Story Of The Summer
Like Collingwood the Cats felt the need to make the tough call on a few favourite sons in order to rejuvenate their list heading into season 2014. Veterans James Podsiadly, Paul Chapman, Josh Hunt and Trent West would be culled with Joel Corey opting for retirement as Geelong nearly doubled the players on their list in the 18-21 age bracket from seven in 2013 to 13 in 2014. The influx of youth saw the Cats also half the players over the age of 30 from eight to four as their average games played across the list dropped from 66.5 a season ago to 59.7. This left only Gold Coast, GWS and St Kilda with more players in their squad with fewer than 40 games experience, with the Cats also registering just six players in the meaty part of the development cycle of 40-99 games, the equal second-fewest total behind GWS.
The list profile has the appearance of a side in transition, yet on paper remains a slew of familiar names that still produce premiership quality football. It’s the rare combination of a team rebuilding whilst contending, and although it promises to produce bumps along the way, few teams in history have had the proven run of success against adversity the Cats have.
Despite a 20-point lead heading into the final term of the preliminary final Geelong couldn’t continue their longstanding dominance over Hawthorn with fatigue defeating luck in the closing stages. If anything it highlighted not a need for drastic change or new identity, but a tweaking of the turnover and counter attack dependent game plan which constantly flirts with the risk of the corridor. Time and time again we see one-on-one football come to the fore of success in September and in Geelong’s hitout against Collingwood this pre-season we saw a Cats side incorporating more contested elements behind a healthy ruck division.
Where They Excel
Defensively few teams come as disciplined and bruising as the Cats. Despite a sound back six it’s the defensive work as a unit which made Geelong dangerous as a blitzing counter attack outfit in 2013. The primary feature of success was the Cats ability to limit opposition time on the ball restricting opponents to a league low kick-to-handball ratio which led to a league high for opponent turnovers by foot, thanks to the lack of options on offer when teams looked to gain ground. Opponents simply struggled to locate targets when facing Geelong recording the second-fewest uncontested marks, third-fewest effective kicks and second-lowest kicking efficiency.
The defensive objective for an AFL midfield is to limit inside 50s and only restrictive kings Fremantle did so more effectively than Geelong in season 2013. As a result the Cats held their opponents to the third-worst scoring efficiency and were ranked fourth defensively for points from stoppages, whilst leading the competition in points from turnover differential.
There’s no doubting Geelong were lethal offensively but defensively they were just as successful at restricting opposition output. The beauty is this discipline will likely carry over to 2014 with a defence first Geelong outfit a very intriguing proposition when factoring in their forward line concerns.
Hiccups On The Horizon
Geelong’s forward line issues are obvious with no clear cut solution as the key position stocks continue to thin out. Nathan Vardy is the latest casualty after an ACL injury left his season in tatters. Moving on James Podsiadly over summer was the correct move at the time but hindsight would unfortunately suggest otherwise as replacing his ability to present and contribute 30+ goals will take some thinking outside the box.
As a key forward Vardy never promised to be a world beater but the potential was evident as highlighted by the four-goal haul against Gold Coast in round ten. If anything forfeiting 12 months of development for Vardy is devastating for Geelong as they reload for another tilt at a premiership. The loss of Vardy leaves the Cats with a conglomerate of hope in Marc Blicavs (offered very little as a key position target), Harry Taylor (more valuable in defence), Josh Walker and Shane Kersten (both largely inexperienced).
Of the options at Geelong’s disposal Kersten looks to have the most potential to fill the current void. Just shy of 21, standing 190 centimetres and a sizeable 94 kilograms Kersten looked at home in the VFL last season kicking 41 goals from 13 games, including seven bags of three or more. It’s no secret finding space at AFL level is much harder and with only 11 of 47 marks contested at VFL level the jury is still out on Kersten’s one-on-one ability. Throw in a sprained foot during pre-season and the expectations are minimal.
In their favour the Cats have a plethora of goal scoring midfielders with Steven Motlop (39), Joel Selwood (28) and Allen Christensen (21) all regularly hitting the scoreboard. Unfortunately both Motlop and Christensen are in for lengthy stretches on the sidelines which will only magnify the Cats’ concerns.
Then there is Tom Hawkins, whose lingering back issues are arguably the biggest factor in the firepower equation. Geelong recorded more entries inside 50 than any side in 2013 yet ranked fourteenth for percentage of inside 50s resulting in a mark, a blemish unlikely to be rectified in 2014.
There is no doubt Chris Scott will have some headaches working out the most effective plan of attack.
Geelong will need to build confidence early and work out their forward line woes before their baptism of fire on the fixture list takes hold, otherwise they face the possibility of chasing wins all year. This isn’t ideal for a list still dependent on ageing stars and a key forward whose body isn’t exactly concrete in the reliability department.
Games against Hawthorn, away to Port Adelaide and Richmond are wedged between the bye week before travel to Fremantle, home fixture against North Melbourne and road trip to Sydney. It’s a six-game chunk in the opening 12 weeks of the season which will likely make or break the Cats’ finals prospects let alone top four ambitions.
From what we’ve seen thus far Josh Caddy, Cam Guthrie, Allen Christensen, Mitch Duncan and Steven Motlop have the talent to hold the Cats in good stead for years to come. Experience in Selwood, Taylor, Enright, Mackie, Hawkins, Bartel and Steve Johnson as genuine All-Australian commodities still makes for a complimentary balance of youth and veterans’ nous. They are names etched hand in hand with success which makes questioning the Cats’ resolve even tougher.
For Geelong to continue their finals run they need the extra push to come from players who have shown ability but are largely cloaked in mystery. The likes of Jackson Thurlow, Shane Kersten, Jordan Murdoch, Jordan Schroder, Josh Cowan, Mitch Brown, Billie Smedts and George Horlin-Smith present a plethora of options and if two or three can make the leap this season, specifically those with key forward and ball winning capabilities, the Cats can make a play for top six honours, but that integration will have to happen almost immediately.
Geelong were written off in 2011 and responded with a premiership. A spot in the finals was questioned last season by many yet they came within a whisker of another grand final berth. It’s natural to expect a side to have their moments of irrelevancy after so many in the sun, but even if the Cats falter in 2014 they won’t remain in the shadows for long. The next wave of talented youth is evident in spades but banking on it to blossom prematurely is more hope than logic.
As one of the big question mark sides this season it would still take a brave man to write the Cats off. Given the body of work when adversity looms we at least owe them the benefit of the doubt for now.
All signs point to a rocky start, but with experience and a quality coach in their corner you feel they’ll be there in some capacity come September.
B: J.Rivers, T.Lonergan, C.Guthrie
HB: A.Mackie, H.Taylor, C.Enright
C: J.Caddy, A.Christensen, J.Kelly
HF: S.Motlop, S.Kersten, M.Duncan
F: J.Bartel, T.Hawkins, M.Stokes
Foll: D.Simpson, J.Selwood, S.Johnson
Int: H.McIntosh, T.Varcoe, G.Horlin-Smith
You can follow Scott on Twitter: @ScottyBarby
All data courtesy of AFL.com.au, Herald Sun, Footywire and Foxsports