Patrick Dangerfield’s three goals after halftime engineered a Geelong comeback as the Cats sealed up another AFL top-four finish – their eleventh in the last 14 seasons – with a 10.9 (69) to 9.9 (63) win over Sydney at the Gold Coast’s Metricon Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
As the Swans tried to engage the Cats in a four-quarter track meet of running football mainly down the centre corridor and get them away from their preferred methods of opportunities through tough, contested football, Geelong endured to keep the game close before eventually coming out on top in the final term.
“We were told [at three-quarter time] not to win the game too quickly,” said Dangerfield, who had struggled in the middle with only seven possessions through the first two-and-a-half quarters before Cats coach Chris Scott moved him forward to set the stage for his match-winning efforts.
“We had the momentum, and an edge in possession, and all we had to do was to be patient and take our chances, whether that took five minutes or longer,” added Dangerfield, who would finish with 3.2 and 14 possessions for the match.
Scott, meanwhile, always looks for opportunities to move Dangerfield or any of his other players with common skill sets forward, knowing that the Cats have an embarrassment of riches of players who can excel through the middle.
“It’s always a collective with us to talk about players who aren’t having a big impact on the game, where we can move them around to make us better," Scott said.
“Patrick was getting better one-on-one matchups up there [inside 50], and at deep forward, a player of his quality always give us the edge to get him opportunities elsewhere," add the Cats' coach.
Scott ushered in four huge changes for this match. The long-awaited return of Gary Ablett, being given a recall for his first game in 66 days – due to family issues back in Victoria and the Queensland hub quarantine – to be cherry ripe for the finals campaign was the highest-profile inclusion among the quartet. Otherwise, Scott also featured club captain Joel Selwood, and Gary Rohan and Jack Steven as those also winning recalls.
The Cats started slowly for a team tuning up for finals, but still remained highly competitive in a pulsating opening term which produced nine goals – five for the Swans, and four for Geelong.
The Swans kicked the first three of those goals in rapid succession, as Aliir Aliir, Nick Blakey and Jordan Dawson showed their accuracy, before Brandon Parfitt – benefitting from Ablett’s quick handywork – kicked the Cats’ first, all occurring within the game’s opening ten minutes.
Josh Kennedy would restore the Swans’ three-goal advantage a couple of minutes later before Tom Hawkins and Cam Guthrie each combined to kick two goals for the Cats within in a minute’s time. Tom Papley would kick a goal on the run for the Swans’ fifth of the opening quarter before Ablett kicked a trademark running goal of his own through the middle to cut Sydney’s lead to seven points.
Profligate misses from Papley and Blakey on dribble kicks for goal could have made the Cats’ catch-up task a bit more of a challenge, had they been accurate just before the first break.
The Cats tightened the defensive screws in a goalless second term for both teams, adopting a bend-but-don’t-break approach. While the Cats failed to threaten in their own attacks, Sydney were able to build out of the back and advance through midfield via a kick-to-kick attack, but Geelong – led by Mark Bliclavs, Tom Stewart and Harry Taylor – stymied most attempts at goal once the Swans got inside 50.
“They [Sydney] like to run through the middle, and are pretty good at it, so we had to tighten up defensively after quarter-time, and what we did worked out,” Scott said.
Papley also served as a Swans villain with a few other misses from easy kicks on the run, finishing the first half with just one goal from five attempts before the break. Otherwise, Sydney’s lead would have been greater than their 11-point halftime margin.
Justin McInerney would ultimately, five minutes into the third term, kick the goal to give the Swans that bit of breathing room. However, the Cats were quick to respond a minute later, with Rohan abdicating an easy shot at goal for Zach Tuohy to convert.
After Sam Reid added the next goal to stretch Sydney’s advantage, the Cats would kick the next two majors to get within a single kick, and came within a whisker of taking the lead outright by three-quarter time.
Coleman Medal winner-elect Hawkins kicked his second goal from a set shot after receiving a free kick with six minutes to go in the term to reduce the deficit to a manageable eleven points – and then came another threat up forward.
Enter Dangerfield’s heroics.
Once the former Brownlow Medallist was moved into the forward line, he responded almost immediately by converting a goal from his first mark inside 50 to cut the Swans’ lead to a mere four points, and then barely missed with a kick after the siren to narrow the gap to two points.
And Dangerfield – who had taken the Cats’ last four marks inside 50 to this point – would give the Cats their first lead, three minutes into the final term, from Rohan’s quality service, then went back-to-back a couple minutes later from another set shot to give the Cats a handy 11-point lead.
Dangerfield also played a one-percenter to tap a ball into the path of Parfitt for his second goal, confirmed by video review, to get the last touch ahead of Sydney defender Harry Cunningham.
“We always have discussions about what happens during the games, and making those adjustments where he is best suited,” said Scott.
“We cannot rig the game all the time, we need to read it and see what happens to make those kinds of changes,” he added.
However, Sydney were still plucky enough to hang around, as Papley kicked his second goal after many attempts, finishing with 2.5 in front of goal, as the Swans quickly answered back to retain an 11-point margin.
And although McInerney kicked his second on the run in the match’s final minute, Geelong would not be denied their top-four berth once Bliclavs smothered James Rowbottom’s last-ditch, last second attempt to seal a vital win of great character.
Geelong, by bumping West Coast out of fourth place and into a double-chance starting with a trip to face either Brisbane or Port Adelaide, its players are set to take nothing for granted.
“Today was a huge effort by our club – a lot of hard work has gone into it, but the boys have earned the position now,” said Selwood.
“This game was so important in the context of what the next month will be like for us,” said Dangerfield.