Regardless of the recent four losses, the Cats still sit on top of the ladder with a good percentage. Early season wins are precious precisely for this buttressing effect on the rest of the season. But the Cats are plainly in a slump – the word they daren’t utter in recent weeks – and the reasons are many and varied.
Perhaps it’s about an increased pre-finals training load. Maybe. Perhaps it’s the form trough when you know you are already in finals. Doubtful. What it isn’t is this silly notion that being in Perth for the week before the match had an impact. Please. Their form is not a one-week problem.
There has been a thread running through the four losses and it is nothing about relaxing in Perth sunshine.
Geelong has lost in alternate weeks to the Power, the Western Bulldogs, Hawthorn and the Dockers. They are not all quick sides – certainly Hawthorn isn’t – but they are all sides that made Geelong play slow. Or they are sides against whom Geelong played slowly.
Hawthorn tries to do that to everyone. They are not a quick side, nor can they score easily, so they prefer to slow the opposition down. They slowed Geelong down.
When Geelong plays poorly, they invariably play slow, stagnant predictable football. They fail to move the ball on quickly and vary their angles and they fall victim to teams that harass and close down time and space.
The more panicked they become with their kicks, the more likely it is the player who marks the ball will go back off his mark and try to encourage his side to settle and take a breath. That just perpetuates the slow pace problem and the ability for the opposition to set up down the line and wait for the attack.
Geelong were the ideal side for a Ross Lyon-coached side to confront on Saturday. Even Lyon’s critics would grudgingly admit he is a coach who is able to cajole a group of players to play fierce, aggressive hunt-the-man football. That is what they did to Geelong, and again the Cats succumbed to a side wanting to pressure them and hold them up.
Damning Geelong was the fact that they played on from a mark or free kick just nine percent of the time. Given that looking sideways is enough for play on to be called, that is quite some achievement.
It made for desperately slow, adventureless ball movement and explained why one of the most threatening forwards in the game, Tom Hawkins, could not get his hands on the ball.
Problematically, they were once again destroyed in the ruck. Playing against one of the best rucks in Aaron Sandilands, it was not a surprise that they lost the position, but the degree to which Zac Smith was beaten was troubling.
The Cats don’t really have anywhere to go with the ruck. They have played Rhys Stanley there most of the year without him distinguishing himself. Now they will probably go back to Stanley.
The problem is each player, Smith and Stanley, is more a question than an answer to the ruck problem.
They will most likely revert back to Stanley next week and for the remaining rounds because he looks ever more threatening than Smith. But that has been the frustration of Stanley’s whole career – he always looks about to do something without actually doing much.
On Saturday, Geelong’s stars were relatively subdued – Patrick Dangerfield was quiet, Hawkins moderate impact, Tom Stewart and Joel Selwood serviceable, Gary Ablett was sporadic. Their next rung of players then fell away quickly when he burden landed on them.
One point now about Geelong that both comforts and troubles them is that they have no injuries. That means that unlike other clubs, they don’t have an alibi for their drop in form.
But it also means they still have the manpower, who can regain form, making their season redeemable. They also have the home games to get the season back in check.
There are losses that in retrospect were obvious and we should have seen coming. Essendon on Saturday was one of those.
The previous string of come from behind wins made the argument for a side that was on a roll of belief and knowing how to find a way to win.
From distance now, they look like a side that was stretched one injury too far and was ripe to be taken by a side in Port Adelaide, gulf between their good and bad is the widest of any side in the competition.
The late withdrawal of Shaun McKernan was the moment they were stretched beyond capacity. That withdrawal drew Cale Hooker forward from the start, not as the swing player when things go awry.
The McKernan injury added to the string of others out, the most profound of which is not Joe Daniher, Michael Hurley or Devon Smith, but Tom Bellchambers.
Essendon were simply not competitive in the ruck with Zac Clarke and lost clearances as a result.
Tale of opposites
Richmond and Melbourne both lost preliminary finals last year. It is worth reminding yourself of that fact after watching Saturday night’s game. The gulf between these two teams and the trajectories their seasons has taken is vast.
The gap in ladder position is measureable. Equally quantifiable was the gap in skill.
This was not just a loss by players who are less able to play the game the way the coach wants, (although it was that also), this was the win of a that had skill over one that didn’t. Melbourne turned the ball over routinely, admittedly in wet conditions. Richmond not only kept possession but did so creatively.
The Swans’ Sam Reid should have been paid either a mark or a free kick in the last seconds to have a shot at goal. Giant Jake Stein pulled Reid’s arm down in the marking contest so it should have been a free kick.
The main umpire was unsighted so it was correct not to guess and pay a free kick. In those circumstances, play on was the correct call. It’s surprising another umpire didn’t see the moment.
The Swans post-Rampe post climb are perhaps less able to complain of the injustice.
What the non-free and its impact on the final result means for the Giants could be profound.
Holding that win and running home with games against Hawthorn (in Canberra), the Bulldogs at home and the Suns away could see them hold off Richmond for fourth spot (the Tigers have Carlton, Eagles and Brisbane all at the MCG).
Michael Gleeson is an award-winning senior sports writer specialising in AFL and athletics.