For Saturday’s AFL preliminary final between Geelong and the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba, and to earn a berth to take on the Port Adelaide v Richmond winner in the grand final at the same venue seven nights later, the Cats will certainly have momentum on their side after their 68-point demolition job on Collingwood in the semi-final.
In that match, coach Chris Scott’s Cats were able to do whatever they wanted, anytime they wanted to, and did it as often as possible.
But even as seemingly perfect as the semi-final win was achieved, Chris Fagan’s Lions – 15-point winners over Richmond on October 2 – will be rested and ready for the challenge.
While it has been proven over the years that teams winning their games in the first week of the finals possess an inherent advantage towards getting to the grand final, the question must still be asked: do the Cats have their finals mojo back?
In the Lions’ qualifying win over the Tigers, their on-ball attack led by Lachie Neale and Mitch Robinson, with Daniel Rich in support off the halfback flank, enjoyed an even display among their peers to set up Dayne Zorko and Charlie Cameron within their forward structure.
Jarryd Lyons led the team of his namesake with 24 possessions, with Rich and Neale amassing 20 and 19 possessions, respectively, as Cameron was the Lions’ lone multiple goalkicker with three majors.
What Brisbane accomplished against Richmond has been viewed as a simple and typical observation about their game and Fagan’s tactics throughout the season: spread the ball around, get the results.
Such a share-the-wealth mentality allowed the Lions to finish second during the crazy, interrupted regular season, finishing only behind Port Adelaide.
And if Brisbane have taken a socialist’s approach to attacking footy, Geelong has consistently looked to be the capitalists to cashing in – with the Cats capitalising on going strong in contested footy battles, winning clearances out of the centre, then taking the game on to play quick and direct to the likes of Tom Hawkins, Patrick Dangerfield, Gary Rohan and others to kick the goals.
In the Cats’ 27-point win over the Lions in Round 6, that approach was laid out for all to see, as Geelong slammed home seven goals to none in a rampant third quarter. Eventual Coleman Medal winner Hawkins kicked three goals for the match and Sam Simpson, Dangerfield, Sam Menegola and Cam Guthrie all serving as the key ball-winners to pace the Cats’ attack.
Geelong can likely take the same approach against Brisbane – as long as Hawkins can maintain values of strength, positioning and reliability in one-on-one contests against Harris Andrews, he will get his goals, with others such as Gary Ablett, Rohan, or Dangerfield popping up to take their chances as well to keep Darcy Gardiner, Ryan Lester and the rest of the Lions’ defenders honest.
Speaking of Dangerfield, the question of where he plays may serve as a mystery – kept under wraps by Scott – until the opening bounce, or even midway through any term of the match. The Cats would love to have his sure hands and hard running in the centre clearance battles, but his skill set up forward of also being able to take contested marks and kick goals may also be a critical factor if Scott is to settle this affair early.
But down at the other end, this may be where the match is won and lost.
Lions talisman Cameron may be as much of a potential match-winner that Hawkins, Dangerfield, Ablett or captain Joel Selwood can be for the Cats, provided that he gets the right service from those in the middle going forward. And its their effectiveness that Geelong will be looking to control.
Whereas Selwood, Menegola, Guthrie, and Mitch Duncan show no fear in taking on contests anywhere around the ground, the focus to stop Cameron and others in the Lions’ forward structure will fall to a Cats back-six unit that has been instrumental to holding opponents to 52.2 points per game.
As Brisbane ranks as the most efficient team in the AFL at converting inside-50’s into goals – with Geelong ranked second, incidentally – a defence led by Tom Stewart and Mark Bliclavs will have to turn things up a notch to keep Cameron and his other forwards in check, with Harry Taylor, Jed Bews, and the underrated Lachie Henderson and Jack Henry also capable of performing one-on-one shutdown duties.
If successful, the Cats will look to Bews – whose foot skills have improved markedly this season – along with Tuohy and Duncan to get the counter-attacks going.
One major intangible factor comes down to Geelong’s massive edge in preliminary finals experience. As the Lions play in their match at this stage since 2004 – which was against, you guessed it, the Cats – a quick comparison at the two squads, if they each come in unchanged, shows that only four Brisbane players have played in past preliminary finals while only Simpson lacks such experience for the Cats.