On Saturday night, both Geelong and Collingwood face a do-or-die proposition at the Gabba in Brisbane, in order to advance to a preliminary final date against Brisbane at the same venue the following weekend.
Failure to achieve that means that an end-of-the-season assessment awaits the losing side – and taking both teams into account, one team may have to make minor off-season adjustments, while the other may have to take stock for something resembling a bigger rebuilding effort.
The team falling into that latter category might be Geelong.
The Cats have a list that is more than capable of winning a premiership. But given that entering the 2020 season, the average age per player at the club logs in at 24.7 years – sure, Collingwood rank higher, at 25.1 years – and the average games of experience has Geelong at the top at 80.7 games, a great amount of pressure can be assumed to be put on the Cats to win a flag as soon as possible.
The need to win on Saturday, for the good of the current group, may affect the mindset of many of the club’s elder statesmen differently as they prepare for Saturday’s cut-throat semi-final match.
It could come down to a matter of psychological warfare from within.
Gary Ablett has already said that 2020 is his final AFL season, and given that the season has been a series of start-and-stop frustrations for him around personal and family issues, one cannot blame him. And who might follow Ablett into the sunset after the season?
The Cats have nine players on their current list who are aged 30 years and over – Ablett, Zach Tuohy, Harry Taylor, Jack Steven, Josh Jenkins, Joel Selwood, Lachie Henderson, Tom Hawkins and Patrick Dangerfield
And for those thinking that “life ends at 30” in AFL lineage, the Cats also possess a handful of players – Mitch Duncan, Gary Rohan, Sam Menegola, Mark Bliclavs, Cam Guthrie, Luke Dahlhaus and Tom Stewart – who aren’t far away from that round number within the next two or three years
Simply put, Geelong has an ageing list. Sixteen of the club’s best 22, on most weeks, fall into either side of this category, if “30” represents that line in the sand. The edict of “win now, or else be threatened with a dismantling and rebuilding” exists as the proverbial elephant in the room – it hasn’t been verbalised, per se, but it lingers over the club with Saturday night’s cutthroat semi-final approaching.
As for Collingwood’s list, coach Nathan Buckley’s charges are generally no spring chickens, either, with seven players over the age of 30 and – by the same criteria as Geelong above – eight others approaching the age of 30 within the next two or three years.
However, to discuss quality upon the teams’ lists, only a few of Collingwood’s best players fall within that sub-group, with Buckley having already injected a youth movement that is already paying dividends. The likes of Jaidyn Stephenson, Jordan De Goey, Brodie Grundy and Jamie Elliott, to name but a few, have transformed the Magpies into an up-and-coming side with a hunger to win the big games that could last for years ahead.
Geelong’s best quality lies within its veterans, particularly with Guthrie and Menegola coming into their own this season, and with the leftovers from its golden age of the triple premiership glories from 2007-11, such as Ablett, Hawkins, Taylor, Selwood and Duncan, also seen as an area of dependability over the years.
Cats coach Chris Scott, to his credit, has attempted to implement a transformation to his squad, albeit in small, gradual stages. Combining the recruitments of veteran players such as Dangerfield, Tuohy, Henderson, Steven and Dahlhaus with the development of younger homegrown talents such as Gryan Miers, Brad Close, Esava Ratugolea and Brandan Parfitt has been a positive step to keep the side fresh – but it only enhances the “win now or else” mentality within the club’s current culture.
As Geelong faces a greater pressure to win, perhaps a win on Saturday will help hasten the development of those younger players.
We can talk about the various match angles and matchups – such as whether Hawkins can rebound from his dismal 0.5 output last weekend against Port Adelaide, or if Mason Cox continue his big-game reputation befitting of his 6-foot-10 frame, or around the probability surrounding Ablett or any of his elder-statesmen teammates rolling back the clock with a performance for the ages, or whether De Goey even deserves to play in this game at all – but at the end of all of that, it comes down to the mental pressure each side possesses unto themselves.
And then there’s the curious case of Scott’s coaching of the Cats.
Under Scott’s tutelage, Geelong have been so very good from one regular season to the next, maintaining a 71.5 winning percentage since taking over from Mark Thompson in 2011, but also so insufficient in finals to the point of having won only four finals in 16 attempts since taking Geelong to the flag in his debut season.
Many theories have been bandied about as to why the Cats have faltered in past September campaigns, but the reality is that Scott will be facing a similar pressure as his players will on Saturday – maybe even moreso, if his job security may hang in the balance with a defeat, citing his teams’ ten-year records in finals.
Saturday’s battle may be more psychological than it will be of a physical nature, decided in the heads and hearts of players and coaches. Whoever feels it more may be more inspired to emerge victorious.