If the attitude and the intensity between Geelong and Hawthorn is equal, then the firepower up forward could well determine Friday night's preliminary final. And if that is the case, I get the feeling the Hawks could blast the Cats off the park.
The Hawks are a superb kicking team. They back themselves with precise foot passing to bring the ball out of defence. Against Geelong, it's imperative that when they reach the midfield they don’t bomb long to Buddy Franklin and Jarryd Roughead. In the past, that’s where they have come unstuck. The long bombs play into the hands of tall defenders Tom Lonergan, Jared Rivers and especially Harry Taylor who are all good spoilers and intercept marks.
Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson has worked hard over the past two seasons to make sure his team isn't overly reliant on Franklin. Now it has a host of options with a multi-pronged forward set-up.
In 2011, Franklin kicked 82 goals and the next highest scorer was Luke Breust with 30. Last year, Franklin led the way with 69 goals, Breust kicked 45 and Roughead 41. This year, it’s Roughead on 70 goals and Franklin the support act on 58. But, importantly for the Hawks, Breust and Jack Gunston have each kicked 38 goals and four players in Jordan Lewis, Isaac Smith, David Hale and Cyril Rioli are averaging around a goal a game. Healthy goal contributions have also come from Paul Puopolo, Shaun Burgoyne and Bradley Hill, who have each kicked 15 goals for the season.
It means the Hawks, who are the highest-scoring team in the competition averaging 114 points per game, well and truly share the load. They have 11 players who have kicked 15 or more goals for the season; Geelong has only seven.
A major concern for the Cats is that their two key forwards are struggling. Tom Hawkins’ bad back has severely restricted his output, and James Podsiadly was as cold as ice last week. To make matters worse, Paul Chapman, who kicked four goals last week, will miss this game through suspension.
The Cats’ firepower has fallen away as the season has unfolded. In the first 11 games, the Cats scored 100-plus points on nine occasions. But in their past 13 games they have cracked the ton just four times. The Hawks, however, have passed 100 points in nine of their past 13 games.
With his key forwards not firing, Cats coach Chris Scott has improvised by pushing Harry Taylor and Joel Selwood forward. But against the Hawks, I don’t think he will have that luxury. Taylor will be needed in defence to help put the brakes on Franklin, Roughead and Hale, and Selwood’s grunt at the stoppages is vital.
To win, the Cats will have to roll the dice. They are at their best when they play fast footy. Steve Johnson and Jimmy Bartel will need to spend more time forward than they normally do, to compensate for the absence of Chapman and the low goal output of Hawkins and Podsiadly. And if ever a bag of goals was needed from Steven Motlop, it’s now. The speed machine has kicked 42 majors thus far, a fantastic return. Four more would have the Cats purring.
This season, the Cats are ranked No.1 for inside-50 entries, averaging 58 a game. The Hawks are ranked two, averaging 56. But the Hawks are No.1 for marks inside 50, with an average of 15 per game. The reasons why the Hawks take the most marks close to goal are many. Their foot passing skills are excellent. They are drilled to play on quickly. They are encouraged to be bold and back themselves to hit up a teammate even if he has only a one-metre break on his opponent. They work for each other by putting on blocks. And they are continually on the move. It also helps that on the lead, with arms outstretched, Roughead, Gunston, Franklin and Hale have safe hands when running hard at the ball.
Supply from the ruck stoppages will also play a big part in the result. When the Cats lost their first final to Fremantle, they were smashed in the hitouts 53-16 and in the clearances 43-22. Against Port Adelaide, they broke even. If Hawks pair Max Bailey and Hale get on top, get the ball into the midfielders’ hands, who in turn will feed the forwards, then it will spell gloom for Geelong.