Things just got serious. The Demons and Cats meet tonight in the highest-stakes game of the season to date.
The winner will rightfully fancy themselves a contender; the loser will rue a missed opportunity and start planning their Mad Monday outfit.
Twice these sides have already met in 2018, with Geelong winning both games by a grand total of five points.
For all the talk of Max Gawn’s Round 1 miss, the Cats were the better side on the day, and it was too easily forgotten that Daniel Menzel missed an easier shot not long before that would have just about iced the game for Geelong.
Their last meeting, however, was a different story. The Demons blew it down in Geelong, giving up a 29-point fourth-quarter lead and eventually losing on a Zach Tuohy shot after the siren in one of the best games of the year.
Gawn was again a key factor, though through no fault of his own. The All Australian big man – off the ground under the blood rule – could only watch from the boundary as the Cats took the ball the length of the field in the final seconds to set up Tuohy’s match-winner.
Max Gawn (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
It was a feeling all too familiar for this year’s Dees, who went 0-5 in games decided by fewer than two goals – what could have been.
There are similarities to last year’s Tigers in that way. Richmond in 2017 went 15-7, but 1-4 in games decided by fewer than 12 points. These Demons went 14-8 and 0-5. And just like Richmond, their finals series kicks off at the MCG against the Cats.
Geelong, too, have had an odd year. An eight-placed finish with the second-best percentage in the league. Aside from humiliating bad teams at Kardinia Park in the final two rounds, they looked their best this season when the game seemed lost against high-quality opponents and they had no choice but to take it on.
Patrick Dangerfield, Joel Selwood and Gary Ablett form arguably the most talented on-ball trio in the competition, and Mitch Duncan and Tim Kelly are grossly overqualified as fourth and fifth bananas.
In late fightbacks against the Tigers and the Hawks, Geelong set up with Dangerfield, Ablett and Selwood at centre bounces with Duncan off the back of the square and Kelly off the wing. They came up short in both games but that set-up proved potent.
Of course, the Cats aren’t taking on a bunch of scrubs on the other side. Gawn looms large against fourth-gamer Ryan Abbott.
The Melbourne big man is an exceptional tap ruckman, but his greatest strength is still his contested marking. Whether floating back to stonewall opposition attacks or getting forward to provide a dangerous aerial target, Gawn can reach heights few in the league are capable of matching and has sticky hands to match – only Jeremy McGovern has taken more contested grabs in 2017.
Gawn’s stoppage partner in crime Clayton Oliver has also enjoyed a spectacular season. His first All-Australian selection was well deserved, though a spot in the first 18 would have been more fitting for a player who is probably now among the best dozen in footy.
A healthy Angus Brayshaw has had a fine year on the wing, reminding us all why he was a No.3 pick, and Nathan Jones keeps on keeping on. Christian Petracca has had big moments this season without tearing a game apart, but finals are all about big moments.
The returning Jack Viney is the x-factor. The ruthless onballer was built for finals, but there have to be questions about his body after two months out of action.
These sides are ranked first (Melbourne) and second for points from stoppages this season, with each of them getting a touch under six goals a game from chains staring with a ball-up or throw-in. They’re extremely evenly matched in that department.
It’s on turnovers where they most differ statistically. The Demons were the highest scoring team in the league this season at 104.5 points a game – the only team to crack 100 – so it’s no surprise their 65.5 points a game from turnovers was the league’s highest mark.
At the other end of the scale, the Cats were the No.1 ranked defence, conceding only 70.6 points a game, of which only 41.9 of them came from turnovers, which was also the best mark in the league. Their turnover-scoring differentials of 19.9 (Melbourne) and 13.1 put them behind only the Tigers (23) this season.
Melbourne have been known to lapse defensively this season and get exposed in transition, though if the final minute of their last match against the Cats wasn’t harmful enough for them to sort it out, perhaps nothing will be. Tom Stewart and Zach Tuohy’s drive out of defence will be crucial for Geelong, and stopping their penetration should be a high priority for the Dees.
Zach Tuohy (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Tom Hawkins – who bagged seven goals against the Demons last time – again presents problems. Tom McDonald’s home is now at the other end, so the task will fall to Sam Frost or Tom’s younger brother, Oscar. Neither can do it alone. They’ll need help from their fellow defenders as well as pressure further up the field.
Tom McDonald himself is capable of a big night. His 2.8 goals a game put him in the top handful of the league this year. Lachie Henderson and Mark Blicavs are both solid options for the Cats, as is Harry Taylor if Chris Scott chooses to use him in defence.
Jake Melksham also demands attention. He’s strong and creative. Stewart may be tasked with the big job on the league’s No.1 goal assist player.
It’s the league’s best attack versus the league’s best defence in a do-or-die final. What more could you ask for?
For the Demons, it’ll be as much about handling the big stage as their opponents. They’re the better side, it’s just a matter of them holding their nerve and playing like it.
I think they will. Melbourne by three goals.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?