Nothing that has happened in the AFL in the first two weeks of the season makes sense. Nothing, except, the team that sits atop the ladder.
Have you seen the state of the AFL ladder? It’s like someone took the monikers of every team and decided to arrange them in most threatening to least threatening order. Except that doesn’t make sense either.
Geelong sits atop the ladder through two rounds. This, of most everything that has happened in the first two rounds of the AFL, makes the most sense. Which is more a measure of the absurdity of footy through the first 14 days of the season, given the Cats weren’t exactly supposed to look like the best team in the competition.
We checked in – albeit briefly – a week ahead of the season. At that time I had more questions than answers. That piece was more a loud ponderance of whether nabbing Patrick Dangerfield was the right course of action, given it saw the Cats swap out an array of draft picks for experienced players.
So it was last off season, albeit the Cats seemed to be able to nab Luke Dahlhaus and Gary Rohan for not much more than salary cap space.
In reality, there were three big questions hanging over Geelong’s season. Here they are, retrospectively, with the early season answers.
Can the Cats renovate their game plan?
Last year’s Cats were stodgy, slow and content to huddle up in the back half and score on the counter attack. This year, the Cats are playing with an open ground, are seeking to move the ball quickly, and are applying amps of forward pressure. I would love to have some killer statistics to back this up – you know why I don’t – and so the eye test will do.
Still, there’s some indicators we can point to. The Cats have increased their kick to handball ratio from 1.24 to 1.34. In their last ten home-and-away season games, the Cats had a kick to handball ratio of 1.16. At the same time, the Cats are taking fewer field marks (67 per game versus 78.2 per game), suggesting an aggressive mindset.
What’s more, Geelong’s defensive set is making quality decisions with the ball, turning it over on just 17 per cent of their disposals as a collective (against a competition average of 20 per cent, per AFL Stats Pro). Within this, Geelong’s Tom Stewart has accounted for over half of Geelong’s defender turnovers, suggesting the rest of the crew is taking care of the ball.
The Cats seem to be taking a more open stance at stoppages, and are holding forwards and defenders further away from the action than in years past. As a result, their two games to date have been more open than we may have expected them to be coming in.
This is a radical departure from the way Chris Scott had his team playing over the past two years; there is less regard for limiting turnovers and forcing their opponent into them. The Cats are embracing the chaos, and backing their team in to make a better fist of it than the opposition.
Injecting the team with a clump of youngsters, a rare sighting at Geelong in recent years given the club has preferred to drip feed games to their kids, doubtlessly helps in this regard too.
Can the Cats build a functional forward line?
While that’s all well and good, it wouldn’t have been enough in isolation. Geelong’s forward set up was a challenge all of last year, so much so an ageing Harry Taylor was cast as an almost deliberately square-shaped peg being forced into a round hole (when he was available). Outside of Tom Hawkins, the Cats relied on 13 games of Daniel Menzel and then a cavalcade of midfielders for their goals.
There was no forward press because there was no forwards, and even when there were some forwards, they didn’t really press.
This year? All – two weeks in – has been righted. Rohan and Dahlhaus have been plugged into the forward line, to add a dose of ground ball speed and additional forward pressure. Brandan Parfitt is relishing the half forward role that most clubs struggle to fill. Esava Ratugolea will grow into the second tall forward spot, as will Gryan Miers into the forward pocket.
Suddenly the midfield goals look like the accompaniment instead of the main course. Patrick Dangerfield can be a true timeshare forward plying his trade in the midfield, instead of donning his Superman cape (he totally owns one) whenever the Cats are in strife.
The West Coast Eagles made a habit of selecting players to play as specialist forward line players, and then made a habit of keeping them in the forward line during games. It’s a novel concept, but one that worked for them. It seems to be working for the Cats, too.
Can the Cats find value-adding roles for ageing veterans?
The last one was perhaps the biggest of the lot, and it is central to the other two. What would the Cats do with Harry Taylor, Gary Ablett and (yep, I’m going here) Joel Selwood, who saw their influence on games wane as the 2018 season went on.
For the latter two, they still put big numbers on the board. But their regular, play-to-play influence on games had declined throughout 2018.
Selwood dipped into the 30s in The Roar’s AFL Top 50, while Ablett dropped out all together (a big call made by the entire panel). Taylor’s play had been impacted by the aforementioned positional change; he looked just about done even when fit last season.
Well, here we are. Ablett has gone forward and – two games in – looks like he’s going to play until he’s 40. Joel Selwood has gone to the right wing, his possession tally dipping significantly as a result, yet he is having a more profound impact on games.
And Taylor now lives inside defensive 50, and looks a far better player for it (he also has one solitary turnover from 30 disposals so far this season).
The cascade of these positional changes appears to have been profound. The Cats core midfield has been turned over to Dangerfield, Tim Kelly, Mitch Duncan, Charlie Constable, Sam Menegola, and Parfitt from the half forward line.
Selwood and Ablett have been pinch hitting, but otherwise have stuck to their newly defined roles. It’s a significant change, but one that seems to be paying dividends.
Three questions, three answers, all pointing in a positive direction. What does it mean? The Cats are as deep in this year’s premiership as anyone.
What’s more, we will know sooner than perhaps any other team whether Geelong’s early season form is a sign of things to come.
The Cats have already played Collingwood and Melbourne (or whatever that puddle of sludge which spread across Kardinia Park last Saturday is called), and they face the Adelaide Crows at the Adelaide Oval tonight.
From here, Geelong face Greater Western Sydney, Hawthorn and West Coast in consecutive weeks, before Essendon, North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs take them to the end of May. It looked hard coming into the year, and folks it might be worse.
Particularly if James Hird gallops out to Windy Hill on his white horse to save the Bombers’ season.
Sitting 2-0 with that seven week stretch to come, the Cats have shown they have what it takes to go deep in 2019. Even if they reach the end of that marathon of death with five wins on the board through nine games – very likely a worst case scenario at this stage – Geelong will be set up for a top-four finish, and the benefits that flow.
That’s a little way off, but is where the Cats should firmly set their sights given the extent to which Geelong’s changes have taken.
Make no mistake, the Cats are as in this premiership race as they have been in any during the Dangerfield era.