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The Roar



Too many injuries, or not hungry enough - what's Geelong's real issue in 2023?

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25th May, 2023
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The Cats are at a bit of a crossroads after 10 rounds in 2023, facing adversity they’ve rarely seen in the last decade on-field.

Throughout the opening part of the season, we’ve seen all sort of reactions about Geelong. They were bottom-four candidates after a few rounds. They were premiership favourites a month later.

Now, having lost to a couple of teams performing well below expectations, Richmond and Fremantle, they’re somewhere in the middle, trying to stay afloat.

Overall, they’ve been average in 2023, with significant variance between their performances perhaps leaving us a bit confused.

On one hand, they’ve copped their fair share of injuries.

They’ve had multiple games missed by Patrick Dangerfield, Cam Guthrie, Sam De Koning, Mitch Duncan, Rhys Stanley, Jack Bowes, Jake Kolodjashnij, Jack Henry and Tyson Stengle from their bonafide best 22. Max Holmes is now going to miss a chunk of footy around the bye period.

Sure, opposition fans won’t find a shred of sympathy within themselves – the Cats have had a relatively good run with injuries over a longer period of time, all things considered. You don’t need to be sympathetic to understand the impact it has on this team, though.

The flow of the game is what has really been affected by all these injuries. Defensive disruptions mean different roles for Tom Stewart, while forcing Isaac Smith and Zach Tuohy to push further back when they might be better served in more advanced positions.


Isaac Smith of the Geelong Cats (Photo by Daniel Pockett/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Already having had Joel Selwood retire, the absences of Geelong’s clearance kings places more responsibility on the shoulders of more complementary types in the middle. The likes of Holmes and Tanner Bruhn are still developing their craft and, while talented, are better served as rotational pieces at the moment.

Tom Atkins is a wonderful piece to the Geelong puzzle, but cannot be the second-leading clearance player on a contending team.

It means rotations have been a bit janky and the developing depth at the Cats, while clearly full of talent, has been a little exposed.

More rotations for a natural point of difference like Mitch Knevitt through the middle, for instance, is a way to break up a bit of the sameness the Cats are running with at the moment, with his excellent blend of size, speed and cleanliness.

Geelong have always been associated with the moniker “too old, too slow”, but have often been overlooked by their willingness to play young players who suit the system. It has happened every year under Chris Scott and is only happening more in 2023.


So yes, the injuries are an excuse for the inconsistent form shown by Geelong this season. Take out key defensive coverage, the chief midfield operators and a vital small forward and you realise that it isn’t really a depth issue and more the difficulty of juggling such a concentration of injuries at once.

Despite this, though, the Cats are still scoring at an elite rate when the ball is inside 50 and are once again averaging the most goal assists in the league by far – Tom Hawkins, Gryan Miers and Dangerfield are all in the top five in the statistic this season.

A quick word on Miers is deserved, for his transformation from whipping boy to key creator. He’s having an excellent season on the forward flank.

If Jeremy Cameron isn’t the best player in the AFL, he’s well up there. He’s combined with Hawkins for 63 goals on the season. The veteran is in the top three for goals and goal assists – not bad for a bloke who has been written off yearly for over half a decade.

That’s not to say that the injuries mean the Cats necessarily deserve a pass for this year, even though they’ve clearly operated at a high level in their most unaffected line of the ground.

Imagine saying even six months ago that Geelong would be even worse off defensively if it weren’t for the efforts of Esava Ratugolea and Zach Guthrie.

These two should be celebrated for, like Miers, they have copped it from supporters and opposition fans alike and have been able to reinvent themselves and establish their importance to a successful AFL team.


Ratugolea has clearly taken the mantle as Geelong’s main key defender and has performed above average in all key metrics for that position, while Guthrie is clearly stronger and more dedicated defensively.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Yet a celebration for those two players has to coincide with a question mark on the established figures in this Geelong setup.

Before winning the premiership, it felt as though the hunger was apparent and relentless. There was always the fear that upon winning the flag, that desire couldn’t possibly be as strong.

Maybe we hold Tom Stewart to an unfairly high level overall, as a four-time All-Australian and one of the best defenders in the league. In 2023, he’s still rated elite in many categories, he’s still intercepting at a top-level rate and his positioning remains excellent.

And of course, the aforementioned flow-on effect from the injuries leaves him playing a slightly different role, but defensively, Stewart has been poor when exposed.

His one-on-one work has left a lot to be desired, his spoils are way down as part of his inability to reach as many contests as the chief helper and, while the Cats aren’t necessarily suffering right now, his offensive impact hasn’t diminished, which had been one of his best traits.


With more defensive responsibility, his actual impact on defence has been exposed a little bit.

We’re not getting the same sort of output from Smith, Tuohy feels wasted higher up the field and really, the absences of Selwood, Duncan and Guthrie have left no one stepping up to their roles.

Joel Selwood is cheered off the ground.

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Maybe the biggest indictment on Geelong’s style relates to the high-functioning offence, which has gone from being one of the most fluid operations thanks to the work of half-backs and midfielders, to being remarkably self-sufficient, where very little has come in the way of score involvements from the defensive side of the centre circle.

The best part of having a team with plenty of experience is the knowledge and understanding of how to negotiate difficult circumstances and remain steadfast in achieving goals. The downfall of it is if motivation is even slightly off, there’s a reliance on too few players and it’s easily exploited by opposition teams who are hungrier and more adaptable.

Where things stand for the Cats, it’s almost not even worth trying to finish in the top four, but rather trying to solidify a finals spot and continue to manage their star players through on-field rotations, once they’re fit and available.

On either side of their bye, Geelong has games against the Bulldogs, Port Adelaide away and Melbourne, while the run home looks difficult, but manageable with returning players.


And while the best ability is availability, it wouldn’t hurt for the experienced members in this playing group to step up and support the younger players who have taken strides forward in their games to ensure the Cats don’t slide further down the ladder.

The reigning premiers still have a talented list and are blooding new players who have strong potential to be damaging players at the level in the future. Injuries have been difficult to contend with, but they must prove their dedication and commitment to the cause, or risk seeing the season slip away.

The Cats are officially at a crossroads and they have to improve if they want to be a contender in 2023.

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