Illustration: Mick Connolly
Geelong ''could'' win the 2014 premiership, in the same way that Carlton ''could'' make the final eight. It's highly improbable, rather than impossible. But this column is prepared to say that it will not happen.
This is merely an opinion, of course, and can be dismissed as unqualified piffle by anyone with a Geelong beanie. The Catocracy will have a different view. Conditioned to success, many rusted-on Geelong folk have unwavering faith in their club and believe it can defy a system that was designed to punish success. And they have good reason to believe in what I would call Geelong exceptionalism.
The Cats have defied the socialised system by remaining thereabouts since 2004, when they narrowly lost a preliminary final to the beaten up Lions. They were supreme from 2007 until 2011, winning three flags and an extraordinary number of games. To say that an era ended against the Swans nine days ago, or during this season, is incorrect. The hooped hegemony really ceased after 2011 and was a five-year phenomenon.
The ''transition'' of the Cats – an attempt to rebuild while remaining close to contention – began in 2012, as the retirements mounted, and it continues this year. The Cats managed to be in contention in 2013 and might have pinched their fourth flag – with a heavily revamped crew – had the planets aligned. Had Tom Hawkins played 2013 in his present physical condition (i.e., not crippled), they could well have prevailed.
This year, Hawkins is the Godzilla of the forward 50-metre arc and has become the game's most influential forward, but the Cats have slipped in too many other areas to win the flag. The system has caught them, at least to the point that they're part of the peloton, rather than wearing the yellow jersey.
They will still be comfortable finalists, a likely top six side and could yet make the top four. But they are shy of the genuine, pointy-end premiership contenders, such as Sydney (clear favourite), Fremantle, Port Adelaide and even their brown and gold bunnies, the Hawks, whose flag aspirations have been dented by injury.
Geelong's frailties, if that's the right word, have been exposed since round five, when it upended the Hawks again on Easter Monday. The formline since has been well short of group 1: The Cats were beaten badly on the road by Port and the Dockers, had an unconvincing victory over Richmond, a highly fortunate win over the Blues and were obliterated by the Swans. The only performance anywhere near contention-calibre was the Hawkins-inspired victory over North at Geelong.
Reliance on the Tomahawk, actually, has reached a worrisome level. The spearhead has been the difference between victory and defeat in four of his team's eight wins – Collingwood, Hawthorn, North and Carlton. In the absence of Nathan Vardy and following the exit of James Podsiadly, the Cats have yet to uncover a reliable foil for Hawkins.
Percentage – barely over 100 – tells us that Geelong has eked out a few narrow wins and that it no longer pounds the opposition into a coma. While the Sydney massacre lowered the percentage dramatically, there hasn't been the compensating heavy victory that we would typically budget for from a contender.
Geelong insiders note that the Cats have had a challenging fixture to date, having played the top eight of last year, plus Adelaide, Brisbane and West Coast, with consecutive six-days breaks preceding the Sydney debacle. That's true, but the Tigers and, to a lesser extent, the Blues are mired in mediocrity this year, and Geelong has been found wanting against three of the four heavyweights. If the percentage can improve somewhat when it plays St Kilda at Simonds Stadium, it will remain well short of Port, the Hawks and Sydney. Chris Scott, who reeks of realism, acknowledged on Friday night that Geelong was shy of the top echelon at this stage.
As a team in self-described ''transition'', Geelong has done nearly everything right in terms of list management. The decision to offload Paul Chapman, for instance, was justified, when you consider the raft of youngsters like Jordan Murdoch and Billie Smedts that have to be tried, given games and retained.
The demographics of the 22 aren't what we typically see in a premiership side. Geelong is fielding a much younger side than the Swans, Hawks, Fremantle and even Port. On Friday night, the Cats selected seven players with fewer than 35 games to their name: Jed Bews, Jesse Stringer, Murdoch, Mark Blivacs, George Horlin-Smith, Josh Walker and Smedts. Cam Guthrie has 50 games in the bank and even Steven Motlop, an ascending star, has just 56.
The team averages are greatly boosted by the 200-plus game contingent of Corey Enright, Jimmy Bartel, James Kelly, Steve Johnson and Andrew Mackie. The presence of familiar veterans disguises the fact that Geelong is – commendably – playing a high proportion of inexperienced youth. Geelong's list position – and flag prospects – are actually more akin to Collingwood's, with the rider that the Pies have fewer super veterans.
Some of these Geelong youngsters will become long-termers. Some won't. The price that the Cats are paying for their youth push was seen against the Blues: of those seven youngsters, only one (Horlin-Smith) had more than dozen disposals.
To win the premiership requires a top four home and away placement, and to then win three matches against three contenders. Alas, the Cats can't play three finals against the Hawks, so they're decided longshots to manage this feat, despite superb management.
They will not go gently into the good night, largely because they're no longer an ageing team. This isn't the end of an era so much as the bridge to another. The next Geelong flag, whenever it comes, will not be in 2014.