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Geelong’s gap year — how the Cats’ premiership defence unravelled

To become the best, you have to beat the best.

The path to the premiership cup usually runs through the reigning premiers. That’s where the attention of sides shifts to during the off-season, when planning how to win in the coming season.

Those opposition eyes were firmly focused on Geelong coming into the 2023 season. Most predicted that the Cats would feature heavily in the finals, or could even be favourites for the flag.

Instead, the Cats will be watching the finals unfold from home, knocked out with a round to spare. It’ll be just the second game Chris Scott has coached of his 280 in charge without being in contention for that season’s flag.

Geelong is the third premier in the past seven years that has failed to qualify for the finals the next season.

Like most stories of lost seasons, there isn’t just one cause or symptom. If success takes a lot of things going right, failure often needs a similar amount. Coming into the season, the Cats returned 22 of their 23 premiership players from last year. Usually that’s a recipe for a side being able to contend again.

The one that exited Kardinia was perhaps the most spiritually important — Joel Selwood. The local product had been a fixture in the side since being drafted in 2007, leading the Cats in more games than any other player in their long and illustrious history.

It wasn’t just Selwood’s leadership quality that was prized. Selwood also delivered on the field right until his last game, contributing at contests around the ground. One of the biggest drivers of the Cats’ furious run towards the flag last year was their transformed contest set-up from mid-season.

Once Tom Atkins and Mark Blicavs moved into more permanent midfield roles, the Cats not only thrived offensively but made it extremely hard for opposition sides to score. Selwood’s role was two-fold — to lay effective physical pressure and to effectively use disposal to get the ball to Geelong’s dangerous outside runners.

Over the off-season, the Cats recruited three young midfielders picked up in the hope of filling the legend-sized gap. Jack Bowes, Tanner Bruhn and Jhye Clarke all differed dramatically in their experience and potential, but presented decent swings to contribute over the long term and maybe immediately. Geelong also hoped further development of their own youngsters like Max Holmes might be able cover the back end of their rotations.

In short, there was a plan in play, despite the size of the loss.

Less talked about, and perhaps more important, is another absence from the Cats contest group. In recent years Cam Guthrie has increasingly come into his own, able to play a similar role to Selwood at his best.

Coming into 2023, Guthrie shaped to lead this group alongside Patrick Dangerfield, with the other moving parts fitting in around them.

In round six Guthrie suffered a toe injury that eventually required surgery, further hurting the Cats’ midfield depth.

In modern footy a blend is required around the contest. Teams have to be able to not only win and use the ball, but effectively defend and block space as well. While Atkins and Blicavs can win hard ball and use it with some effectiveness, their best role is primarily defensive. That’s where they are blocking for others to create and shutting down opponents.

Geelong’s best contest set-ups last year often worked with one or two midfielders blocking for Dangerfield or Guthrie working downhill against overmatched defenders. That situation has been harder to engineer this year.

Guthrie’s absence has deprived them of a two-sided midfielder to attack and defend with equal skill.

In the first six weeks of the season, with Guthrie in the side, the Cats were one of the best clearance teams in the competition. Since then they have been about the worst. Injuries to newly minted captain Dangerfield have exacerbated the problem as those replacement options have been cycled through the side.

It has also meant they have had to utilise heavier doses of Atkins and Blicavs, turning the group slightly more defensive, without the same ability to damage going forward. Winning raw clearances isn’t the be all and end all — it’s what you can do with the ball when you get it that matters.

That has transitioned to the around-the-ground ball use. The Cats excelled last year at getting the ball to space and preventing opposition sides from putting physical pressure on them. This year, they are under the pump more than practically any other side without dishing it out in balance.

That increased pressure on their attacking game has incidentally put pressure on the defensive side of their game — often putting them out of position when opposing sides have the ball.

The Cats will already have an eye towards 2024.(AAP: James Ross)

Like the midfield group, the defence was struck by an injury in the early parts of the year that proved to be critical. Jack Henry might not grab as much attention as Tom Stewart or Sam De Koning but he has proved his effectiveness down back as a flexible piece. In 2021 Henry finished second in the Carji Greeves Medal count, demonstrating his value to the coaching group.

On the eve of the season, Henry went down with a foot injury. The hopes were that he would return at some point this year but that hasn’t eventuated.

His absence, combined with the damage to the midfield group, has led to a marked decline in their ability to defend when the ball enters the scoring zone.

Last year Geelong held opposing sides down back enough to do damage with their incredible forward line. This year the defence hasn’t been able to keep pace. This is particularly clear from centre bounces, where the Cats have leaked more points than any other team per lost clearance since round seven this year.

“We thought we were going really well in the pre-season, then we lost all our defenders in one go. Tom Stewart hurt his knee 15 minutes into round one. It’s not so much those injuries or issues in isolation, it’s what it means for the flow-on,” Scott said after the loss to the Saints.

Scott’s inventive defensive systems have been able to hide some of the damage, with sliding defenders covering across and denying one-on-one opportunities better than any other side. But one clear sign of their decline is their inability to kill aerial contests inside 50.

When they’ve won the ball, Geelong has still been able to effectively transition the ball forward, speaking to their strength at scoring when they can get the ball out to uncontested, set play.

That style, and inability to find it at stretches of the season, was something that Scott was struggling with in the aftermath of being knocked out.

At the end of the season, Geelong may look back and rue a few contingent events and bad moments more than any deep structural problems or forthcoming decline.

Throughout the year the Cats have been generally competitive, never really blown out and inflicting some big scores themselves. They’re sitting with the sixth-best percentage with the fifth-most total points. Experience also isn’t an issue, with a wealth of recent premiership talent on their books.

Unfortunately, the midfield and backline problems cost them just enough, losing five and drawing a sixth of their seven close games. If a couple of those had swung their way, they’d be in the finals for the 19th time this century. Perhaps not the finely humming machine of a year ago, but still in the fight.

Despite being knocked out of premiership contention, the Cats still have a chance to shape the finals race. The Dogs need to beat the Cats this week to have any chance of winning the flag.

However, the Cats are set to be significantly understrength, looking towards 2024 and hitting the off-season in the best health possible.

The oldest team ever in league history 12 months ago was always going to face personnel transitions. Scott is optimistic that those young midfield talents will continue to develop and contribute next year. Jack Henry should be able to return to full health next year as well, helping the defensive crew out too.

A full off-season might just help the dozen or so over-30s the Cats are likely to call upon next year to perform to their best abilities.

There may be an era-ending decline coming, but with a bit of better luck and the right talent available, perhaps not quite yet in 2024.



Author: Russell White