After coming so close, but so far, to a premiership in 2019, Geelong entered 2020 with surprisingly little hype for a reigning minor premier.
If you’re a Geelong fan looking for an analogy to keep you warm, the one for this weekend is Richmond vs Carlton, 2013.
Those Tigers, like this year’s Demons, were the young, hyped, unproven upstart. The Blues were the disappointing and only vaguely dangerous veteran team, with talent in the ranks but not the results that year.
Richmond finished fifth, Carlton eighth, the Blues only sneaking in because Essendon were kicked out.
The Tigers were the better team, but Carlton had Chris Judd, Marc Murphy, Bryce Gibbs and finals experience. Richmond shot out of the gate but were run down, worn down by expectation, exuberance overcome by calmness.
This weekend’s first elimination final has a similar feel. The Demons are the better team, with the better bodies, but, you would expect, the weaker minds. This Geelong team is better than that Carlton team, filled with powerful, veteran names and quality all over the ground.
But those names, and that quality, has more or less been there all year. So why did the Cats finish eighth, needing help in the past fortnight to even get in? (Where the Blues profited from Essendon’s drug scandal, Geelong profited from Port Adelaide’s season-long coaching scandal.)
The Cats are a weird team that only comes to life when they’re closest to death. They almost always seem shackled, and regularly sleep-walk through games, an odd mix of lethargy, age and disinterest. When they’re off they look slow, sometimes utterly clueless, like in the second quarter against Hawthorn a month ago.
The forward line and defence both get exposed by pace, the fast-walk of Daniel Menzel – his version of running – symbolic of the team.
If there’s one weakness that’s immediately obvious about the Cats, it’s their lack of mania. Richmond and Collingwood play crazed football – the pressure is intense and suffocating, players possessed, flying around inside a purposeful, kill-mode pinball machine on grass.
Even when they’re on, the Cats don’t play with that level of defensive force – they play sensible instead of manic, often to their detriment. But at their best, they seem unstoppable in their own way.
Their version of unstoppable is simple: Patrick Dangerfield, Joel Selwood and Gary Ablett around stoppages, with able assistance from Tim Kelly and Mitch Duncan.
The recent finals quarters against Melbourne and Hawthorn, and the final five minutes in the narrow loss to Richmond, were advertisements for how good Geelong can be. Dangerfield, Selwood and Ablett are still absurdly good. When they’re desperate they can’t be stopped or even blunted. They’re too strong and too smart, too quick-twitch in close to be contained.
Their class is majestic – go back and look at how the chain began leading to Zach Tuohy’s after-the-siren goal against Melbourne. Ablett receives the ball under duress in defence and instead of blazing away, as a Melbourne player (and almost any other player) surely would have done, he takes a split-second, spots Tom Stewart out of the corner of his eye, and dishes a perfect handball to unleash Stewart into space.
In the clutch, especially in finals, the game so often comes down to hardness and class around the ball. The Cats are unmatched in that department – but they’re heavily ‘matched’ almost everywhere else. They still have enough to make a run, though. They have height, composure and skill in defence, and Tom Hawkins in attack.
More than anything, they have belief. Selwood, Dangerfield and Ablett have been here so many times – no stage holds any fear for them, and that confidence oozes into the rest of the team. With Ablett playing his first final in eight years, and Selwood and Dangerfield surely starting to feel their football mortality, if only a little, you would expect all three to play each final as though it’s their last.
This Melbourne team can be got. They feel destined to lose to an inferior team. The talent is immense but the defensive commitment is not, and when the game is on the line they get timid, double-clutching at balls that should be clean, and hurrying possessions when they should be absorbing contact.
If the game is close on Friday night, both Geelong and Melbourne will believe that Geelong is going to win. The question is whether or not the Cats are good enough to keep it close in the first place.