Footy Fix: The Cats are inevitable – and they’re smarter, clutcher, quicker, and scarier than ever


“I am inevitable” – Thanos, Avengers: Endgame

You know that scene at the end of a horror movie where everyone thinks the killer is dead, only for them to pop back up for one last scare?

Geelong stopped being that killer a long time ago. So many times has the end been predicted for the Cats only for Chris Scott and his crew to deny the doubters and launch another premiership push that it should no longer surprise anyone when they do it again.

It is, however, still frightening to see it in the works. 7-0 and a game clear on top after the most professional of victories over a Carlton outfit that brought plenty of ferocity but none of the coolness the Cats had in abundance, Geelong are once again officially the team to beat this year.

And the scariest part of all? That they might actually be smarter, sharper, quicker and better than ever.

This was a game won by one decisive, costly fact: the Blues, for all their brilliance, for all their contested dominance, were predictable.

How did the Cats cover for missing Tom Stewart against a rampaging Carlton forward line featuring Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay? Simple – they knew where the Blues were going, and set up accordingly.

By three quarter time, the Blues had targeted Curnow a whopping 17 times inside 50. On the one hand, it’s ideal for your small forwards to know, more or less, where the ball is heading, to be on hand to gather whatever crumbs come their way.

But on the other hand, against a team as professional as the Cats, you can’t afford to be hitting the same spot over and over again; Geelong’s army of interceptors, Zach Guthrie especially, had a field day even without Stewart, while Jake Kolodjashnij held strong against Curnow in the one-on-ones to allow his teammates to jump into the hole safely.

Tom De Koning has gone down to the rooms to get checked after this incident ????

???? Watch #AFLCatsBlues on ch. 504 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) April 27, 2024

Curnow still had three marks inside 50 and three goals, while the Blues hit the scoreboard 30 times – it wasn’t as if there was a shortage of scores. But you take what you get against Carlton this year, especially without Stewart – and to concede only 105 from 66 Blues inside 50s is probably a winning result, never mind their almost absurd efficiency going the other way.

The contrast up the other end was stark: while Tom Hawkins still served as the Cats’ deepest forward, he was seldom targeted unless there was no other choice, with the Cats aware he had a quality opponent he’d be unable to monster in Jacob Weitering who has regularly had his measure.

Hawkins was still a focal point, but the Cats’ forwards spread from him rather than converged onto him, which created space galore. Geelong finished with 17 marks inside 50, only one belonging to Hawkins – instead, it was Ollie Henry (four), Mark Blicavs (two) and of course Jeremy Cameron (three) cashing in.

The Cats are also undisputably the AFL’s best adaptors, capable of adjusting their style and structure to clamp a team dominating them in any regard. In the first quarter, that regard was the Blues’ dominance at stoppages.

With Marc Pittonet dominating the taps and Patrick Cripps in particular feasting, the Blues had eight of the first nine clearances, were 13-5 up at quarter time, and completed a 6-0 sweep out of the centre. Only inaccuracy prevented them from fully capitalising, kicking 1.5 to 1.0 from stoppages.

Jeremy Cameron celebrates a goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The Cats’ solution? Shift Jack Bowes to try and shut Cripps down at stoppages – conceding three free kicks, his major flaw was taking to that task a little too overzealously – while the Cats as a collective moved to block space around the Blues’ captain, knowing, just like kicking to Curnow, that primarily Pittonet and Tom De Koning were looking to tap the ball his way.

Just like that, the clearance battle evened: the Cats would end up going +2 in clearances and +3 out of the centre for the rest of the game, a quite staggering turnaround from the earlier domination. Even more impressively, they finished with three goals to two from centre clearances, against the team that used just that source to tear GWS a new one last week.

All that with Patrick Dangerfield doing a hamstring midway through the third quarter; with Tanner Bruhn, Bowes and Brandan Parfitt as an on-ball brigade, and Rhys Stanley as a dogged solo ruckman with a little help from Mark Blicavs. You’d struggle to find a less imposing midfield group in the AFL, yet time and time again this year, at no point more obviously than on Saturday after quarter time, they have come up trumps.

But the key to the Cats’ victory was in spread, especially from half-back: it was a cornerstone of their run to the flag in 2022, and it’s better than ever in 2024. Geelong are quick.

Max Holmes, ranging from half-back to the wing and even through the middle, takes the game on and isn’t afraid to use his pace, gaining a match-high 507 metres for his team. Just as effective was Mitch Duncan, who roamed loose behind the ball and used it immaculately as always.

When the Cats break, be it from the centre or at half-back, it’s almost game over unless they stuff it up, which is a rarity. Brad Close and Gryan Miers run hard both ways, either up at the ball-carrier or back towards goal, dividing and conquering all but the stingiest defences. Jeremy Cameron is an almost impossible match-up, too strong and powerful for anyone able to go with him athletically and too quick and clever for the rest.

