If the race to the AFL flag was for runners, it's fair to say Geelong has been ever so slightly off pace over the past few years. The Cats have been thereabouts, but when it's come to the final straight, they've lacked that extra gear needed to get over the line. Not this year.
The Cats have got their mojo back and anything less than a premiership will likely be considered a disappointment for the heirarchy at Skilled Stadium. Their coach Chris Scott knows it. So do the players.
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Rohan Connolly previews the weekend's AFL action, including Essendon's clash with West Coast at Etihad Stadium on Saturday.
The Geelong machine has been gathering momentum in 2014 and over the past month, the Cats have proven their credentials. They may have only just snuck home against Fremantle last week, but they showed enough in three quarters of football to demand attention. Flags are won and lost in defence and the Cats' back six is purring.
After a start to the season that, by his own standards, Harry Taylor would consider average, he's back to career-best form. I've said it before and it remains the case. When Taylor is firing, he is easily one of the most dangerous players in the competition, smothering his opponents while regularly getting his own ball and running forward to kick goals. His numbers tell the story, as do the numbers of fellow defenders Jared Rivers and Tom Lonergan. Between them, they dominate their opponents in one-on-one contests. Coupled with the support of teammates, such as Andrew Mackie, James Kelly and Corey Enright, this is one of the main reasons Geelong is back as a force.
But it is run on the outside, specifically speed, where the Cats have improved significantly.
We all know what Mackie is capable of and his run and carry is now being matched by others like Mitch Duncan, Travis Varcoe, Steve Motlop and Allen Christensen, who is nearing full fitness. Sure, we all know Geelong got belted by Sydney earlier this year, but it's been the only blip on their radar. They have otherwise been one of the most consistent and best-performed teams in the league.
It is easy to apportion credit to James Bartel, Joel Selwood, Steve Johnson and Tom Hawkins, who are in the elite category, but it really has been a team effort. Selwood may have been carrying an injury, but he's back to his best. Stevie Johnson is Stevie J. The harder it gets, the more he seems to like it, while Bartel is enjoying a new role up forward.
While Bartel may have been a revelation for the Cats in attack, their forward line is probably the one area that needs attention before September. They have become too reliant on Hawkins and therefore too predictable.
Hawkins is now, without a doubt, one of the best big men in the competition, if not the best. He showed what he was capable of when he booted three goals to help lead the Cats to their 2011 flag against Collingwood. His confidence has grown ever since. There isn't a defender in the competition Hawkins would fear. He's simply too big for them, using his hulking frame better than any other player in the AFL. Not only does he crunch packs, but he's also become adept at protecting an area, allowing the Cats' fleet-footed forwards time to pounce.
But, if he's not kicking goals, do the Cats have the artillery to get the job done? The modern game demands variation up forward and while the dominance of the Cats' backline will help to mask any shortcomings at the other end of the ground, Geelong will need its other forwards at their very best to compete in September.
On Friday night the Cats come up against the Blues, who are finally showing signs of promise under Mick Malthouse.
Carlton has been really competitive over the past month and Jarrad Waite has been the No.1 forward in the competition. They're playing free-flowing, attacking footy and it's working.
Chris Judd's recent form was the catalyst for his decision to shelve retirement plans, Bryce Gibbs is easily in the midst of his best season, Dale Thomas is finally justifying Malthouse's decision to poach him from Collingwood, while big men Sam Rowe and Levi Casboult are having breakout years.
Rowe got the job on Hawkins when these teams last met and really struggled. He got schooled on how "not" to play on monsters. You don't get caught in wrestling matches. He'll likely get the chance to redeem himself. Watch for a different approach.
The Cats are the obvious favourites, but don't discount Carlton. The Blues will go into this match believing they can win.