As it lies, the AFL ladder is full of intrigue. After another loss to a top side, it seems that Geelong need to look to the future to build another championship team.
The top five sides are separated by a matter of one or two games, though the real wild card of the top eight seems to be Geelong. The reigning premiers currently sit in seventh spot, having recorded victories in five of its last seven matches, however the Cats have been far from convincing this season with a record of 9-6.
To illustrate this, Geelong’s recent losses since Round 7 have included a 50-point loss to Adelaide, a 12-point loss to Collingwood and a narrow 6-point defeat in a not-to-be comeback against Sydney. Unconvicning victories over bottom six sides in the Western Bulldogs (20 points), GWS (65 points), Port Adelaide (38 points) and Gold Coast (14 points) don’t really bolster the Cats’ reputation either.
Comparing the Cats’ efforts against bottom eight sides in 2012 to the end of last season as they hit their best form is startling. Consider thisl in the last nine matches Geelong played in 2011 (including the finals), the Cats won eight out of nine matches, losing only to the Swans (13 points) inRound 23. Their percentage from these nine games was a whopping 203.2%.
During this period, the Cats had significant wins over Richmond (62 points), Melbourne (186 points), Gold Coast (150 points), Adelaide (11 points), Collingwood (96 points), Hawthorn (31 points), West Coast (48 points) and Collingwood in the Grand Final (38 points).
The major difference is now the Cats are failing to beat the top class sides, such as Collingwood, Sydney and Adelaide, while only recording luke-warm victories against the sides they were destroying just last year. The question is, why?
The loss of multiple premiership players in Brad Ottens, Cameron Ling, and Darren Milburn have tested Geelong’s depth this year like never before as the Cats’ younger players, that have been only in the system a couple of years, are now required to pick up the slack in a more senior role. The unavailablity of promising youngsters Daniel Menzel, Travis Varcoe, and Nathan Vardy for the entirety of the year has also impacted the club, as they are the players that would have been expected to step up to take more responsibility this season, given the retirement of the senior group, which also included much-loved clubman Cameron Mooney.
As the club moves through the premiership era, the players they have drafted have been of a lesser quality overall compared to that of the bottom sides. This has meant that the kids they are drafting may not always be capable of playing the standard of football required for Geelong to remain a premiership contender. This is no fault of the recruiters, as they are hamstrung by the lower picks the Cats have been granted in drafts due to their recent dominance, and thus are only able to pick the talent that is remaining after the clubs with higher picks.
The cycle of AFL football, in the national draft era, has meant that teams will eventually have to slide out of the top eight. This inevitablilty can be delayed by clubs retaining players on lower salaries in order to keep a successful group together, but eventually age and form will force clubs to rebuild.
The Sydney Swans have mastered this art since 1996, rebuilding and regenerating their list without bottoming out, and thus receiving the cream of the draft selections. Astute trading has kept the Swans competitive and this is the approach Geelong must adopt if they are to remain a finals aspirant in the seasons they cannot realistically win a premiership.
Given the Cats were unable to defeat the Magpies on Saturday night, and thus receive a body blow to their four ambitions, they most likely will not win the 2012 premiership, and must plan for a future potentially without a number of gun players in Matthew Scarlett, Jimmy Bartel, Joel Corey and Corey Enright.
Trading is the best option if the Cats want to stay in reach of the top eight in coming years. Alternatively, they could follow the West Coast model of sacrificing one season in order to get a strong first round pick. This may be accepted by the members as an option, however unpalatable it may seem in the short term.
But of course, drafting first round picks is no guarantee to premership success. Just look at the lack of flags St Kilda, Carlton, Western Bulldogs, Richmond, and Melbourne have won as evidence of that.
This season and years to follow will be testing times for the Cats as they look to reform a team capable of taking out yet another Geelong premiership.