Meg McDonald speaks to her Geelong teammates during round five, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

AT THREE-QUARTER time of Geelong's final home-and-away game for the season, the Cats had all but secured victory over Hawthorn and locked up a finals spot.

Broadcast cameras recorded coach Dan Lowther's address to players, who had put themselves in a winning position with a mature performance.

After offering a reminder about how Hawthorn was likely to tackle the quarter, Lowther left his players with one final message.

"The support we've been talking about has been really visible, and so has the care and joy," the third-season coach told his players.

"Keep that care and joy. It was great to see Zali Friswell take four bounces down the wing. You'll obviously kick the ball forward next time, but that's okay," he finished to laughter.


Play with care, and play with joy.

Simple messages, as far from the old-school, ranting and raving coaches as you can possibly get, but indicative of how Lowther and captain Meg McDonald have slowly but surely shaped and moulded Geelong over the past few years.

McDonald was appointed skipper in 2021, with Lowther an assistant coach for that season. He took the reins outright the following year following the departure of Paul Hood.

The Cats finished 12th of 14 that season, criticised for stodgy, low-scoring footy, but their defence was the best of the bottom eight.

The following season kicked off just a few months later, and the rapid turnaround benefited Geelong, able to build on the defence with an attacking flair and making finals.


They've been able to put the foot down more often in this third season under Lowther, but are still not quite the finished product.

"I think the biggest thing for Dan, the change over the last couple of years has been the relationships he's been able to build with the playing group," Geelong vice-captain Nina Morrison said.

"Then there's also the way he drives and sets standards and expectations we know we need to meet. He's really good at empowering the playing group to live up to that, and have a real focus on performance.

"He's a really passionate guy, you can see the energy, love and care he has for the group in the pre-game and leading up to game day, especially. That comes across really strongly, and as a group, we thrive off that energy as well.

"He's coached from the bench the last couple of years, which brings a different dynamic as well. He's found that balance this year in terms of what he needs to do to coach effectively from the bench and still motivate the players from there as well.

"Every second week, he says, 'I'd love to be running out there with you', and that really comes off to the group and we play with that energy as well."

(L-R): Chantel Emonson, Rebecca Webster, Meg McDonald, Nina Morrison and Mikayla Bowen. Picture: AFL Photos

Geelong recruit Aishling Moloney was in hot demand from a number of other AFLW clubs before choosing to sign with the Cats.

One of the clinchers was a trip Lowther and McDonald took to Tipperary, Ireland to meet with Moloney and her family in person.

"It had an amazing effect, to be honest. From the moment I met them, I knew it was the club I was going to go to," Moloney said.

"Previous to that, I'd been on to a few clubs, but meeting Dan and Meg in person, the way they carry themselves, their professionalism – they're such warm personalities. I was with them for two or three days and I felt like I'd known them for a lifetime.

"It's so important the two of them are communicating together. If they're bouncing off each other, then that's going to affect the playing group. It's evident and clear how powerful the two of them are together. It's clear the way it flows down to the girls and other members of the management.

"When I was sitting at home with them in Ireland, it was very evident in the way they were talking.

"It was clear they were both on the same page, and the way they two of them carry themselves when they were speaking to myself and my parents – it wasn't Dan talking all of the time and Meg talking all the time, it was very much a 50/50 balance.

"They were bouncing off each other and the two of them connecting together to get the message across about what they wanted from me."

McDonald, 32, has previously spoken about how she and her captaincy has matured and evolved alongside the team, growing into one of the most respected skippers in the league.

She played for the Western Bulldogs as an inexperienced key forward in 2017, one of the last players signed, and was delisted at the end of the season.

A return to VFLW club Darebin Falcons followed, learning from some of the most experienced women's football players and coaches in the country, and she re-emerged as a key defender for Geelong's first AFLW season in 2019.

Meg McDonald flies for the ball during round nine, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

That lived experience of the highs and lows of football, culminating in two All-Australian nods, has fed directly into McDonald's leadership, with both Morrison and Moloney separately saying she is the first player to arrive for training, and the last one to leave.

"That's been awesome for us, and one of Meg's real strengths as a leader is her ability to relate to so many people on the list and at all stages of their development," Morrison said.

"I think she's taken all that in her stride and has really grown in the space.

"She understands that what you can do as a leader is to first better yourself and make sure you're getting the most out of your performance, and maximising what you do, and then sharing that with other people as well."

Claudia Gunjaca (left) and Meg McDonald celebrate a win during round nine, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Lowther spoke glowingly about the impact McDonald has had in her own quiet fashion, but true to his style as described by Morrison, his praise was delivered in a calm, matter-of-fact style.

"She's the glue that holds the whole place together. You look at her journey and what she had to go through in the early days – she's just got that determination and the capacity to lead players and people to be the best they can be," Lowther said.

"We've had such a mix of ins and outs of players across her time at the club, she's seen it all. From the early times where the team wasn't succeeding as much, to now, she's been a huge part of the reason we've improved.

"You look at the up-and-coming leaders, Nina and Becky (Webster), Amy (McDonald) and Georgie (Prespakis), this next crew are the proteges who work with her.

"For me, to be able to work with her on a daily basis, the care and love she has for the program and also for number one on the list to number 31, it doesn't matter who it is, there's just full support.

"She's very progressive too, she's always looking to find ways to improve on the scoreboard, but also leadership capacity, the human relationships, that's what she's great at. That's why we're continuing to evolve, because there's someone like her around, leading and mentoring those coming through."

GEELONG, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 07: Daniel Lowther, Senior Coach of the Cats gives Meghan McDonald of the Cats a pat on the back during the Geelong Cats training session at GMHBA Stadium on October 07, 2021 in Geelong, Australia. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos)

Geelong is in a strong position to win its first ever AFLW final when it comes up against Essendon on Sunday, with its two calm and caring leaders steering the way and giving their players confidence.

"The best thing is the relationships piece. Meg and Dan have such a strong connection and it's so important that leaders of the programs are sharing similar messages and echoing their thoughts," Morrison said.

"They spend a lot of time together and make sure they're clear on their messaging, so when the group is receiving ideas, it's all coming from the same place.

"I think that relationship is so crucial, and the care they have for each other is really evident."