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Highway to the Dangerzone: The Geelong Cats in 2016

(Photo: AAP)
Roar Pro
12th March, 2016
11

‘What’s in a name?’ William Shakespeare penned – or quilled in that time – this in Romeo and Juliet. Although that was way back in 1597, the question is just as relevant as we enter the 2016 AFL season – something I’m sure Shakespeare had in mind.

The name in question? Patrick Dangerfield.

Shakespeare said, following the aforementioned line, ‘that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. Patrick Dangerfield may be called a Geelong Cat now, but his game is no less damaging, or no less desirable, than it was when he was called an Adelaide Crow.

In fact, it’s arguably even more important to the Cats than it was to the Crows. How so? We’ll get to that shortly, but the fact of the matter is Dangerfield, the jewel in Geelong’s 2015 glittering trade period crown, has left ajar the premiership window that, by the end of 2015, looked to be finally slamming shut after an era of glory.

2015 in review
The old English proverb that cats have nine lives proved itself in 2015, as Geelong lost its bid for what would’ve been a tenth-straight finals appearance. Injury most certainly played a part, but at some point it must be put to one side, leaving harsh realities to be faced.

The fact that will hurt most is, when it came to attack, the Cats’ once mighty roar was resigned to little more than a whimper.

2015 saw the Cats produce their fewest points scored since 2003. Furthermore, the famous ‘Geelong Highway’ counter attack became, like many other facets of this once great outfit, a thing of the past.

Thanks to Champion Data, we can track the Cats’ downward spiral in this area: from 2011 to 2014, the Cats scored from oppostion turnovers 62 per cent of the time, making them the only side in the AFL to achieve above 60 per cent. 2015 saw them at 55 per cent for the same stat, relegating them from first to the fifth worst in the AFL.

Geelong, to their credit, have not shied away from the fact their once-near-impenetrable aura was anything but in 2015, but this doesn’t make their fall any less vivid in the minds of Cats fans.

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So, what went right, and what went wrong?

The positives
What can be salvaged from a poor 2015 season?

Perhaps the willingness of Chris Scott and his fellow coaching staff to opt for the younger over the older player if it came down to the wire meant many of the youth brigade went some way towards bridging the glaring gap between themselves and the club’s premiership heroes like Joel Selwood, Harry Taylor, Corey Enright and more.

Key among the improvers was Mark Blicavs, whose development of game smarts has been no less remarkable than his positional felxibility on game day. The first 11 rounds saw him as a genuine midfielder, averaging 19 disposals and ranking third at the club for contested possessions and clearances. The backend of the season then saw him become the club’s number one ruckman.

In general play, his pressure ranks ‘elite’ according to Champion Data, and is fourth best at the club, typifying a man working at 110 per cent to make up for lost time. A best and fairest win in 2015 proved the exclamation mark for his frightening potential.

Steven Motlop was another Cat who kicked it up a notch, becoming the number one player of all mid-forwards in the competition for uncontested possessions, and third for metres gained. Furthermore, he became the only mid-forward in the competition to average more than 20 disposals and a goal per game.

But perhaps the most impressive stat, especially for Cats fans and the club’s coaching staff, is the improvement of his defensive game, which saw him average a career high 38 pressure points per game.

Although injury will feature as a negative, it was the returns from injury offering a shining light in a bleak 2015. Daniel Menzel, in particular, was otherworldly. Ask a Cats fan what they thought of his return match against Collingwood, and they may very well claim that not since Jesus had there been such a ressurection. His return after 1450 days and four knee reconstructions saw him kick four goals and gather a career-high 20 disposals.

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That the last round of the season saw him play with Josh Cowan and Nathan Vardy for the first time since Round 11, 2011 shows that, although 2015 was cause for concern, there are good things ahead should injury not rear its ugly head at the young talent in the Cattery.

The negatives
As we’ve seen, there are certainly positives the Cats can take from season in which they dropped down to 10th.

But they didn’t miss out on finals because of any injustice or fluke. To quote Alistair Clarkson, the Cats simply weren’t “hard enough and tough enough for long enough.”

Their 2015 season saw them peter out at the coalface, ranking 13th for contested possessions, 17th for hit-outs, and 18th for clearances.

Injury left the Cats struggling towards the finish line, when they could only salvage one victory in their last four games. Mitch Duncan and Rhys Stanley threatened to breakthrough to the elite level, but their efforts were cruelly cancelled out by long-term injuries.

Furthermore, the return of Josh Cowan came, coincidentally, in the same match as Menzel’s return, but unlike Menzel, Cowan’s was a night to forget, having to be subbed out 12 minutes in with a hamstring injury. It was indicative of a year where the Cats simply couldn’t put it all together for long enough to contend with the best.

Mitch Clark continues to be a huge question mark moving forward, as he battles with mental illness and yet another injury. The club won’t rush him back, and rightly so, but the forward support he could lend to Tom Hawkins would be invaluable.

From a statistical standpoint, it was Duncan’s injury that hurt most. The Cats won all six games where he had 20 or more disposals, and lost four of the five in which he didn’t.

