GLASS half-full, Geelong produced another super effort to make an 11th preliminary final in 15 years. Glass half-empty and it was a woeful finish to a season where they went all out to chase silverware with the oldest list in the competition. Cats fans have every right to view their situation as the latter. Yes, they've been in this position before but generational players Tom Hawkins and Joel Selwood both turn 34 next season, while Patrick Dangerfield remains in search of a flag and will turn 32 in the opening rounds of 2022.
The backline stood up again, conceding the second-fewest points in the home and away season led by the remarkable Tom Stewart. Tom Hawkins produced another phenomenal season to claim his third consecutive Therabody AFL All-Australian blazer as a 33-year-old, while Cam Guthrie backed up his stellar 2020 season. Recruit Isaac Smith was a success stationed on a wing, while Jack Henry, Brad Close and Tom Atkins all took strides forward. Maybe with a pinch of luck, the Cats were able to go 4-2 in games decided by 10 points or less.
Once again, the Cats were left wanting in September. They were overwhelmed by Port Adelaide's pressure and intensity in the qualifying final loss and were then done for speed and class in the preliminary final loss to Melbourne. It leaves the finals record at 7-15 since the 2011 premiership. They also suffered a number of soft tissue setbacks with a new-look medical team including three separate hamstring strains for Jeremy Cameron and two for Mark O'Connor across the season. Recruit Shaun Higgins had an underwhelming season, while not a single player under the age of 21 became a senior regular – highlighting the lack of youth coming through.
The finals capitulation underlined just how important defender Tom Stewart was to the Cats' defence. Coach Chris Scott described him as Geelong's best player on multiple occasions and he could win the best and fairest despite missing the Cats' last five games. Geelong looked lost in the qualifying final loss to Port Adelaide in his absence, while they could've dearly used him to stem the tide of Melbourne in the preliminary final debacle. Stewart became a triple Therabody AFL All-Australian in his fifth season.
He finished eighth in the Cats' best and fairest last year, but 2021 was the season defender Jack Henry announced himself to the rest of the competition. The local product was a revelation in No.2 ranked defence in the competition, playing as an intercept defender at times and a lockdown player at others. Overlooked for selection in round one, he never looked back and signed a contract extension until 2024.
Ex-Roo and Dog Shaun Higgins arrived on a two-year deal and was overlooked in the starting side for all three finals. The Cats opted to use the 33-year-old predominantly as a half-forward, and while he showed some glimpses in the second half of the season, was down on what was expected when he crossed for pick No.30.
The night the three-headed monster was born. Jeremy Cameron, Gary Rohan and Tom Hawkins combined for 15 goals to beat Richmond by 63 points – just eight games after losing to the Tigers in the 2020 decider. More than 54,000 people were at the MCG as Cam Guthrie and Mitch Duncan exploded in the midfield and Jack Henry kept Jack Riewoldt to four touches in a coming-of-age performance.
The moment Max Gawn kicked a running goal from 55m metres to put Melbourne 46 points up, five minutes into the third quarter of the preliminary final. The Cats were completely battered by the Demons and coughed up a whopping 101 points direct from stoppages – the most in any game in 10 years. Followed closely was the Gawn after-the-siren goal that cost the Cats victory – and a top-two berth – in the final match of the home and away season and set-off a finals nightmare.
How should they approach list management?
The Cats don't have access to their first-round pick this year having given it up last year in a deal to acquire Max Holmes. It could be an opportunity to fast-track a turn to youth and try and swap their 2022 first rounder with a club for this season. Youngsters must be the target and if contracted speedster Jordan Clark goes, they must drive a hard bargain. They need to commit to Nathan Kreuger having put three years of development into him and a quick-fix in the Shaun Higgins mould should be forgotten.
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Early call for 2022
As club great Jimmy Bartel told 3AW on the weekend, the Cats can make the finals next year with the same list and expect the same result. So now could be a good chance to change things up a little bit. At a minimum it's time to address the possession-style game plan that hasn't work again in finals and find a method that will stand up when it counts.
5 out of 10. The Cats went chips in on a flag this season yet fell further away from tasting the ultimate success and were smashed in two finals.