the heat goes on for a “home” final there should the Cats finish in the right position.

Speaking of the draw, the Cats get the Hawks twice, and already I’m hearing supporters talking up their chances with Mitchell gone for the year. But they have not received a hand out in terms of playing one of the true bottom teams twice. They get none of Brisbane, Gold Coast, Carlton or St Kilda twice. Instead, their lowest ranked double up is the Western Bulldogs, and I do not expect them to be pushovers by any stretch. It means that Geelong get no leg-ups from the draw this year – a finals spot will be earned the hard way.

I like to talk about organic growth, and Geelong have a bit to offer. I mentioned Parsons and Parfitt, but it is guys like Narkle, Buzza, Fogarty, Cockatoo and Jones that need to take the next step and drag the team with them. Henry and Parfitt look the most likely, for mine. The backline had their collective organic growth last year - I rate them very highly as a unit.

So, where do the Cats sit in 2019? An incredibly tough start to the year sees them take on Collingwood, Melbourne, Adelaide, GWS, Hawthorn, West Coast and Essendon in succession. That is as tough a run as any club gets to start the year. If they stand up in those rounds and have a winning record, the Cats should be able to roll home well, and could even threaten for top four. However, none of those games mentioned are pushovers. I expect Adelaide to put the ghosts of 2018 behind them quickly, yet that looks to be the easiest game of that first seven weeks…. Oops, scratch that – it’s in Adelaide.

We’ll find out a lot about the Cats in those first couple of months. They’re going to need a lot to go right early in the season to make a run at the finals. They’re going to need a solid contribution from their stars, an immediate impact from recruits, and continued development from their kids - no one can stagnate, lest it cost the club. They’re definitely a team that could go either way in 2019. More ifs and buts about the Cats than definitive answers, I’m afraid. I can genuinely see them finishing anywhere from 5th to 12th.

 

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