‘He played for the free kick and lost.’

How did you see this incident involving Zac Williams?

???? Watch #AFLCatsBlues on ch. 504 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) April 27, 2024

If you can somehow best that group, then there’s Tyson Stengle to contend with as well – supremely skilled on both sides, with a nous not just for goal but to pass inboard to teammates when that’s the better option, ferocious with his pressure and even able to take contested marks near goal on Zac Williams, apparently.

The Cats’ 18 goals – and 28 scores – from 45 inside 50s is honestly outrageous. No team can hope to be that efficient on a regular basis; for it to happen even once, never mind on a pretty strong opposition defence and with Hawkins held goalless, is remarkable.

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But it’s an efficiency borne not just of personnel, but of tactics. The Cats’ speedy ball movement perfectly suits a forward line quick enough to get into positions that hurt ahead of the ball, making just about every play a smooth sequence from defence, or out the back of stoppages, towards goal.

And yet the most impressive part of their whole game wasn’t the surge to begin the last quarter, or the unnerving accuracy in front of the big sticks to half time. It was in the way Geelong responded as a team to the Blues’ four-goal surge to reduce the margin to just eight points with plenty of time left.

The last three of those Blues goals had been banged through from stoppages, surging the ball forward like they’d done against GWS with Blake Acres empowered to go for broke, shrug tackles, race inside 50 and kick goals. Two of them, to be exact – both rippers.

A bit of Blake Acres brilliance!#AFLCatsBlues

— AFL (@AFL) April 27, 2024

With a midfield of Atkins, Parfitt and Bowes for the game’s most crucial centre bounce, against a side beginning to dominate again at the coalface, it was of course the Cats who won the decisive break. It’s brilliantly executed – Stanley jostles with Pittonet under the ball, preventing him from a clear run at the ball to smash it away and inadvertently protecting the drop zone; Atkins guards the dangerous Cripps, getting in his way and preventing a clean path at the ball; ditto Parfitt on Walsh.

It leaves Bruhn free to collect, and he’s no less excellent – anticipating Walsh’s tackle, he leaps into it, allowing his hands free above the Blues’ pincer grip to shoot a handpass to the new free man, Parfitt.

Atkins then switches from defence to attack in the blink of an eye to receive the handball, shoot out the back of the contest into space, and weigh up an option.

Lots of players, especially in that situation, would bang the ball on the boot and hope for territory; indeed, this is where the Blues have raced, three players making a beeline for the central corridor. With Carlton forwards rushing up to apply pressure, Atkins could quite reasonably have taken this option.

Instead, he finds space, keeps running, holds the ball until the perfect option presents itself, and nails a 20-metre kick on his opposite foot to Mitch Duncan, charging into space. The Cats have control.

Only now does Duncan take territory, going wide towards the boundary line, the safe option, and the kick is perfectly placed.

This is where Rhys Stanley comes in: having rucked solo all day against Pittonet and De Koning, he has mustered the energy to first sprint forward from the corridor, then rush across to the half-forward flank when it becomes clear that’s where Duncan’s going. Too quick for Pittonet, his athleticism scares Lewis Young, the spare behind the ball, into leaving his post and trying to compete with the ruckman in the air.

Stanley brings it to ground – but that’s all he needs to do. His running has scattered the Carlton defence, and the Cats have the cattle at ground level to capitalise.

With perfect placement, Close is waiting at the front of the pack in the classic crumber’s spot waiting for a spill, and the ball comes to him like an obedient puppy. He gathers as he’s already moving, handballing over the top of the oncoming Weitering – with Hawkins off, he’s guarded Henry from the bounce, whose presence had kept the Blues’ interceptor off that contest long enough for him to be unable to impact – and to Stengle, who has gained a crucial three metres on Williams.

Stengle, hemmed in on the pocket but with time to get onto his right foot, might have had a ping there – a lot of goalsneaks would have. Instead, he does the team thing, centring the ball into the space in front of Cameron, who has run back towards goal from the moment Duncan marked the ball and now doubles back, marking centimetres from the turf with Jaxon Binns a fraction late.

The Blues have done little, if anything, wrong in this play – but the Cats, at a time of great need, have coolly and clinically done just about everything right that it’s possible to do. At no point did they panic, at no point did they abandon discipline, and the reward is a shot.

Cameron goals, the margin is back out to 14 with two and a half minutes left, and suddenly the life is sucked out of the contest, and from an 87,000-strong crowd largely populated by Blues fans.

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The Cats had a year in the wilderness last season, but the deficiencies that cruelled them – around the stoppages and in transitioning the ball from defence – have now not only been patched up by Scott and team, they’re now great strengths of their own.

Season 2024 has a long way to go yet, but the Cats are officially our frontrunners – again. And if anything, they look harder to beat than ever before.

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