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Can the Cats stay on top?

Geelong have been at or near the top of the AFL ladder for the last eight years, so why aren't pundits tipping them for the flag in 2014? Rohan Connolly reports.

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The longer a footballer performs to a consistently high standard, the harder it seems to impress the judges. And so it goes for teams as well.

Ask the likes of Gary Ablett or Scott Pendlebury, for whom a 30-plus possession game is seen generally as a pass mark when, for others, it might be declared a career highlight. And on the latter score, you can certainly ask Geelong.

The Cats are into their eighth successive year at or near the top of the ladder, after Friday night’s victory over North Melbourne having won a formidable 144 of 177 games since kick-starting an era with a 157-point mauling of Richmond all the way back in round six of 2007.

Leaders of the pack: Geelong's Jimmy Bartel and Joel Selwood.

Leaders of the pack: Geelong's Jimmy Bartel and Joel Selwood. Photo: Getty Images

That’s a strike rate of 81.35 per cent over close enough to a decade. It’s an amazing figure, and even then not quite as amazing as their home record, which now stands 52 wins from the last 55 games at Simonds Stadium.

Geelong has seven wins from nine, is in second spot on the ladder, with Steve Johnson back next week and important midfielders Allen Christensen and Josh Caddy set to return in a month.

After this week’s big Thursday night clash with Sydney, the Cats over the following seven weeks play Carlton, St Kilda, Gold Coast, Essendon, the Western Bulldogs, Melbourne and GWS.

The wrap.

The wrap.

The clash with the Suns (away) is surely the only one of those games in which they won’t start a warm favourite, a win-loss ledger of 13-4 at the end of that run possibly a conservative estimate. Even from there, Geelong would have to stumble badly indeed not to make the top four.

Yet, still a surprisingly large contingent of pundits doesn’t seem to think the Cats can win this year’s flag. Am I missing something here? Why can’t they?

Every year, the squad of devil’s advocates concerning the Cats increases, and every year they delight in dispelling the doubts. Even this pre-season, they were left out of enough predicted top eights, despite coming within a goal of yet another grand final appearance in 2013.

Currently, you can take your pick of perceived issues. After the loss to Fremantle in Perth, it was all about contested ball. Prior to that, it’s been variously about lack of forward firepower, the younger parts of the Geelong line-up, or the old hands supposedly falling away. Let’s look at those.

Contested ball? True, the Cats are currently ranked only 13th on the differentials, but they were only 9th at the end of last year, too. And if you’re looking for indicators of Geelong’s hardness, try tackles, where they rank first on the differentials, with daylight second.

Firepower? Well, it helps when a key position player as imposing as Tom Hawkins plays like he did against the Roos on Friday night. But it’s hardly the “Hawk” or bust. The Cats were ranked fourth for points scored before Sunday’s games, have eight players averaging at least a goal per game, and had 11 individual goalkickers against the Roos.

The kids? Cam Guthrie, George Horlin-Smith and Jordan Murdoch continue to look comfortable at senior level, as have several more who can’t at the moment find a regular spot in the 22, Jesse Stringer’s first game of this season against the Roos a good example.

And the old hands? Jimmy Bartel and James Kelly certainly looked in decent nick on Friday night, Joel Selwood and Andrew Mackie not far behind them, Corey Enright his usual unobtrusive self and Harry Taylor serviceable enough. And when aren’t any of that group?

Throw in the absent Johnson and you have in my book the most reliable senior core of any side in the competition. One which consistently rises to the occasion, as it has again so far in 2014 against Hawthorn, Collingwood and now a North Melbourne determined to prove its credentials.

Clearly, Thursday night is a huge test, Geelong facing the red-hot Sydney and, significantly, coming off consecutive six-day breaks. But the Cats have had the better of the Swans in 12 of their last 14 meetings, on both occasions last year, and have won two of their past three trips to the SCG to boot.

The Cats are entitled to go in with plenty of confidence. Win, and surely a handful more sceptics are going to have to consider the possibility their predictions of the imminent demise of a long-time power have been a little premature. Lose, and the number of doubters will almost certainly increase.

Not that that’s going to worry Chris Scott and co too much. Writing off Geelong has become something of an annual sport, like it was with Hawthorn back in the mid-1980s. And we know how that panned out.

There’s no doubt the novelty of the Cats as a super-power has long worn off. But growing weary of a side’s continual presence at the pointy end of a season can’t replace logic when it comes to assessing its worth. And while Geelong’s glorious era will end one day, it ain’t likely to happen for some time yet.

And while I'm at it ...

SPARE ME THE SANCTIMONY

Seriously, how many faux “controversies” about disunity do we have to endure every time a senior player gives a teammate a public dressing down during the heat of a game?

Nick Maxwell knows the score on this, having copped criticism before for chewing out former teammate Heath Shaw. On Saturday, it was Alex Fasolo who copped a gobful, and a slap on the back for good measure.

“Not a good look” came the predictable tut-tutting. And here’s our equally predictable response. Rack off.

Alex is a big boy and took the spray for transgressing team rules in his stride. And, according to Maxwell on Sunday, welcomed the reminder about what’s expected of him in a back-line role he’s still learning, and that his former skipper knows inside out.

End of story. Unfortunately, for those continually trying to create one out of two-fifths of bugger all.

POOR SHOW TESTS PATIENCE

At what point do we stop excusing Greater Western Sydney’s thrashings as a necessary evil of a youthful list? It must be pretty soon.

A combined losing margin of 224 points in the past two games is the stuff of the Giants’ first season. It can’t be tolerated of a side that was good enough to knock over Sydney just two months ago, particularly with Shane Mumford, Jeremy Cameron, Adam Treloar and Curtly Hampton back in the line-up.

The loss of key defenders in Phil Davis and Nick Haynes has obviously hurt. But you don’t need to have your key players on deck simply to chase, tackle and apply pressure, all of which have been invisible for the Giants in the past two smashings.

That sort of stuff is poisonous for a club trying to grow support, and with the Giants back in Sydney for the first time in six weeks and in front of just 8331 people, this insipid display could not have come at a worse time.

Leon Cameron looked like a man right out of patience at his post-match press conference, and fair enough. And if his side doesn’t show something at least 100 per cent improved against Hawthorn this week, this spiral could have dire consequences indeed.