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Pump the brakes on Geelong, everyone

Tom Hawkins become a test case for the future of the jumper punch. (AAP Image/Joe Castro)
Expert
10th March, 2016
81
2460 Reads

The exuberance towards Geelong is at housing bubble levels: the Cats have built this strange, uber-positive goodwill over the off-season, and the football world expects big things. Not so fast.

We checked in on Geelong at the start of last year’s off-season, positing that there was no way known they would bring in Patrick Dangerfield, Lachie Henderson, Scott Selwood and Zach Smith in a single hit.

Sure, they’d end up with a couple of their targets, but landing all four would be a bridge too far, despite the new tools available to clubs seeking deals.

Well, now we’re here. The Cats got their men, punting on two year’s worth of first round draft picks. Geelong are all-in with the group that has been assembled. Out go the favourite sons, and in come four prime-age pieces of varying prospect. Geelong have rotated from slider to contender in a manner this column can’t remember seeing before.

As it stands, the markets think the 11-win, tenth-placed Geelong Cats are a better shot at winning the 2016 AFL premiership than the 16-win, fourth-placed Sydney Swans and 15-win, fifth-placed Richmond Tigers, and are an even chance with last season’s minor premiers, the Fremantle Dockers. They trail just last year’s grand finalists Hawthorn and West Coast as flag favourites.

This is insane! Geelong, who have quietly been on the skids since their 2011 premiership – even if their win tally doesn’t suggest this as we discussed in September – are expected to turn it all around off the back of a single off-season, and figure in this season’s race for the flag.

Let’s pump the brakes. There are four massive questions that the loom over the Cats that I can’t get out of my mind as we speed towards March 24.

What are they going to do with all of those tall guys?
Geelong have a dozen players that stand over 195 centimetres tall, and that doesn’t include Harry Taylor (193cm), Jake Kolodjashnij (193cm) and Andrew Mackie (192cm). Despite what the major national football paper would have you believe, this isn’t particularly interesting or unique on its own: the AFL median is to have 11 195-centimetre or taller players on a list.

However, what is interesting is that of these 15 tall players, 11 would be expected to play serious time at Geelong this season. This is being talked about under the guise of the flexibility it offers the Cats – it is just as easy to say this is a sign that they are oversubscribed in the big man stakes. Settling on a combination of tall players that works is much harder than it looks.

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The simplest dilemma would appear to be in the ruck, where there are three pure ruckmen in Zac Smith, Rhys Stanley and Nathan Vardy vying for one full-time position supporting the perennial third-man-up force of Mark Blicavs. Smith would be an interesting option, given his sheer size, but it is likely the Cats will choose between Stanley and Vardy – or indeed rotate them throughout the season.

This flows through to Geelong’s attacking set up, which will undoubtedly be spearheaded by Tom Hawkins. However joining him forward of the ball will be Mitch Clark (once he’s fit), who as a second tall would be expected to play some time in the ruck. If that is the case, Blicavs becomes somewhat redundant as a ruck option, and will mean Geelong’s midfield will be unbalanced.

However, it is behind the ball where the real trouble lies on this front. The Cats recruited Lachie Henderson to play as an intercepting defender – at least that is this columnist’s assumption, because putting him up forward would expose Geelong against the growing number of teams that play smaller defensive units – and he’ll join a line-up that already boasts Tom Lonergan (197cm), Taylor (193cm), Kolodjashnij (193cm) and Mackie (192cm). That’ll be four players in Geelong’s starting six defenders that are tall enough to be considered primarily medium-tall defenders.

Mackie has never played as a primary tall defender, but after 235 games looks a step behind the smaller forwards that he’ll be required to play on in this new structure. Geelong’s other options on the medium-small defender front are not particularly compelling, either.

Which leads to the next question…

Can Geelong’s defensive group stop the best sides anymore?
Just quietly, Geelong’s back six might be its Achilles heel in 2016.

The Cats dropped out of the top eight on my defensive efficiency rating metric for the first time since 2003 last season, recording a rating of -0.8. That was good enough for 11th position. The gap between Geelong’s defensive performance and the performance of the fifth best defence – Sydney – was as big as the gap between Geelong and Gold Coast in 16th place.

Of most concern was that the Cats conceded almost 100 points per game (97 in the end) against the top eight sides last year, which was close to three goals worse than sides in the 2015 top six.

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Part of that is to do with Geelong’s inability to win the ball in contested situations across the ground, leading to more inside 50s on average. However, Geelong were also in the bottom six sides on the ladder when it came to stopping sides scoring once they made it inside the stripe – not a great sign for a team that just grew an extra tall limb over the off-season.

Forward lines are getting smaller and more nimble by the year – as fellow expert Jay Croucher called out so elegantly (as he always does) when discussing Hawthorn’s flexible monster last year. Can this Geelong back line, filled with mostly tall timber or grizzled veterans, keep up with the likes of West Coast, the Western Bulldogs, Adelaide and, indeed, Hawthorn?

