DESPITE winning four of its past five games, it's still hard to get a read on where Geelong is at. Recent wins over Port Adelaide, Gold Coast and Essendon don't count for much, as the Power and Suns are cooked and Essendon is heading that way. The win at home last week over Adelaide was good, but the Crows were without their dominant ruckman Sam Jacobs and key forward Kurt Tippett, and yet they still got within two points in the final quarter.
The real test will be tonight, when the Cats try to match it against the hottest team in town. The Hawks have won eight straight and are playing a scintillating brand of football. I will be very surprised if the Cats get within five goals of the premiership favourites.
Geelong is now a team in transition. It has had too many champions in Joel Selwood, Matthew Scarlett, Corey Enright, Steve Johnson, Jimmy Bartel, Joel Corey, James Kelly and Paul Chapman to completely fall away, but most of these stars have entered the twilight of their careers. That's why coach Chris Scott is desperate to give youth a chance. This year the Cats have introduced the most debutants (10) after Greater Western Sydney. By comparison, Sydney and Hawthorn, the top two teams, have each introduced just two new players.
Life without Gary Ablett, Cameron Ling, Brad Ottens, Darren Milburn and Cam Mooney was always going to be tough. But no games this year from goalkicker Daniel Menzel and game-breaker Travis Varcoe has hurt. The lack of dash from David Wojcinski (just three games) has also stifled the run and carry of the team that moved the ball quicker than anyone over the past five seasons. That title now sits with the Hawks. For years, Geelong was the highest handballing team. It has slipped to 13th in the rankings.
Now, with the ball moving more slowly into the forward line, the Cats forwards don't get the chance to be one out in space with just their direct opponents as they once did. So the big scores of the past have dried up. Last year's average score was 115 per game, and this year it's down to 97 - the ninth highest in the competition. Last season the Cats had nine 20-plus goalkickers. Of those nine, in 2012 Mathew Stokes, James Podsiadly, Bartel and Johnson are down on output, while the combined 59 goals contributed by Varcoe and Menzel have been sorely missed 12 months on.
The overall defensive efforts of the Cats have also dropped. Last year's average score against was 73 points, and now its 84.5, which ranks them as the seventh best defence. A strong midfield group that continually wins more than its fair share of clearances takes the load off the back-line boys. This year the Cats have slipped in that area.
The Crows, Swans and Hawks are the teams that dominate the takeaways. Geelong doesn't, and this is increasing the pressure on Scarlett, Enright and co. Clubs are also realising it is folly to let the experienced Cats defenders play with an extra man in defence. The Hawks won't allow that tonight. Every Geelong backman will be made to be accountable for an opponent. The Hawks forwards will spread wide and run far. They will not allow the Cats defenders to be settled, so they can pick and choose their moments to run and assist each other. Tonight the priorities for the Hawks will be Selwood, Tom Hawkins and Enright. Selwood is the heart and soul of the team. He, Kelly and Corey lead the way in disposals, clearances, contested possessions and tackles. With Corey out injured, there's even more reason to target the skipper to reduce his massive influence, and Liam Shiels will get that job.
Hawkins is the Cats' leading goalkicker and potential match-winner. Ryan Schoenmakers has been groomed to take on the opposition's best power forwards and Hawkins' scalp would be one he would like to add to his growing list. Spoiling support will come from one of the best in the business in Josh Gibson. Enright is the Cats' best defensive playmaker - he leads the rebounds and has an impressive 79 per cent disposal efficiency. He must be kept busy and continually harassed. Jordan Lewis and Paul Puopolo can do that.
The Cats, at their best, were full of confidence, settled, experienced players who were just so predictable to each other. The ball and game just flowed on their terms. Not now. There have been games this season where half the team had played less than 50 games. Now Cats fans are getting used to names such as Smedts, Guthrie, Gillies, Stringer, Brown, Murdoch, Sheringham, Stephenson and Walker. It's a massive change of structure and personnel in the space of 12 months. The Cats surprised many last year by snagging a third flag in the golden era. There won't be a fourth.
In a 259-game career, Robert Walls played in three premierships (1968, 1970 and 1972) for Carlton, captaining the team in 1997 and 1978 before ending his career with Fitzroy. He coached the Lions between 1981 and 1985 before switching back to the Blues and steering them to the 1987 premiership. Walls writes weekly for The Age.
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