Quick learner: young Cat Allen Christensen. Photo: Paul Rovere
FOOTBALL punditry is a strange business. Just six months ago, after a third premiership in five years, Geelong was hailed as arguably the greatest team of the modern era. Now, without having played a game since, the Cats, in flag terms, are awfully short on admirers.
In The Age's pre-season magazine, just four of 17 tipsters plumped for back-to-back Geelong premierships. In the Herald Sun, it was just one out of 18. Only five experts from 35 think a team which has won 103 of its past 120 games can salute for a fourth time in six years.
Stuff like that never seems to worry either the players or coaching staff at the Cattery. That bubble of belief is part of the reason a golden era has continued as long as it has.
But not nearly as big a factor as Geelong's forward planning. When the Cats' premiership defence kicks off tonight against Fremantle in Perth, there'll be more quiet confidence, not only that they can have a big say again this September, but several more beyond that.
It was a rosy future framed not only in hypothetical, but tangible terms, a month ago on a Friday night when Geelong took a skeleton senior side to the Gold Coast for a NAB Cup game. With 15 of last year's premiership team missing, and no fewer than 11 without senior AFL experience, the Cats emerged with a comfortable 49-point win.
Coach Chris Scott referred to the line-up that evening as the basis of Geelong's team for 2014-15. “We're determined to give ourselves every chance to compete this year, but not at the expense of the long term, and we don't think those things are mutually exclusive,” he said.
And clearly, they're not. Today's line-up has far more of a senior feel about it, with 17 premiership players. But three of those — Allen Christensen, Mitch Duncan and Trent West — still have only a collective 68 games between them. Another three — Taylor Hunt, Steven Motlop and Cameron Guthrie — just 27, and there's still room for two debutants: the highly rated Billie Smedts and mature-aged ruckman Orren Stephenson.
New Geelong skipper Joel Selwood points out with relish that even that raw NAB Cup team was missing youngsters as good as Daniel Menzel, Christensen, Duncan, Smedts and Nathan Vardy.
So, can Geelong's moment in the sun continue a few seasons longer under his stewardship?
“Absolutely,” he says. “And we're putting things in train to make sure that is the case. There's a lot of development between now and then, and it's up to those guys where they take their footy, but long term, the list looks pretty good.”
It's hard to argue. For the sake of the exercise, The Saturday Age has sketched out a potential Geelong team for round one of the 2014 season. And even without many staples of the Cats' three flags since 2007, it's an imposing line-up. We might even have been a touch conservative in leaving out Matthew Scarlett, Corey Enright, Paul Chapman, Joel Corey, David Wojcinski and Josh Hunt, all of whom will be 32 or older by then.
It's a considerably younger team than that which lifted last year's premiership cup. The Cats of 2011 were the oldest flag-winning line-up for 67 years, and the fourth oldest in history. But there's still no shortage of talent or experience in the potential team for 2014.
Even this year, the retirements of Cameron Ling, Brad Ottens, Darren Milburn and Cameron Mooney have taken Geelong from the AFL's oldest playing list to sixth oldest. But significantly, in 2012, the Cats will have more 100-game players than last season.
For coach Scott and his list-management team, including recruiting manager Stephen Wells, chief executive Brian Cook, general manager of football Neil Balme and football operations manager Steve Hocking, they're a particularly beautiful set of numbers, which if this projected future team is any indication, are only going to keep improving.
In a selected 18 for 2014, with another 18 potential interchange players, there's only three 30-year-olds — Jimmy Bartel, Steve Johnson and James Kelly, all of whom you would expect to still be key contributors.
The bulk of the Geelong back line remains intact, led by Harry Taylor, Andrew Mackie and Tom Lonergan. There's a very competent spine — Lonergan, Taylor, Travis Varcoe, Mitch Brown and Tom Hawkins. Class to burn — Selwood, Christensen, Menzel, Duncan and co. And fewer demands on veterans such as Bartel and Johnson.
The “interchange froms” represent a healthy mix of experience and youth, with Mathew Stokes and Shannon Byrnes still kicking around, some mid-rangers like Simon Hogan, and a long roll call of talented kids like Jed Bews, Lincoln McCarthy, Joel Hamling, Shane Kersten and Jordan Murdoch.
Like their predecessors in previous drafts, they won't be given games cheaply but, as Scott continues to point out, they will be given their chance.
The Cats' well-documented rotation policy at the selection table will not only fulfil that goal but keep the old stagers up and about when it counts, the proverbial win-win.
“There are two aspects of player development, and they're both crucial,” says Wells. “One is to train them up, develop them and get them to learn from really good players. The other is getting senior games of AFL footy into them.
“For the coaches, it's a real balancing act, trying to win as many games as you can but also getting that experience into the younger blokes. But I think over the years, our coaches have been able to do that brilliantly.”
They certainly have. Geelong has made an art form of staying a flag contender while continuing to look ahead.
When the Cats got on that roll — still to end — early in 2007, the regeneration was coming from Selwood, Stokes and Nathan Ablett. In 2009, it was Varcoe and a more mature Hawkins. Last year, that refreshing influx of youth came from Christensen, Duncan and Menzel.
This season, it could be Motlop — held back by injuries as much as opportunity until now — Smedts, Taylor Hunt, Hogan, Josh Cowan, Guthrie and Tom Gillies, all, with the exception of Smedts, having already been handed a taste of what's required at senior level for at least one and, in a couple of cases, a few seasons.
That gradual process spits off the conveyor belt players who, when their time to become regulars does come, are more than ready. The seasons of Duncan and Menzel last year are particularly good examples, the latter only missing a premiership medallion because of a serious knee injury in the qualifying final.
Geelong's list-management group meets on a monthly basis and obviously a lot more frequently come trade and draft time. The philosophy hasn't changed much, even with the passing of the coaching baton from Mark Thompson to Scott, but circumstances can.
“Most of the time what you're talking about is very similar, which is what is our list going to look like in three years' time,” says Wells. “So you're talking about contracting, and how you can fill holes in your list [in terms of both age and position], either through the draft, or with what's already out there on someone else's list.
“But you've got to be able to react to the moment, and to the information available at the time. What you're talking about earlier in the year can change a lot depending on performance of players, both the ones you've already got or out there at other clubs, and where the team is likely to finish, which can mean you're talking about 10 different numbered selections in the draft order.”
For Wells, the Cats' sustained success has meant seldom having early access to the best kids in the country. Indeed, the last single-digit draft selection Geelong has been dealt came at the end of 2006 — No.?7. That pick landed the Cats Selwood, the bloke now captain and long considered one of the game's elite midfielders.
Wells gets embarrassed having his praises constantly sung, but the Cats' record of recruiting and developing young talent speaks for itself.
And scarily for their rivals, and ominously for those inclined to believe this wonderful era is drawing to a close, yet to be added to that mix for round one of 2014 will be first-, second- and third-round picks over two more national drafts, and the first-round compensation pick for the loss of Gary Ablett to the Gold Coast still to be used by the Cats.
“We're hopeful we can get some good players there,” says Wells.
On Geelong's strike-rate on the recruiting front, you'd be banking on it.
There was far more an argument for dismissing Geelong as a potential premier at the start of last season than there is now. But the Cats keep leaving the pundits with red faces.
It happened in 2011, it could happen again in 2012, and given the way the club has set its playing list up for a sustained tilt at the top, it's hard to calculate just how embarrassed the experts might be feeling by the time 2014 rolls around.