For years now we’ve been told how even the competition is from top to bottom.
While that’s usually a slight exaggeration – there’s almost always one or two dreadful teams – it is mostly true that the gap between the top and the lower-middle of the ladder is a relatively small one.
Unfortunately, it feels like this has come about not so much as a consequence of the lower-ranked teams lifting their game, as the top teams not being all-conquering juggernauts.
The Tigers know this all too well, having spent most of 2018 clear at the top of the table before idling to the end of the home-and-away season and then getting belted in a preliminary final.
Now it’s the Cats’ turn to play the role of pacesetter.
After an extremely difficult opening fixture, Geelong have reached the halfway point of the season with a 10-1 record, an extremely healthy percentage nudging 145 and an eight-point gap to the next best teams.
They recruited smartly, with Luke Dahlhaus and Gary Rohan contributing in areas of previous weakness. Gryan Miers has slotted straight in as a dangerous pest in the attacking half.
Despite all of that praise there is nothing particularly frightening about these Cats. They look the best team in it, and yet the bookies have them barely two-goal favourites against a Richmond side missing at least half a dozen of their best 18.
Perhaps I’m just overthinking this. Geelong are the highest-scoring team in the league and also have the stingiest defence, conceding barely 68 points a game.
They’ve hardly been challenged in two months and they’re relatively healthy.
Their back six is wonderfully balanced. Mark Blicavs is a genuine A-grader now and Tom Stewart has been for a while too. I’m half convinced the Cats could turn me into a league-average defender at this point.
Thanks to those two and the likes of Jake Kolodjashnij, Jack Henry and the now-healthy Zach Tuohy – as well as the pressure up field, of course – Chris Scott’s defence is conceding a goal on just 19 per cent of opponents’ inside-50 entries, which is No.2 behind the Crows.
That’s not great news for the Tigers, who are converting just 21.5 per cent of their forward-50s into a goal, which is 10th in the league and below the league average of 22.2 per cent.
To make matters worse for Richmond, Tom Hawkins, Gary Ablett and Co. in the Geelong forward line are getting a goal from 28.7 per cent of their entries – No.1 in the league.
Things have not been going quite so well for the Tigers. They’d be more than happy with their 7-4 record considering the shocking run of injuries, but last week’s hammering at the hands of North Melbourne was a worry.
They clung on for dear life for a half before the floodgates opened. In the end, the score probably flattered them.
Richmond came up well short in their other two matches against top-four sides this season. The Magpies ran over the top of them to win by 44 points and the following week GWS did the same in a 49-point shellacking.
The good news for the Tigers is that after a confusingly flat first two months of 2018, Dustin Martin has got his mojo back.
They’ll be hoping too that skipper Trent Cotchin shook off the rust last week after a seven-game absence. They can’t afford any midfield passengers tonight against Patrick Dangerfield, Tim Kelly, Mitch Duncan and Joel Selwood. Rhys Stanley returns for the Cats, too, and he’s become a fine ruckman.
David Astbury and Brandon add to the Tigers’ injury list, while Shai Bolton and Nathan Broad have been axed.
The dynamic Daniel Rioli returns, and Patrick Naish will debut. Jacob Townsend and Jack Graham bring in toughness, which is always welcome.
Richmond still have a stack of talent. Dusty is a superduperstar and Cotchin is great. Shane Edwards might be the league’s most underrated player, Tom Lynch – despite being in pretty average form – has 25 goals in 11 games.
Bachar Houli, Nick Vlastuin and Dion Prestia rarely play poorly. Sydney Stack is a gem.
But at this point of the season, the Cats look to have the edge on every line. Perhaps they aren’t special, but they just might be the best that 2019 has to offer.
Geelong by 25 points.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?