It’s time to cue the ‘Cats are over the cliff’ stories.
Another Geelong finals loss, this time a demolition by a surging Demons outfit. A list profile and team age that tops all records for VFL/AFL teams.
All their stars are over 30.
But it may not be cliff edge just yet. Looking past the ages of the players shows that there may be life in the Cats for another year or two yet.
Tom Hawkins is the prime example. His reliance on his strength and body positioning plus relatively low running requirements afford him the potential ability to perform at the AFL level longer than most. He may get slower and be less quick to recover and impact multiple contests, but Hawkins looks to have two more seasons doing what he does. As the big target forward, the team has adjusted around his reduced athleticism.
Joel Selwood too has maintained his endurance and competitiveness, though he no longer has the ability to swing momentum and change the course of matches.
Both remain relatively healthy and durable, able to keep playing on. I suspect that 2022 will be Selwood’s last season.
Patrick Dangerfield still has the mix of breakaway speed and strength. He may not be in the top five midfielders of the competition anymore, but he remains capable of winning contested ball and clearances.
He is starting to slow and has taken to diving – in each of the last three preliminary finals Danger has chosen to play for the free kick with an unmistakable flop.
It is the same story for each of the top ten Cats: nearing the end of their careers, not improving but also not showing signs of physical deterioration. And their style of bigger bodies and precise kicking, structure not manic running, lends itself to older athletes. Modern sports science is helping older athletes continue at the elite level. It’s not unreasonable to think that Hawkins, Dangerfield, Cameron Guthrie, Mitch Duncan, Zach Tuohy, Mark Blicavs and Jeremy Cameron will be playing good footy in 2022 and 2023.
The Cats on Friday night looked tired and defeated, their personal grand finals having been played the week before, consuming all mental energy. And as with the Tigers, the repeated finals campaigns have taken their toll. A collapse in the last game against the top side doesn’t indicate that they will collapse against all sides.
If we look at the season overall, they could have finished top of the ladder but for a last-quarter fade-out. Their core group are consistent, settled, professional and capable of beating most sides.
So what lies in store for this Geelong side? They are too good and too well structured to become a bottom side. Their top ten to 15 players will get enough wins during the home-and-away season to make finals. So it’s very tempting for the club to go around again.
Could they top up again with mature recruits? Surely not.
Should they bottom out and cut deeply? Looking at their depth and youth, it will be a hard, cold winter if this transpires. Against this approach is the lack of budding superstars who could form the next premiership team.
Trade out? Similar to the Richmond list, there will be little trade value because the core group are too old and the fringes have no exposure. Which club wants to trade for a 29-year-old Duncan who will play only 40 more games? And Geelong can’t afford to shift out their youngsters.
I expect that the aim will be to again target finals with this core group, ignoring the naysayers, and continue the dream. In the next two years they will make finals but not win any.
So where does that leave their list management? As we know, the age profile is horribly out of whack, with little youth coming through. The mid to younger bracket hasn’t shown much, with only a handful playing consistently.
More importantly is that the decision to target finals again will conspire to keep the club heading down this slippery path.
There are some easy changes to the list. Josh Jenkins is gone as a failed experiment. Lachie Henderson will go, replaced by an inexperienced backman. The failure to get games into Nathan Kreuger effectively forces Blicavs to remain at fullback. But those two don’t dramatically change the age profile of the list.
Many older players will remain. Isaac Smith played well against the Dees. Tuohy, Blicavs, Duncan, Guthrie and Sam Menegola are all key contributors and the nucleus of the 22. Cameron, Stewart and Jed Bews are still at their peak.
Shaun Higgins has one more year on a two-year contract, as does Luke Dahlhaus with a four-year contract. Both were poor decisions.
The ruck situation is dire. Rhys Stanley will get two more years because there is no other option. Backup Darcy Foot is 28 and clearly isn’t the answer. In a better-placed club both would be delisted, but there is no other ruckman on the list over the age of 20.
The other list changes will be at the fringes and not readily impact the senior team.
The fundamental list deficiencies, including a need for speed and dynamism, will not be quickly addressed.
It leaves Geelong in a nexus, neither good enough to win finals against top four sides – and getting further from it – nor building for the next flag.
The Cats are doomed to continue chasing their failures over the past decade with an ever decreasing possibility of success.
And this is growing the size of that cliff the Cats are approaching.