A DECADE ago, the Brisbane Lions were in their prime. They won their first flag in 2001. Two more came straight after and on their fourth attempt at premiership success, they were toppled by Port Adelaide.
For four years they had been the benchmark. Some of their heroes were Michael Voss, Nigel Lappin, Jason Akermanis, Justin Leppitsch, Alastair Lynch and the Scott twins Brad and Chris.
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They were magnificent warriors who set a standard of excellence for a long time. But after that golden period, the Lions fell away quickly. The next four seasons saw the team plummet to 11th, 13th, 10th and 10th positions on the ladder.
During this period of decline, many of the multi-premiership players retired. Gone at 30 were Brad Scott and Clark Keating. At 31, Craig McRae, Leppitsch, Chris Scott, Mal Michael and Chris Johnson hung up their boots. Going out at 32 were Marcus Ashcroft, Darryl White, Lappin and Voss. We saw the backs of Shaun Hart, Martin Pike and Akermanis at 33.
The reality was that of all those who played on into their 30s, after the four glory years, none could maintain their best form. A combination of age, injury and mental fatigue wore them down.
Now Geelong, which has played in four of the past five grand finals, faces the same problem. After last year's flag success, Cameron Ling (aged 30) and Brad Ottens (31) could no longer face the demands of AFL football. They retired and with them went premiership teammates Cameron Mooney (32) and Darren Milburn (34). That left behind 10 teammates who will be 29 or older this year. All of them, from Jimmy Bartel to Matthew Scarlett, are highly respected. But the facts are their best football is behind them and from here on, it will be a slow decline for some, and a quicker decline for others.
Last year coach Chris Scott, who saw the rise and fall of the Lions first-hand, did an outstanding job managing his ageing list. They lost just three games. Twelve months on, Scott's job is so much tougher.
Already this year the Cats have dropped four games. You pay a price for success. Because the likes of Steve Johnson, Paul Chapman, Bartel and Joel Corey have played finals in seven of the past eight seasons, they have amassed up to 20 finals games. That's an extra season of football at its most intense. So many times these Cats have come off the field exhausted.
Now, the question marks on Geelong's older brigade centre on whether they are still hungry for the contest after so much success and glory and, if they are, whether the body is capable of delivering what the brain demands. Cam Mooney has stated that as the premierships, marriage and children came, the fire in the belly wasn't as fierce as it once was.
Eight rounds in and the stats tell us the Cats are not the dominant force they once were. From last year to this, scores for have dropped from 115 points a game to 92, while scores against have risen from 73 to 91. Rankings for hard-ball-gets have gone from first to 18th, contested possession from fifth to 15th, contested marks from first to 16th and effective disposal from second to 12th.
Of the older brigade, Bartel, Chapman and Corey are slightly down on output in the midfield. Corey's disposal efficiency has dropped from 69 per cent to 62 per cent as he now hurriedly puts the ball to boot. In defence, Corey Enright and Josh Hunt are also a little down on normal output. Scarlett must be wondering if he should have retired nine months ago. He has already stated this will be his final season, but so far suspension and injury have restricted him to just three games.
David Wojcinski played 22 games last season but there's been no senior appearance in 2012. He, too, has been a victim of suspension and injury.
Up forward, Johnson has not been as damaging on the scoreboard. Last year's return was 2.2 goals a game - at present it's 1.0.
James Podsiadly hasn't the kilometres on the clock of the other veterans, but, in a less dominant team, his supply has dried up. Last year he was No. 2 in the AFL for contested marks. Now, he's not even in the top 10.
So the Cats have their problems. The pride and courage of the ageing champs may well mean they will win more games than they lose, so once again they will see finals action. But, has the window of opportunity closed on their chance to win that elusive fourth flag?
The Lions couldn't do it; nor, I fear, will the Cats.