I imagine most of you – especially anyone who barracks for Brisbane – wants me to talk about that moment late in the game.
Relax. I will. But first, let’s unpack the first three quarters and 18 and a half minutes of what was a compelling tactical battle between two of the competition’s premier teams.
This match was everything a game between premiership contenders should be: elite midfielders shrugging off tags to dominate, big forwards clunking pack marks and kicking bulk goals, and some scintillating transition play from both sides. In the end, the Cats finished 10 points to the good – notably all behinds – because their best was just a smidgeon better than that of the Lions, on a ground in GMHBA Stadium they have always tailored their game plan around.
Throughout the first four rounds of 2022, Geelong have looked to move the ball faster, and through the corridor if possible, than at any point during their close-but-no-cigar campaigns of 2020 and 2021.
Their game is still based on elite kicking, claiming 89 uncontested marks out of 104 for the night, but moving forward, ever forward is the name of the game at the Cats this year.
It’s worth noting, then, who is taking these uncontested marks. With ten apiece, Mitch Duncan (who had six by quarter time) and Isaac Smith were two of the Cats’ three best, the pair heavily involved in many of their forward thrusts. Working hard into space, but rarely as sideways options, they were the perfect links for the Cats to swarm the corridor, with their pinpoint ball use – Smith went at a laserlike 89 per cent efficiency from his 29 touches – allowing a dangerous forward line space to move.
Moved to the backline with Tom Stewart a last-minute withdrawal, Mitch Duncan played the quarterback role to perfection. Dubbed the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ by Nick Riewoldt on Fox Footy for his versatility, the Cat was just as influential as Smith in the opening half, frequently kick-starting Geelong scoring chains from their defensive half. Clamping down on him after the break, ensuring easy uncontested marks were few and far between, was a big factor in Brisbane keeping the score as close as they did.
Tom Hawkins was the main beneficiary of the Cats’ speedy ball movement: few defenders in the game are every going to be a match for the veteran forward in a one-on-one contest.
His strength, whether used legally or illegally, was eventually too much for Marcus Adams after a titanic struggle, with the Lion’s expert reading of the play and speed off the mark nullified when forced to jostle with the Tomahawk.
Chris Scott has copped plenty of criticism over the years for the Cats’ finals failures, with his inability to adapt to the pressure increase of September football particularly scrutinised. But so far in 2022, he has shown an ingenuity and risk-taking side not seen from him since his early years in charge, if at all.
Whether it was Rhys Stanley rucking at centre bounces then sprinting into attack, allowing the nimbler Mark Blicavs to take much of the around-the-ground tapwork, or Jeremy Cameron’s on-ball stints in the first term, to a triple-team effort between Jed Bews, Zach Tuohy and Jake Kolodjashnij to curb Charlie Cameron in the absence of Stewart, most of Scott’s ploys came up trumps. Had they not, the legion of Cats fans packing GMHBA Stadium would have left disappointed.
Just as important as Duncan and Smith, though, was the stadium itself. There’s no place like home for Geelong, with the famously narrow ground having swallowed up many a team in years gone by. The Cats know the ground like the back of their hand, defend it superbly, and guard the corridor like the keys to the kingdom. It meant the Lions, fresh off butchering North Melbourne, could muster only 42 inside 50s to 60.
Geelong have averaged 39.3 points per game in scores generated from their attacking 50; that was stuck at nine at half time for the Lions. Pressuring the ball carrier, using the ground’s width (or lack of) to their advantage and ensuring the game-breaking Zac Bailey was a total non-factor, the Cats showed they learned plenty from being carved up in Round 2 by a slick Sydney.
To their immense credit, the Lions did what good teams do when they’re being outplayed – stayed in the hunt through ruthless efficiency. After half time in particular, the Cats’ defensive 50 was regularly clogged up as Brisbane midfielders – and even their forwards – worked overtime to prevent the sort of quick transitions that cut deep in the first half.
As a result, goals started to flow from the Lions’ own fast breaks, Brandon Starcevich’s rare goal with an unguarded 50 ahead of him to give them the lead a perfect example.
In that third term alone, the Lions were smashed 20-6 in the inside-50 count, yet booted four straight goals to 2.2. A lesser team would have been dead and buried with that sort of discrepancy, but this Brisbane team is made of sterner stuff.
It helps, too, when you have marking forwards firing. With three goals apiece, Joe Daniher and Daniel McStay capitalised on the Cats’ Stewart-less defence, with McStay’s work rate from the wing to the goalsquare in particular outstanding.
Lachie Neale was also a force at the stoppages, simply too good to be nullified by a Mark O’Connor tag as he had been in the corresponding fixture last year. 30 disposals is ho-hum by the Brownlow Medallist’s superb standards, but 21 contested possessions and 11 clearances – both game-highs – are just about impossible for even the best tagger to stop. Extraordinarily, only one player – Jarrod Berry – had even half of Neale’s contested possession tally on either side.
In contrast, Patrick Dangerfield was yet again frustrated by some close checking, this time from Lion Jarrod Berry. Already with Zach Merrett as a scalp, the Cats’ superstar managed only four clearances for the night, and began to show the effects of the attention.
Dropped marks and fumbles were common as Dangerfield, perhaps trying too hard to escape Berry’s clutches, rushed himself in his attempts to make a difference; though he more than doubled his metres-gained in the final term alone, finishing with 216 total after being on 92 at three-quarter time, to rise to the occasion when his team needed him most.
And now, as promised, let’s look at that non-free kick to Harris Andrews deep into the final quarter.
Was it a free kick? Yep. Was it costly? Well, I’d argue Cam Rayner kicking it out on the full at the other end from ten metres out was costlier, and as Chris Fagan admitted after the match, the better side won.
But you can’t argue it handed Hawkins a goal, which in the context of a 10-point win never looks good for the umpire.
So why wasn’t it paid? I have two reasons: one, the lack of the famous ‘noise of affirmation’ from the crowd – if that’s at the Gabba, does the ump give in to 30,000 fans screaming ‘in the back!’? It’d certainly be harder to ignore.
The second, though, is in Andrews’ hands alone, and would have drawn the ire of fans just as much as the non-free kick is now – and I’m more than willing to absolutely cop it for this take.
Andrews should have dived.
What do you think Dylan Grimes, or Alex Rance, or any number of key forwards, would have done in the same situation? Flailed forward, maybe gone to ground, turning the hands in the back into something so obvious even a blindsided umpire can do little but pay the free.
I wish the game didn’t have to come to this, but if it’s a choice between earning the ‘stager’ tag for life, having your dignity shredded and – worst of all – being Shooting Starsed by Ethan Meldrum, or your side winning the game, then maybe Andrews will break out the mayo next time around.