Question mark over the Cats
Named: Dawson Simpson is on the bench for tonight. Photo: Pat Scala
FAMILIARITY breeds contempt, they say. Perhaps, though, in the case of one of the greatest teams AFL football has seen, it sometimes engenders too much respect. And on that score, this corner pleads guilty.
Two weeks ago in these pages, I asked whether Geelong, as pedestrian by its standards as its performance this year have been, might still represent one very large wildcard for the remainder of the season.
The Cats were set to play Carlton, on the eve of their mid-season break and, with a win, would turn for home with a 7-4 record. A loss would certainly have produced another spate of end-of-an-era stories. An emphatic victory may have launched a ''here they come'' bandwagon.
As it turned out, we got neither. Geelong's 12-point win was more of what we've seen a lot of in 2012 - a grind, with just enough class (and Carlton's last-quarter 2.9) getting it over the line.
So we arrive at another big Friday night game, this one against Sydney, a side in far better form than the Blues have been, and we're still asking essentially the same questions. Are the Cats coming at all? Or have they been and gone? The theories that a great era is in irreversible decline are certainly gathering more numbers to back them up. Geelong is doing just enough to win, its average winning margin of 27 points the lowest of the top eight sides and equal third-lowest in the competition.
Across 26 statistical categories, Geelong in 2010 ranked either No. 1 or 2 in no fewer than 16. Last year, albeit a premiership year where 2010 wasn't, that figure dropped to seven. So far in 2012, the corresponding number is zero; the best rankings a third for both percentage of effective kicks, and marks inside 50.
Contested ball and clearances haven't ever really been a Geelong strong suit, but as an indicator the Cats ranked third and seventh respectively in 2010, fourth and 14th last year, and this season are a lowly 13th and 16th.
The impact of the retirements of ruckman Brad Ottens and super-stopper Cameron Ling has been well documented, and becoming increasingly obvious in the numbers. The hitout differentials have Geelong sliding over the same three seasons from fifth to ninth to 13th.
Trent West hasn't taken the next step after last year's finals, sitting 12th in the hitouts table, while Orren Stephenson has provided some - but perhaps not enough - support and last night paid the price, Geelong dropping him in favour of the 206-centimetre Dawson Simpson.
There's some irony in the issue with the potential headache presented by Sydney's former Cat ruckman Shane Mumford tonight. And some more - concerning speed.
The Swans have added plenty of speed to the mix in the past couple of seasons under John Longmire. Geelong's, meanwhile, has been compromised further by two events this week - more foot surgery for Travis Varcoe, out for at least another six weeks, and the club suspension imposed on Jesse Stringer, just when the youngster was beginning to have an impact.
Throw in long-term injuries to Daniel Menzel and Nathan Vardy, and the message is that the personnel we see with Geelong tonight is pretty much what we're going to get for the rest of the year.
Why can't you just write them off, then? Because after tonight, there's a couple of likely victories coming up over Port Adelaide and Gold Coast.
But crunch time really comes for the Cats after that. Their last eight games are against every other side, at present, in the top eight, including a second against Sydney.
Geelong coach Chris Scott sounded almost apologetic the other day when he spoke about his side's gradual improvement. ''I'm not sure that anyone believes me, necessarily,'' he said. The numbers, for one, certainly don't seem to.
But sometimes in football logic has to give way to a hunch. I've got one about Geelong tonight, based partly on the opportunity the week off might have given it for a bit of re- programming and renewed focus. Perhaps foolishly, also based on the number of times we've seen this juggernaut make a telling statement.
If another is produced at the SCG tonight, at least we might have gone part of the way to solving what is increasingly season 2012's biggest mystery: is the reigning premier still much chop?