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Perhaps the game to sum up the Cats’ disappointing 2015 was their Round 12 encounter with Melbourne. Playing at Simmonds Stadium against a team unable to beat them there for 10 years, the result of the match seemed a foregone conclusion, thus leaving the majority of focus on Corey Enright as he played the 300th game in his remarkable career.

Instead, it was a nightmare-come-true for Cats fans, as they were soundly beaten by a team they had smashed by a whopping 186 points at the same ground four years earlier. This, arguably more than anything else, was a sign of the Cats’ fall from the lofty heights they had maintained for so long.

The 2016 forecast
There are many who have criticised the optimism currently pouring out of Kardinia Park. After all, Patrick Dangerfield, while incredibly talented, is only one player, and surely one player cannot turn around a club on the downhill?

What’s in a name? Well, a lot.

Although Zac Smith, Lachie Henderson and Scott Selwood are all handy recruits who’ll play a part in the Cats clawing their way back up the ladder, it’s Dangerfield who is the cause for most optimism.

2015 was a season where, although the youth brigade went some way towards bridging it, the gap between skipper Joel Selwood and the rest was as glaring as it ever has been.

To highlight how heavy this reliance was, consider the following.

Selwood has gathered 873 contested possessions in the last three years, which is 334 more than the next player at the club Steve Johnson, who was moved on at the end of last year.

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54 per cent of Selwood’s posessions were contested in 2015, higher than any other year in his career.

Selwood won 19 per cent of Geelong’s clearances, which ranks as the second-highest percentage in the competition.

Selwood won 26 per cent of Geelong’s centre clearances, ranked number one in terms of a player’s involvement in their club’s clearances (number two, funnily enough, was Dangerfield).

To put those clearance numbers in perspective, Sam Mitchell won 13 percent of the Hawks’ clearances, and 14 percent of centre clearances, which is the second-lowest percentage in the AFL.

Clearly, spreading the load is a key ingredient of any successful team, and the acquisition of Dangerfield will not only lighten the load Selwood has had to bear for so long, but will strengthen the team in all the areas it desperately needs improved.

As previously mentioned, Geelong ranked 13th for contested possessions in 2015. Dangerfield, in the same category, ranked third best in the competition.

Geelong ranked last in clearances. Dangerfield ranked seventh best in the competition. For centre clearances, he ranked first in the competition.

True, he may only be one man, but what Dangerfield adds to the Cats cannot be valued highly enough, and Joel Selwood would be salivating at the prospect of having, possibly for the first time since Gary Ablett’s departure, a running mate that is his equal or superior in many areas.

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Dangerfield’s positives extend beyond Selwood as well. Steven Motlop can, for example, focus less on being battered in the contest in search of the inside ball, and utilise his strengths as an outside runner who thrives off being fed the ball to do his magic.

Furthermore, Dangerfield adds to the 25-29 player age bracket Geelong were sorely depleted in for their 2015 campaign. Their commendable 2015 trade period sees them have 11 players in said age bracket and, more importantly, sees these players rank number one for quality in the competition according to Champion Data.

There’s really no end to the amount of positives the Cats can take from the 2015 trade period. In fact, it’s arguable this was the highlight of their 2015.

Drooling at the draw
Both commercial-wise and season-wise, the Cats couldn’t have asked for much more.

From a commercial standpoint, Brian Cook would be thrilled, with the Cats booking four matches under the lights at Simmonds Stadium as opposed to the one they had in 2015.

From a pure football standpoint, the Cats have what Champion Data considers the fourth-easiest draw in the competition, which will see them play the depleted Essendon and slowly building Brisbane Lions twice, and play none of last year’s top four more than once.

It’s yet another reason why Cats fans are purring on their 2016 prospects.

The prediction
In a 2015 home-and-away season where not much could go right for the Cats, from the off-season onwards no much could go wrong. The acquisition of Patrick Dangerfield cannot be overplayed enough for the Cats going forward, while new recruits Zac Smith and Lachie Henderson will only bolster the ruck and key backman stocks even further.

Sure, it remains to be seen whether the likes of Menzel, Vardy, Clark and company can string together a full season, but what was in 2015 a club lacking grit and depth has become one bursting with enthusiasm and potential.

If the new recurits gel with what’s left of the premiership brigade of 2007-11, and the promising young players of last year continue to hone their games, the sky truly is the limit for the Geelong Cats in 2016.

So, what’s in a name?

A team able to defy Father Time once more.

Predicted Postion: Fourth.

Geelong’s potenial 2016 best 22
B: Lachie Henderson, Tom Lonergan, Corey Enright
HB: Andrew Mackie, Harry Taylor, Jackson Thurlow
C: Mitch Duncan, Patrick Dangerfield, Cam Guthrie
HF: Steven Motlop, Mitch Clark, Darcy Lang
F: Daniel Menzel, Tom Hawkins, Nathan Vardy
R: Rhys Stanley, Mark Blicavs, Joel Selwood
Int: Josh Caddy, Cory Greyson, Jimmy Bartel, Jake Kolodjasnij
Emg: Scott Selwood, Zac Smith, Cory Gregson

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