X-factor: Travis Varcoe, centre, celebrates a goal with Allen Christensen, left, and Steven Motlop. Photo: Getty Images
A senior figure at Geelong, watching as the Cats demolished Collingwood in a practice game this year, thought to himself that he had never seen such slick movement of the ball, in or out of season, and left certain the Cats would again be in the mix for the premiership this year.
Central to that blinding display was Geelong's indigenous quartet, Travis Varcoe, Mathew Stokes, Allen Christensen and Steven Motlop. Christensen and Motlop have had outstanding seasons, Stokes has been rejuvenated, but the luckless Varcoe suffered a shoulder injury in round three which meant the four did not play together again in the same team until round 20.
It is not easy for a pace-and-touch player such as Varcoe to pick up the rhythms of the game, but the ball is starting to come to hand for him again, and there is a school of thought this foursome represents the X-factor, a sort of multi-Rioli effect, that might prove decisive in the reckoning up of this year's premiership.
Varcoe, Stokes, Christensen and Motlop do not consciously form a clique, but they are close, and fate keeps nudging them closer. This week, all four were named in the provisional indigenous squad to tour Ireland in October.
Then there was a moment in a match against West Coast two weeks ago when Motlop blasted his way through a pack and snapped a handball to Stokes, who goalled, and all four found themselves in a ring-a-ring-a-rosy celebration. ''That was a pretty special moment,'' Christensen said. ''A few people picked it out.
''It's the first time all us four have played together pretty consistently. There's always been two or three of us. I think we all have a pretty good connection with each other and love playing with each other. The boys get a kick out of Stevie Motlop kicking a goal, or taking a mark like he did on the weekend, and Travvy Varcoe breaking lines and chasing down tackles …''
Geelong indulge that flair. ''We want them to play on their instincts,'' line coach James Rahilly said. ''They're naturally gifted players, every one of them, and we don't want to take that away from them and fill them with too many structures. Their unpredictability helps us.''
Christensen cherishes this. ''If you've got speed, you have to use it,'' he said. ''If you've got a leap, you have to go for your marks. The beauty about playing for Geelong is that we have a structure, but we can all play our own way in that structure to make the team better.''
Besides, all four attend to the less glamorous, more rigorous elements of the game. Geelong's defensive game is lesser-sung than, say, Sydney's, but no less effective.
Once, Cameron Ling was at the heart of it. Now he watches in awe from his boundary-line television eyrie. ''Maybe I'm a bit boring, but I love what Stevie Motlop's done this year off the ball,'' Ling said. ''His ability to transition deep into defence to help out his teammates, then bust his backside to get to the fall of the ball in the forward line … that's what makes me think these guys are playing great footy.
''Then kicking those really nice goals - their finish is pretty amazing sometimes - is real reward for the stuff that goes on off the ball.''
Varcoe, Stokes, Christensen and Motlop are linked by their heritage, and are as likely as not to be found together mid-week working on one of Geelong's indigenous projects, but each has made his own distinct journey. Varcoe's has been blighted latterly by injury and personal upheaval, but both are being soothed away. This season, he is the least performed of the four. ''But Trav's proven he can play good footy in big games,'' Ling said.
Stokes floundered a little last year, causing some at Geelong to think his days were numbered. Ling liked what he heard from Stokes early this season, that he was angry with himself about last year. ''He thought it was a wasted year. He didn't do the work that was required,'' Ling said. ''But he went and did something about it in pre-season. He attacked it with real desperation. And he's had an incredible year.''
Christensen and Motlop are youthful contemporaries. Christensen has improved in each of his three seasons. ''He's one of our smartest players,'' Rahilly said. ''He has a gift for the game. We can put him anywhere, in any situation, he reads the game so well. He spends most of his time in the midfield, but every time he sneaks forward, he kicks a couple of goals for us. That's crucial.''
Motlop has been the revelation, a veritable football whisperer. Geelong knew his talent - football manager Neil Balme proclaims to anyone who will listen: ''We've got the good Motlop!'' - but not what he would make of it. ''It was a challenge for Steve to do it on a consistent basis, against good opposition, week in, week out,'' Ling said. ''That's what he's done this year. He's not just showing flashes of brilliance. If he can string it together for a couple of years now, the way he can play, he can take himself into the real elite of the competition.''
Here are four parts whose whole potentially is greater than their sum. They give Geelong extra pairs of sure hands on the ball, and pace, and scoring power on the break. They lessen the Cats' reliance on Tom Hawkins and James Podsiadly. Individually and collectively, they constantly imply the possibility of a special happening any moment now.
''If you see Travvy out of the corner of your eye, and he's going flat out, not many people have got his speed, so you want to use it,'' Christensen said. ''You know if you're in traffic, you can always give it to Motty, because of his speed and his nice step. Stokesy's Stokesy. We're all different, but we work well together.''