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Opinion

The Geelong Cats are at a crossroads – again

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13th October, 2020
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Geelong club president Colin Carter was quoted yesterday expressing his joy at the Cats’ continued success over the last decade and a half, praising his club’s “miraculous” rebuild.

Their semi-final win over Collingwood last week meant that Geelong will now play their tenth preliminary final in 14 years, which is a remarkable period in which to so consistently reach the pointy end of the season.

Only four members of the 2011 premiership 22, won in Chris Scott’s first year as coach, remain on their list.

And yet even over a period of time where they’ve rebuilt nearly all of their list with new names and faces, they’ve missed finals only once and made prelims in five of nine years.

Compare it to Hawthorn, who’ve tried a similar strategy of topping up in the hopes of extending their time at the top – but played finals twice in five years, won zero of them, and collapsed completely in 2020.

‘Miraculous’ is, surprisingly, a balanced assessment.

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But there are two truths which have to be acknowledged about the list build if Geelong are to make the right decisions now and over the next few years.

The first is that if Ma and Pa Dangerfield had 30 years ago decided to settle down and raise their son in, say, the western suburbs of Melbourne rather than Geelong-adjactent Moggs Creek, the whole trajectory of their past decade would be different.

Joel Selwood, Patrick Dangerfield and Gary Ablett

Joel Selwood, Patrick Dangerfield and Gary Ablett. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Patrick Dangerfield arrived at the club at the end of 2015, the only season in the past 14 where the Cats have missed finals, a time at which – if they’d not had such a sterling recruit incoming – it would’ve been logical to go back to the draft and start rebuilding their list in a more traditional way.

But no team is going to pass up the chance to add a bonafide superstar like Dangerfield to their list. And while there have been many contributors to Geelong’s ongoing success, Dangerfield is the one recruit they could not possibly have done without.

He has added that layer of elite talent that any side needs to be a consistent contender and provided a foundation that’s helped the Cats continually attract quality mature recruits.

At the same time, the Cats have made some brilliant mature-age draft picks (like Tom Stewart, Sam Memengola and the now-gone Tim Kelly) and been organised in their management of the salary cap.

But the other great truth about their glorious era that they can’t ignore is that a stalling act is still a stalling act, even if a miraculous one. They’ve avoided it longer than we perhaps ever thought possible, but the cliff is still coming.

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That is evident in the fact that Geelong’s last three 22s have statistically been the three oldest teams ever put on the field in the game’s 124-year history.

They will get a little younger when Gary Ablett and presumably Harry Taylor hang up the boots at the end of the season, but it’s a simple fact: no footy club is immune to the passage of time.

Cats fans may scoff at that suggestion, but it’s the truth. The club’s 31 AFLCA votes by players 23 and under puts them in the bottom four this year, comparable to pre-rebuild sides North Melbourne, Hawthorn and Adelaide.

There’s some okay talent coming through, but no world beaters, and if they can’t otherwise replace the star power of Joel Selwood and Dangerfield in the next few years, they will see a drop.

So once again in 2020, the Cats will need to weigh up their twin goals of staying competitive in the short term and building a foundation for the long term.

This year, it’s a more compelling question than it has ever been, because before this year’s trade period even begins Geelong already have three picks in the first round of the draft – an unusually high amount of currency for a team so successful.

Do they spend it on more mature recruits? Or do they use it to bring in fresh 18-year-olds? Can they, should they, have a little of both?

The possible avenue of free agency makes the latter a much more realistic avenue. We know the Cats were interested in Jack Viney as a free agent and they also appear to be the frontrunner for Brad Crouch.

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Brad Crouch

Brad Crouch (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

And, should Jeremy Cameron decide to leave Greater Western Sydney, Geelong is the club he’s been linked to most often. Dangerfield’s SEN fishing show could quickly become twice as star-studded.

Those names could hypothetically be added without giving up any early picks – though if restricted free agent Cameron decides to move, the Giants will force a trade and demand (fairly) a king’s ransom.

That Geelong are pursuing Cameron et al suggests they believe the continued addition of mature recruits is their best path. And if he is the calibre of player they can expect to see continuing to walk through the door, well, they may be right.

But the reality is that drafting provides better value over the long term than trades and Geelong’s Hawthorn 2020 moment may not be as far away as they hope. The Hawks’ certainly wasn’t.

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Those three early picks, combined with the first-rounders used to secure Cooper Stephens and Sam De Koning last year, could help the club build a new, young core before the cliff comes. That would do a lot to soften the eventual blow.

It’s not a choice to agonise over – either way, Geelong should be excited about the currency they have to spend and their prospects of success in either the short or long term, depending on where they choose to put their focus.

Perhaps this Saturday’s result versus the Brisbane Lions will have some influence over the direction in which they head. Another prelim loss might convince them it’s time to get back to the well, while a grand final berth could embolden them further.