IF THIS was a Grand Final preview, then strap yourselves in for an absolute treat come late September.
And while it’s still premature to lock in a certain premier, Geelong may have put forward its best case to be the number one contender to Melbourne’s throne, taking down the reigning premier by 28 points at GMHBA Stadium on Thursday night.
Thursday evening’s contest had all the hallmarks of a ‘final come early’, with the game ultimately coming down to moments of individual brilliance that were sprinkled within a physical affair from start to finish.
CATS v DEMONS Full match coverage and stats
In the end, with the game on the line and Melbourne coming home like a freight train, Geelong was able to steady booting the last three goals of the contest to seal the 12.19 (81) to 9.9 (63) contest.
Patrick Dangerfield reaped all the benefits of an elongated rest and easing to full pelt over the last few weeks, putting together by far his best showing of the season with 32 disposals, nine clearances, eight inside 50s, a whopping 702 metres gained and remarkably, it could’ve been even more damaging had he got his bearings right in front of goal, ending with 0.4.
Dangerfield's unheralded midfield partner in crime Tom Atkins (21 disposals, nine tackles, nine clearances) continued to showcase why his move to midfield may be one of the masterstrokes of the season, while Mitch Duncan (32 disposals, 11 marks, 629 metres gained, two goals) and Cameron Guthrie (28 disposals, seven tackles, two goals) were enormous late.
When they last met in last season’s preliminary final, the flu-riddled Cats were devoid of energy and put up the white flag once the Dees got a run on, but on this occasion Geelong matched Melbourne step for step and looked like a completely different side from the team that was humbled in Perth.
Despite losing the hitouts (49-36) to returning Dees twin-tower ruck-duo Max Gawn and Luke Jackson, Geelong smashed Melbourne at the coalface (54-36 clearances) which helped them gain the ascendancy and win the inside 50 count by 20.
After going blow-for-blow in the first-half, Geelong’s second-half stranglehold in the middle and of the tempo translated to scores as the lead grew to 23 points in the third quarter after milestone man Isaac Smith’s thumping goal from outside 50 at the 19-minute mark.
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Instead of surging ahead and putting the game to bed, Geelong’s wastefulness in-front of goal kept Melbourne right in it, who gained the ascendancy thanks to the work of Jack Viney (35 disposals, nine inside 50s), Clayton Oliver (34 disposals, ten clearances) and Gawn (35 hitouts, six clearances) who levelled the contest in the middle.
Christian Petracca’s third goal brought the margin back within a single kick and Kysaiah Pickett had the chance to give the Dees the lead mid-way through the final term but hit the post - which ultimately came back to bite them.
Unlike last season’s meeting where Melbourne stole the result late, the Cats steadied with Guthrie’s goal stemming the Demons’ momentum before goals to Duncan and Tyson Stengle sealed their 12th win of the season which takes them level first with Simon Goodwin’s charges.
Twin towers collide
It was two of the heavyweight battles within the war as Steven May and Harrison Petty went toe-to-toe with Geelong’s twin towers Tom Hawkins and Jeremy Cameron. May’s return from suspension has galvanised the Demons’ defence in recent weeks, with his comeback coinciding with Melbourne’s recent uptick in results and he had to be at his best yet again as he was given the match-up against Hawkins. Petty, on the other hand, was given the task of curtailing the red-hot Cameron, which as a result, meant defensive partner in crime Jake Lever could support the duo as the loose man. Both Dees defenders won the duel for much of the night (especially May who ended with 26 disposals and 735 metres gained), keeping Cameron goalless and Hawkins to only one goal (which was won from a stoppage), but the duo were still involved, especially late in the game, with their work around the ground.
Smith notches up milestone in style
For the best part of the last decade, there haven’t been many better natural wingers in the modern game than Isaac Smith. On Thursday evening, Smith notched up the 250th game of his illustrious career and while the majority of those came with Geelong’s arch-rivals Hawthorn - including a number of hotly contested matches in the 2010s in which he played a major role - the 33-year-old showcased why he has quickly won the adoration of the Cats’ faithful. Smith put together a vintage showing, ending with 22 disposals, seven marks and 382 metres gained - along with a sensational goal from outside 50 in the third term to cap it off.
Petracca bombs away
As he showcased last season on the big stage in September, players like Christian Petracca thrive when the lights are shining brightest in a “finals like” contest. While Petracca was given extra attention by the likes of Tom Atkins and Mark Blicavs which impacted his overall disposal count, the Dees gun still found a way to stay impactful even with the tough matchups that came his way throughout the evening. Lightning very rarely strikes in the same place twice, but Petracca got himself free and on the end of solid work from his midfield comrades at the coalface on two occasions - showcasing his quality by slamming home all important goals in both the first and second quarter where chances fell at the premium.
GEELONG 3.3 5.8 8.12 12.19 (81)
MELBOURNE 3.1 5.4 7.6 9.9 (63)
Geelong: Rohan 2, C.Guthrie 2, Duncan 2, Atkins, Close, Holmes, Smith, Hawkins, Stengle
Melbourne: Petracca 3, Fritsch, B.Brown, Oliver, Neal-Bullen, Bedford, Pickett
Geelong: Dangerfield, Atkins, Duncan, Guthrie, Selwood, Smith
Melbourne: Viney, Oliver, May, Brayshaw, Petracca, Gawn
Melbourne: Oliver (thumb)
Geelong: Quinton Narkle
Melbourne: Jayden Hunt