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Geelong are the great survivors. Going back to 2004, they have only missed finals twice, still finishing a respectable tenth both times, and have won three premiership from four grand finals, with another five preliminary final berths earned.
From the Cats’ 2004 preliminary final loss to Brisbane, only Gary Ablett remains – and think of all that he has achieved between now and then.
From the 2007 premiership, only Ablett and Joel Selwood, then in his first season, survive.
It’s a remarkable record, surpassed only by the Sydney Swans for consistency. Geelong truly are the team of the century.
After missing the finals in 2015, the Cats added Patrick Dangerfield, who launched them back into preliminary finals in 2016-17, both times after finishing second on the ladder. They’ve been one game away from grand finals, but in truth been thumped both times, and on each occasion by the losing grand finalist.
So, are they close to the next flag, or does it just seem like they are? Enter Gary Ablett once more.
B: Jed Bews Lachie Henderson Jake Kolodjashnij
HB: Zach Tuohy Harry Taylor Tom Stewart
C: Mitch Duncan Patrick Dangerfield Tim Kelly
HF: Sam Menegola Tom Hawkins Nakia Cockatoo
F: James Parsons Daniel Menzel Lincoln McCarthy
Foll: Zac Smith Joel Selwood Gary Ablett
Int: Mark Blicavs Cam Guthrie Scott Selwood Brendan Parfitt
Em: Rhys Stanley Zach Guthrie Stewart Crameri
The Cats have lost three players from last year’s finals series, the retired Andrew Mackie and Tom Lonergan, and Steven Motlop in a free agency move to Port Adelaide.
Ablett is the main addition, of course, while Stewart Crameri has been rookie listed to add depth to the forward line mix. Tim Kelly looks likely to get his chance as a mature age draftee that has impressed over summer.
Harry Taylor will surely move back after mixed fortunes as a forward, so that will cover Lonergan’s loss quite easily. This also enables Geelong to play a smaller forward line that can apply more pressure – lack of pressure was the reason given why Daniel Menzel was dropped for the qualifying final against Richmond last year, so we can assume it has been an off-season focus.
Ablett coming in replaces Motlop’s departure in a mid-forward role, and should add more in both parts of the ground. Lincoln McCarthy, a natural crumber with good hands and a sharp mind, is a favourite of the coaches, and will be picked if fit in a small forward role. Enhanced responsibility for Nakia Cockatoo and Brendan Parfitt also helps cover the loss of Motlop.
Tom Hawkins will continue to do what he does, mixing deep forward with pushing up the ground, get his 50 goals a year and being the vital presence around which the forward half revolves. He looked sharp last year for the most part.
Can Menzel add another dimension to his game, or is he just a finisher? He still needs to find more consistency. Will Crameri fit into the best 22, or is he just there to break glass in case of emergency? Rhys Stanley has always been in and out, as a spare forward and back-up ruck.
Andrew Mackie’s run from half-back might be the hardest to replace. Jed Bews isn’t capable. Jake Kolodjashnij doesn’t win enough football at this stage of his career. Zach Tuohy was superb last year, and will carry on.
Tom Stewart turned out to be a solid AFL citizen, adept at defence or attack from the back half, but is still in therapy after the nightmares Dustin Martin gave him on the finals stage. To be fair to him, it’s a group session made up of various players from 17 different clubs.
The midfield is where it’s at for Geelong though.
Dangerfield. Ablett. Selwood. Here at The Roar, we adjudged them three of the best 12 players in the competition heading into 2018.
How much time they all spend together in the midfield is one of the big questions of this season. If Chris Scott doesn’t start all three in the centre bounce when they first play together, then he’s a party pooper with no sense of theatre. Dangerfield has suffered a hamstring injury that has put his Round 1 prospects in doubt.
Dangerfield and Ablett are the most natural goal-kickers of the three superstars, both very different in how they operate inside forward 50, which will mean concentration from opposition defences will have to be at an all-time high when they’re resting forward.
Mitch Duncan is the best fourth banana in the league, and was rated as high as 28 in our aforementioned top 50. In any conversation about the best kick in the league, Duncan’s name must be front and centre.
The midfield support cast consists of ball magnet Sam Menegola, ruck workhorse Zac Smith, running tall Mark Blicavs, Cam Guthrie who can get used in defensive roles, and Scott Selwood, professional tackler. It’s a decent grouping of good ordinary players.
Geelong does look to lack a little speed, which is perhaps why they get exposed on the bigger grounds at times. Last year Gold Coast beat them convincingly at Metricon, and they don’t always look their best at the MCG – since their 2011 premiership they’ve lost six of their eight finals at the home of football.
The Cats have some of the best top-end talent in the league, all of them mature, while their bottom end looks somewhat plain, and also quite inexperienced.
Geelong has arguably the most unique home ground advantage in the league, and has six walk-up start victories coming from their nine games at Kardinia Park this season. Their other three matches there are against Sydney, Greater Western Sydney and Melbourne.
The toughest part of their season comes through the bye period, with games against Richmond at the MCG, Western Bulldogs at Etihad, and then Sydney at the SCG off a six-day break – and back-to-back travel taking on Adelaide in South Australia. All four games, against expected strong opponents, are at the opposition home ground.
Geelong will be part of the finals conversation once again in 2018, for that is who they are. The question now is whether Gary Ablett can bridge the gap between also-ran finalist and Joel Selwood standing on the premiership dias with a cup in his hand on the last Saturday in September.
Prediction – fourth
Cam Rose’s AFL ladder prediction
5: Richmond Tigers
6: Melbourne Demons
7: Greater Western Sydney
11. Western Bulldogs
12. St Kilda
13. West Coast
14. North Melbourne
18. Gold Coast