The era of Geelong dominance is over. The greatest team of all is officially no longer, and the obituaries are being written.
It was not meant to be this way.
Most had the Cats pencilled in for a classic preliminary final match-up against the Hawks and, if they could only extend the Kennett Curse for one more battle, yet another grand final berth would be theirs.
But sport seldom plays out as predicted, and Fremantle weren’t particularly keen for that version of events.
After their impressive display against Sydney in round 23, finishing their season having won six of the previous seven, Geelong were supposed to be a force to be reckoned with in this year’s finals series.
The ‘wildcard’. The ‘dangerous floater’. Potentially the second best in it behind Hawthorn.
Perhaps the players had been reading their own press. Maybe sock drawers full of premiership medallions made them feel above the inconvenience of an elimination final. At minimum, their minds were already on the following week.
The Dockers were quite simply more desperate from the first bounce. Whenever a loose ball was there to be won, invariably a purple jumper was the first one over it.
The Cats were playing with the air of a team expecting to get the win without putting in the required effort.
But their hubris was unfounded, based purely on season 2012. Frankly, they hadn’t played well all year, particularly in an ugly first half of the season. They won games alright, mainly through pure will and the opposition freezing at crucial moments. A 7-5 win-loss ratio after 12 matches flattered, and should arguably have been 4-8.
While they did get going in the second half of the year, it was still 10-15 minute periods of dominance that was doing it, not comprehensive four quarter efforts.
Their defeat of the Swans in the last round was their best performance, but a week earlier they couldn’t have been less impressive in accounting for the Western Bulldogs. A six goal victory over the Dogs was the equivalent of a five goal loss to a top eight side.
But the pundits weren’t having it. Experts were falling over themselves to declare that Geelong could win the premiership in 2012. This was an ‘even year’, which was perfect for the champion side to make a run from outside the top four.
However, they weren’t using their eyes. This was no longer a champion side. Just a good to very good team with a host of champions, many of whom were in decline.
This is not to criticise, merely the way of sport. The combination of age and so many gruelling finals campaigns take their toll, with the September games themselves over so many years totalling an entire season’s worth.
Of the proven Cat players, few enhanced their reputations this year. Through coaching structure, or just diminished ability, Jimmy Bartel was poor even though his tackle rate was high, Paul Chapman had more games with less influence than before, despite a late season resurgence, and James Podsiadly is a huge concern looking to next year, already looking slower than a wet week.
Joel Corey wasn’t as prolific, Corey Enright was up-and-down, and Matthew Scarlett had one eye on the end of a storied career.
Combine all of this with Gary Ablett leaving at the end of 2010, along with the hardest of hard men, Max Rooke, and the 2011 exit of four All-Australians in Cameron Ling, Brad Ottens, Cameron Mooney and Darren Milburn, and it’s no disgrace for Geelong to have finished where they have.
Of course, none of this is to deride a once mighty side. Geelong’s reign at, or near, the top had lasted longer than the previous champion teams of the modern game.
Including 2004, when the Cats were two goals from a grand final, it’s been nine years of largely excellent football, bar the 2006 train wreck that merely fuelled the greatness to come.
Eight September campaigns. 22 finals. Six preliminary finals. Four grand finals. Three premierships.
As a Richmond supporter who has seen six finals for only two wins in the last 30 years, bitter is the envy I feel for this run of sustained success.
But what does the future hold?
The Sydney template is the one that Geelong will be following. The Swans have only missed the finals once since their 2005 flag, and are probably going to be playing off for the main prize again this year.
The next wave of Geelong youth has shown glimpses this season, and under the strong leadership of 24 year old Joel Selwood, they’ll be sure to prosper by learning the right disciplines.
Mitch Duncan played a pivotal role off the bench in last year’s grand final, looking the goods from his first game, Allen Christensen is a jet that oozes talent, and Steven Motlop could be anything.
Jordan Murdoch caught the eye late in the season, Billie Smedts can fill a role anywhere on the ground, and Cameron Guthrie looks to have a bright future with sure hands below his knees.
Tom Hawkins has become the most powerful forward in the game, and will lead the big man brigade down at Corio Bay for years to come. In that group will be Trent West, Nathan Vardy, Josh Walker and Mitch Brown, all of whom have played less than 75 matches between them.
So next year will see the Cats land a few blows, but lose more games they are expected to win as they hang around the middle part of the ladder. They may or may not make finals, but the end result will be immaterial. The year after that will see another drop as more and more fresh blood is introduced and the young side learns to gel together.
But watch for the rise in 2015, when finals will be on the cards once more.
This era of dominance for the Geelong Football Club might be over, but the next one may not be too far away.