Geelong's magnificent recent past clouds a realistic assessment of the Cats in the here and now. Photo: Getty Images
On Saturday in these pages, we examined the capacity of Geelong to continually win the close finishes. Unfortunately for the Cats, the same evening Hawthorn exposed again the reason they so often find themselves in that situation.
Even the top sides find it harder these days to maintain maximum effort and performance through four quarters of a hard-fought game.
But it is the duration and timing of Geelong's flat spots that are longer and costlier than those of its top-four rivals, and the main reason the Cats won't be winning the 2014 premiership.
The Cats this season have won more first and second quarters (31) than Sydney (29), Hawthorn (27) and Fremantle (24). But their figures for second halves are in stark contrast to their opposition. The Hawks, Swans and Dockers have respectively won 28, 27 and 26 third and fourth terms. Geelong's figure is just 18.
It has been a season-long malaise, and the impact has never been felt more keenly than on Saturday night, when Geelong held a 31-point half-time lead only to be outscored three goals to 11 in the second half.
The Cats will go into the finals having split their five games against their three top four opponents 2-3, the two wins coming against a Hawthorn side missing Brian Lake, Brad Sewell and Liam Shiels, and by a few centimetres against Fremantle after David Mundy's post-siren shot faded to the right.
Nobody disputes their capacity to find another gear on the big occasion. But to find it three finals in a row against that calibre of opposition when the stakes are at their highest? I can't see it happening.
What that implies for the bigger picture is then the issue. And contrary to the catalogue of obituaries you will (once again) doubtless read for the end of a magnificent era, I think Geelong's future remains bright, 2014 perhaps merely an entree to the main course ahead.
Indeed, what continually clouds a realistic assessment of Geelong in the here and now is its magnificent recent past. Three premierships over a five-year period between 2007 and 2011 will tend to do that, as will the continued form of the senior players who played such a big part in them.
It means that any subsequent Geelong line-up that has failed to achieve similar results is immediately branded a failure relative to its predecessors, triggering the end-of-era philosophising.
But it is important to remember that Saturday night's team contained just 12 members from the combination that landed the last of those flags.
In fact, another big difference between Geelong and its top-four rivals is experience, or lack of it. Sydney, Fremantle and Hawthorn went into the season with – in terms of games played – the first, second and fourth most experienced senior lists. Geelong's ranked only eighth.
Youthful inconsistency is the obvious explanation for that lack of sustained performance from Geelong this season. The considerable upside is the extent to which younger players have driven the Cats in 2014.
Mitch Duncan, Allen Christensen and Steven Motlop are obvious keys to Geelong now. All are just 23, and none has yet played 100 AFL games. Cam Guthrie has had a terrific season, and he and Josh Caddy were again among Geelong's best few against the Hawks. Mark Blicavs has become increasingly important to the Cats' structure and their versatility. Jordan Murdoch has missed just one game and averages a goal each outing.
Then there is the list of those who did not play on Saturday night. George Horlin-Smith had managed 18 games this season until injury intervened, and has been a reliable defensive midfielder. George Burbury, Billie Smedts and Jesse Stringer have struggled this year, but have all shown enough flashes of talent at AFL level to suggest they have a future. And the likes of Lincoln McCarthy, Jackson Thurlow, Brad Hartman and Jordan Schroder are still basically untapped talent.
Now add a couple of major wildcards in Daniel Menzel and Nathan Vardy, both cruelled by injury, but who, given full fitness, would be chased by virtually any club, the former a skilled and smart small forward, the latter a mobile key forward.
It is a decent stockpile of talent to have up your sleeve. And those who maintain none of that younger group are of the calibre of names such as Johnson, Kelly, Enright and co are comparing apples with oranges. With the obvious exception of Joel Selwood, had any of those triple-premiership players any more runs on the board at the same stage of their careers than the younger Cats do now? In fact, in the case of Duncan, Christensen and Motlop, the answer is probably considerably fewer.
In that context, Chris Scott's to some surprisingly upbeat attitude after Saturday night's loss to the Hawks is entirely understandable. He may not be trumpeting it publicly over the next few weeks, but the Cats' coach seems to understand that while finals failure a couple of years down the track would be disappointing, anything Geelong gets out of this September is a bonus.
And while I'm at it...
WALTERS MOST WELCOME
Michael Walters was good enough for Fremantle to be within a hair's breadth of All-Australian selection as a small forward last year.
A serious ankle injury in round three meant that was never going to happen in 2014, but Walters might have considerable consolation in being the man who takes his side over the line in terms of a premiership.
It's fair to say the Dockers have underwhelmed critics for most of this season, but there's been something ominous about the difference the brilliant little man has made in the past two games, and certainly no coincidence Freo has topped the 100-point mark each time.
Last week, Walters kicked only one of the Dockers' 17 goals, but had a team-high four scoring assists and was involved in seven scoring chains. On Sunday against Brisbane Lions, he was better again, with 3.2 and four marks inside 50, and was the perfect partner for Hayden Ballantyne.
Earlier this season, the pre-game loss of Matthew Pavlich might have been a fatal blow to Fremantle's scoring capacity. It's no longer the case with the two smalls in attendance and Chris Mayne also starting to look a little more dangerous.
A Fremantle flag would still, of course, be won off the back of the AFL's most suffocating defensive game. But, increasingly, the Dockers are looking like they might just have the firepower to compete at the other end of the ground, too.
NOT END OF LINE FOR LIONS
It's taken more than a decade, but the last ties between the powerhouse that was Brisbane of the early 21st century and the Lions of today have finally been severed with the retirement of Ash McGrath.
In a largely forgettable game, McGrath was at least able to kick a goal in his last quarter of football. His departure leaves former Geelong ruckman Trent West as the only premiership player on Brisbane's entire list.
That said, Justin Leppitsch's first season as Brisbane coach should be considered productive. The gains have been considerable beyond even the seven wins to date, James Aish and Lewis Taylor already important members of the line-up and Stefan Martin a revelation in the ruck.
The likes of Justin Clarke, Daniel McStay, Darcy Gardiner and Michael Close have improved the Lions' stocks of talls, more games have been pumped into the likes of Ryan Harwood, Josh Green, Ryan Lester and Sam Mayes, and nine players have had their first taste of senior football.
Next season will see the considerable additions of key ruckman Matthew Leuenberger and midfielder Daniel Rich to the mix, and last week's whipping of Collingwood was just a taster of what Brisbane can produce even without names of that calibre.
The glory days are long gone for Brisbane, but the immediate future might be a fair bit brighter than some believe.