West Coast ruckman Nic Naitanui put on a star display as the Eagles came from 22 points down to beat Geelong by nine points in Perth on Saturday night.
Pressure is a funny thing in modern footy, especially in the cauldron of a win-or-go-home semi-final, with a preliminary final against Richmond on the line.
In those winner-take-all situations, a team needs to rely on its veteran players to lead from the front in crunch time – especially from those who have tasted championship glory before.
For Geelong, in a very gritty, ebb-and-flow game of contested footy, their veteran group – and especially their multi-premiership stars from past years – responded with the game on the line in the final quarter when trailing by four points.
And did those stars ever respond, as the Cats won by 20 points to earn that preliminary final against the Tigers next Friday night at the MCG.
Tom Hawkins, without a major score for about a month, kicked the opening goal upon taking his initial mark for the Cats’ first goal, and then repeated the feat in the second and final terms, en route to kicking four goals for the match and taking many contested marks all over the ground.
Captain Joel Selwood, who has made a career out of leaving blood, sweat and tears on the ground for the last 13 seasons, gave a typical “Harry Headwound” performance by giving his all to amass 26 possessions, one goal, and endless sacrificial actions of leadership by example all over the MCG surface.
An evergreen Gary Ablett may have had a quiet night kicking for goal, but his influence around the packs was never-ending, aiding and abetting Selwood in staging one battle after another – and setting examples for his younger teammates in succeeding in what is required in tight, down-and-dirty cutthroat finals football.
It wasn’t just the past premiership heroes rolling back the years. Patrick Dangerfield, who has remarkably never tasted Premiership success, had a quiet game for three quarters but produced his best footy when it mattered, with a series of key contested marks and tough clearances.
That’s not forgetting Luke Dalhaus – a past premiership hero not for the Cats, but three years ago for the Western Bulldogs – who kicked a key goal in the final term to give Geelong some breathing room, and space for a scoring margin that justified the Cats’ overall domination and one-way traffic in the attacking half during the final term.
Perhaps Cam Guthrie was the Cats’ most influential player all over the ground, even quietly so, with 33 possessions and a tireless work rate when Geelong needed it the most.
These performances from the Cats’ veteran players – sprinkled in with key contributions from younger players Esava Ratugolea (three goals), Tim Kelly (two goals and 18 possessions), and Tom Atkins (eight tackles) – were even more important given that the Cats kicked the first three goals of the game to lead by 19 points, and led by as many as 32 points, yet squandered that early domination midway through the third term.
If Cats fans were left to sigh “here we go again” with bitter memories of finals shortcomings of the recent past, their stars and heroes needed to step forward when it mattered, and did so with flying colors, kicking four goals to none in the final term to reverse the three-quarter-time deficit.
But maybe the most influential contribution of leadership came from coach Chris Scott, who gave an impassioned address before the game to suggest that he was coaching for his future with the club.
As such, the Cats started strong – very rare for them in recent weeks, or even in finals matches in recent years – but whenever the game was slipping away, Scott’s tactical adjustments were perhaps his best of the season.
And likely the best one should expect of a premiership-winning coach.
Hawkins may have a date at the AFL Tribunal for a contentious high challenge on Will Schofield, but even if he misses out against Richmond, Geelong showed signs of a team that does one intangible quality that great teams do – rally around each other when the chips are down. No doubt they would do that again next Friday night.