Sport Analysis

Red-hot Cats looking to rewrite coulda-been-a-contender record

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2022 AfL footy finals kick off this week (Image by Dan Jensen)

AFL finals footy asks some big questions like, will Geelong fall short yet again and extend its run of premiership near-misses by another year? Ronny Lerner sizes up the Cats' competition.

IT'S A RECURRING theme for Geelong.

So much so that the club might consider changing its moniker from the Cats to the "Groundhogs".

Almost every year since Chris Scott’s men last claimed a premiership in 2011, pre-season prognostications have often had them falling off a cliff, only for them to be right in the premiership mix six months later. And this year is no exception.

After being absolutely flogged by Melbourne to the tune of 83 points in last year’s preliminary final at Optus Stadium, it looked as though Geelong had finally fallen off that cliff, Wile E Coyote-style. It was the Cats’ heaviest defeat since 2014 and their biggest loss in a final since 1969. It was also the Demons’ greatest winning margin against them.

However, just like most other years in the past decade-and-a-bit, there was no puff of smoke rising from the ground far below. Unlike poor old Wile E, Geelong had not been turned into a walking accordion or squashed like a pancake.

No, the Cats escaped oblivion, used yet another one of their nine lives and lived to fight another day despite the myriad of naysayers once again predicting their demise.

Not only did Geelong remain a competitive unit in 2022, it remarkably went to another level, winning its last 13 games to finish two games clear on top of the ladder and win its second minor premiership in four seasons.

Logic dictates that the longer a team goes without a flag under the same coach, the weaker it should become. But incredibly, after six preliminary finals and a grand final under Scott since 2011, this is probably the strongest the Cats have looked. And they’ve done it thanks to some shrewd recruiting, an injection of young blood and clever positional changes.

The recruitment of Tyson Stengle has been inspired. After two drama-filled stints at Richmond and Adelaide, which yielded only 16 games in four years, he has become one of the best small forwards in the competition and won All-Australian honours after kicking 46 goals. 

Sam De Koning has been a revelation down back and has quickly become one of the league’s best key defenders, while Max Holmes has flourished in what has been a breakout season for him.

The reinvention of Tom Atkins as an inside midfielder has reaped huge rewards, as has the versatility shown by Cam Guthrie, Zach Tuohy and Mitch Duncan who have been able to play different positions. Brad Close and Zach Guthrie are enjoying career-best years as well.

The aforementioned factors have been key drivers behind Geelong’s ability to not only stay afloat in season 2022 — but thrive.

However, as always, its exploits in the home-and-away season will count for nought if the club falls short yet again in finals and extends its infuriating run of premiership near-misses by another year.

The Cats’ trend of being written off and proving the doubters wrong every six months wouldn’t be so maddening for their supporters if they were able to clinch that frustratingly elusive tenth premiership.

The cold hard facts are that since 2011, Geelong is a woeful 7-15 in finals at a 32 per cent winning rate. It’s a reality that will remain over the club’s shoulder like an albatross until it finally breaks through for a flag.

And while the Cats are looking as good as at any time under Scott’s reign to end that drought, it’s not going to be a cakewalk because there are plenty of other sharks in this year’s finals tank — namely their destroyers of last year, Melbourne.

Since starting the year 10-0, the Demons have struggled for form and consistency, however, in the last month of the season, they showed ominous glimpses of their very best with crushing wins over Fremantle in Perth and the Lions in Brisbane.

Despite their struggles in the second half of the year, the reigning premiers still managed to finish second on the ladder and the intense heat of the September furnace could very well bring out their best.

Then there’s Sydney which heads into the finals as one of the in-form teams having won ten of its last 12 games – including its last seven – to narrowly miss out on a home final first up.

But the Swans will have no fears taking on the Demons at the MCG this week after beating them at the same venue a mere three months ago.

And the season’s biggest surprise packet, Collingwood, cannot be discounted, either. No team has had as much experience in tight, finals-like scenarios this year as the Magpies who won an incredible 11 games out of 12 decided by 11 points or fewer — including nine of ten by seven points or fewer. No other team has ever produced such an incredible record in close games in the entire 126-year history of the league.

From the bottom half of the eight, Richmond looms as the biggest threat and although Brisbane hosts the Tigers at the Gabba this week, the Lions’ shocking recent record in finals (1-5), as well as their persistent inability to rise to the occasion in big games this year, makes it hard to take them seriously as a premiership contender.

As for Fremantle and the Western Bulldogs, it would be hard seeing either of them getting past the second week of finals considering the winner of their cut-throat final plays the loser of Geelong and Collingwood at the MCG in the semis.

Finals schedule

SECOND ELIMINATION FINAL
Brisbane Lions v Richmond (Gabba, Thursday 1 September, 7.20 pm local time).

SECOND QUALIFYING FINAL
Melbourne v Sydney (MCG, Friday 2 September, 7.50 pm local time).

FIRST QUALIFYING FINAL
Geelong v Collingwood (MCG, Saturday 3 September, 4.35 pm local time).

FIRST ELIMINATION FINAL
Fremantle v Western Bulldogs (Optus Stadium, Saturday 3 September, 6.10 pm local time).

Ronny Lerner has been a sports and music journalist/editor since 2006. Follow Ronny on Twitter @RonnyLerner.

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