Corey Enright looms as central to this, given his relatively small stature and 300 games worth of footballing nous. He isn’t as quick of foot as, say, Jake Stringer, but his football IQ has been honed over 15 years of top level football.

Coaching and scheme will have to come into play, too. Geelong may be forced to mostly abandon one-on-one play down back and instead focus on guarding dangerous spots inside 50. That way, the marking threat of Taylor and Henderson could come into play if the opposition chooses to attack in a conventional way.

Geelong’s midfield group can reasonably be expected to pick up its share of the work in improving the team’s defensive performance. But as we found last year, they have their own fish to fry.

Is Patrick Dangerfield really the solution to Geelong’s inside woes?
So the tall situation is an interesting one. Flexibility is nice, but it still means you’ve got a whole whack of tall guys running around the field, against the trend of teams playing line-ups that have fewer ‘traditional’ big men. That isn’t where most of the optimism is emanating from, though.

That source of lustre is much more in-your-face: Patrick Dangerfield.

Dangerfield is, in this columnist’s view, the second best player in the competition – a debate I look forward to carrying next week when we bring you The Roar‘s Top 50 AFL Players for another season. He would have been a slam dunk no matter where he landed in his free agency, and that he went to Geelong seems a perfect fit on paper.

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The Cats have been one of the poorest contested possession and clearance sides in the competition in recent years, with last year’s performance placing them in 18th on clearance wins per game, and in the bottom third of the competition on contested possession differential. It is in stark contrast to their peak year, 2008, where the Cats were a ball-winning machine.

Dangerfield is a one-man ball-winning machine in his own right, and is expected to provide an instant filip to his new side in this area. That may be the case. It would be very brave to predict the Cats will go backwards again in these two areas of the game. But he is one person at the head of a midfield group which, let’s be real, hasn’t shown an aptitude for this part of the game before Dangerfield’s arrival.

Last season, Joel Selwood won nearly as many clearances as Cam Guthrie and Mark Blicavs combined; they were the third and fourth highest clearance winners at Geelong. There were two players that averaged more than two clearances per game, where most other clubs, even those at the bottom of the ladder, had at least four.

Adding an elite player at the top is very likely to create flow-on benefits for those lower in the pyramid. You can also put as much lipstick on a pig as you like – it isn’t going to magically transform into a unicorn. I think that’s how that metaphor works.

Can Joel Selwood still be Joel Selwood?
And how long can captain Selwood, who has destroyed his face and the rest of his body in 204 remarkably physical games of football over nine years, keep up his frenetic position in this team?

Dangerfield will help, no doubt, but in order to make up the gap between their finals-winning best and their current mediocrity, one plus one has to equal three.

Selwood is currently listed as probable for Geelong’s first game of the year – Easter Monday against Hawthorn. Plantar fasciitis is not a particularly useful condition to develop for an athlete that relies on their feet (which is to say it is not an ideal injury, period), and it has kept him on the sidelines for much of Geelong’s pre-season. That there are conflicting reports about his progress suggests probable might be more like doubtful.

His run with injury has been Robert Harvey-Gary Ablett like, having missed 13 games over those nine years, and does not mesh at all with his gut check style of play. That is not to say it is going to come to an end, nor that he can’t be Joel Selwood in 2016. But we shouldn’t assume that he can remain at his apex indefinitely.

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But, but, but…
There’s reasons to stop and think, sure. Another one I’d add to the mix was their near-death experience at the hands of a junior Collingwood side, at home, in last week’s NAB Challenge. Yeah, it was a NAB Challenge game, but in that second half, both sides were trying to win the game.

There were some clear teething issues, particularly in moving the ball forward in the third quarter. Geelong continuously broke down forward of centre, and on far too many occasions the defence looked like a kindy class at recess time. There is no way known the Cats should have allowed Collingwood to kick ten unanswered goals in that quarter and 11 in total – that a 32-year-old Dane Swan kicked three of them speaks volumes as to the issues the Cats may have in defending smaller players this season.

Part of this was the sheer brutal, almost mathematical, efficiency in which Collingwood entered the attacking zone. Every time, they hit up the area bang in front of goal. But part of it was the same issues that dogged Geelong in 2015.

Let’s not get too down in the dumps. Geelong have a cushy draw, have the second best player in the competition on their list, and are coming into a season as a non-finalist for the first time since 1681. Their home-field advantage remains strong despite their more recent troubles, and there is plenty of experience to draw on throughout the year.

Does that add up to a top-four finish? If you asked me in January (and Jay did, on the pilot episode of The Roar AFL Podcast) I entertained the idea. But if you ask me now, that seems incredibly premature.

They will be good, and will almost certainly make the top eight this year, perhaps on the basis of their draw alone. But there are far too many questions to be answered to push them into the contender bracket just yet.