Cats, Tigers: a true top-of-the-ladder test of contrasts

Roughly 51 weeks ago, Geelong fell 19 points short in the AFL preliminary final to Richmond as the Tigers advanced to – and ultimately won – their second AFL Grand Final in a three-year span.

As these two titans of the contemporary AFL wars – measured on the basis of their consistency over the last several years to gain top-four finishes and advance deeply into finals campaigns – prepare to do battle tomorrow night at the Gold Coast’s Metricon Stadium, this is an epic showcase pitting last year’s premiers against a team that is arguably the form side of the 2020 competition.

And if Geelong finds itself as the underdog of this battle, despite being $1.71 favourites by many oddsmakers, that suits the Cats nicely. In fact, the club would prefer to use this match – the teams’ respective penultimate match of this screwy 2020 regular season – as a yardstick of where they sit in terms of their premiership chances.

“We have a lot of belief that we are a good team, but they’ve been the best team in the competition for a long time. They are hitting their stride at the moment, so it’ll be a good contest,” said Scott after the Cats’ 66-point win over Essendon on Sunday, in casting one eye ahead to the match against Richmond.

Likewise, Damien Hardwick, Scott’s opposite number as Richmond’s coach, welcomes the challenge facing his own team.

And Hardwick views Geelong as a side lacking weaknesses.

“They’re a really good side. They’re really well coached, they operate efficiently. Defensively, they’re very, very strong,” Hardwick said on Wednesday.

“We look at the way they play, time in possession’s a big one for them.

“Basically, the game’s going to come down to control versus chaos,” added Hardwick. “Geelong is very much a control side, we’re sort of a chaos side [and] it’s two good sides that are going to have a fair dinkum crack at each other.”

Whereas Richmond has won four games in a row and fresh off a bye and Geelong riding a six-match winning streak, both teams enter the match in undeniably scintillating form.

A look back at last year’s preliminary final may provide a bit of insight into tomorrow’s match, with top-four positions still heatedly up for grabs.

Aside from Tim Kelly’s move to West Coast and the offseason additions of Gary Rohan, Luke Dahlhaus and Jack Steven, this is essentially the same Geelong squad that lost at the MCG that evening.

Also significant in looking back at last year’s preliminary final was that the Cats were missing Tom Hawkins on the night, as this year’s runaway Coleman Medal leader was suspended for striking West Coast’s Will Schofield in the semi-final the week before.

And minus Hawkins, Geelong lacked a forward presence. On that night, a majority of its goals came from the midfield with the west-bound Kelly leading all Cats with three of the team’s nine goals that night.

However, Geelong’s forward structure tactics have changed, to not rely solely on Hawkins, regardless of how prolific his goalkicking has been in 2020.

Gryan Miers offered a silver lining in the preliminary final with two goals – and even with added depth of crumbing forwards around him like Rohan, Dahlhaus and Steven, they can offer Hawkins more than adequate support.

As far as ballhawks go, courageous captain Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield, as one would expect, were high in their possession counts, but Miers and Irishmen Zach Tuhoy and Mark O’Connor also figured prominently. Those players – bar Selwood, who misses out for another week through an extended injury recovery – may get their fair shares of the Sherrin tomorrow night.

However, it is intriguing to note that while Cam Guthrie and Sam Menegola – arguably two of Geelong’s better performers this year – didn’t come close to being accused of contracting leather poisoning in the preliminary final, perhaps a shift of balance of the possessions tomorrow night may tilt closer towards Guthrie, Menegola and Mitch Duncan, especially in the battles of the Geelong team’s total commitment towards contested possession, than the others.

Also on that night, Tigers superstar Dustin Martin was held to just 22 possessions, which equated to Geelong winning that battle on contested possession. However, the must-watch battle between Martin and Dangerfield is likely to emerge in the clearances, and whoever gets their hands on the ball more often in these situations may eventually factor well in victory.

While Martin’s overall possessions were down, Bachar Houli and Dion Prestia picked up the slack with 32 and 22 disposals respectively, mainly from down back. This may serve as a key battleground on the Metricon’s paddock, to see if Geelong can exert enough forward pressure to limit the Tigers from building up their attacks from halfback.

Many will view these teams as so evenly matched, the ultimate outcome may come down to intangibles. Will Hawkins, nearly unstoppable this season in one-on-one matchups and his goalkicking, feel a thirst for redemption after missing out on last year’s preliminary final? If Martin cannot complement Trent Cochin with a high number of possessions, how damaging will his actual disposals be? And can Geelong’s stingy back six, led by Tom Stewart, shut down Tom Lynch and Jack Riewoldt effectively, like they have with other key forwards?

“All we can ask is that we play our best footy. Sometimes the scoreboard won’t go our way, but as long as we play the Richmond way, we think we’re a fair chance,” said Hardwick.

Such a sentiment is what all footy fans can hope for, from both teams.


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