9 September, 2012. By Justin Falconer.
Fremantle were led superbly by their captain Matthew Pavlich last night at the MCG, with a 6 goal haul dragging his team to a 14.12 (96) to 11.14 (80) victory, ending Geelong’s 2012 campaign and potentially the careers of some of their great champions.
Incredibly Geelong laid more tackles, had more inside 50s, won more contested possessions and clearances, however the Cats left themselves too much work in the final term after a blistering Fremantle start.
Arriving at the MCG last night, the entire Geelong Cats fraternity may have been forgiven for expecting the end of their 2012 season to be more than four quarters of football away, at a time when the sun grows warmer and the teams become fewer.
Their opponents in last night’s First Elimination Final, the Ross Lyon led Fremantle Dockers, were forecast to have more reason to believe a trip to Bali was on the cards sooner rather than later this month. The Dockers were seemingly the new kids on the Finals block, facing a team with an almost permanent air of springtime confidence. A gusty Saturday night at the ‘G is a long way from the expanses of Subiaco.
The first quarter and a half of football had the Geelong-dominated crowd in a kind of furious disbelief. What was happening to their beloved reigning premiers and why wouldn’t any of their beloved Cats make Fremantle’s desperate movement of the ball stop?
Ross Lyon’s supremely structured game plan had visibly been adopted by his charges, with Matthew Pavlich delivering his side the match’s first two goals. Pavlich dominated opponent Tom Lonergan early in a similar fashion to what was occurring up field, fumbles by those Cats who generally do not and no ability to slow an early Fremantle rampage.
It was hard to tell initially if Fremantle’s incredible tackling pressure and desire for the contested ball was the reason for the Cats’ demise, or if Geelong had only themselves to blame. Geelong’s problem began with its inability to penetrate the ball inside their attacking 50, before they failed to spread it out of their own half.
As their troubles worsened, the generally booming left leg of defender Josh Hunt was failing to send the ball outside of the defensive arc. The Cats struggled to string three effective possessions together for minutes at a time, with their troubles soon compounded by goals to Ryan Crowley, Pavlich for his third and one to serial pest, Hayden Ballantyne.
A 37-1 score line at the first break saw Andrew Mackie, Matthew Stokes and James Podsiadly remonstrating with each other in the middle of the ground through a series of glares, nudges and pointed fingers. Perhaps they weren’t concerned about the Cats’ inability to handle the ball as though it was dealing electric shocks with every possession, but as to who should stand at the front of the quarter time huddle to really get a taste of the ensuing spray from coach Chris Scott.
The brand of football produced so far was one based around scrums, packs of players wrestling for possession and hacked kicks around the body. It was a brand Fremantle were prepared to experiment with but one the highly-skilled Cats seemed to find awfully foreign.
Finals football is always gripping, but this was to be no classic. Early in the second term Geelong had not had taken a mark inside their forward 50, a statistic for which they have led the entire competition this year.
Fittingly their shining light up forward of recent weeks, Tom Hawkins, claimed his first possession and shot at goal at the 11th minute mark, only to kick a behind. A further eight minutes dragged on before Andrew Mackie could convert a set shot, gifting his side its first major of the evening, a substantially large monkey off the back.
However for all of Geelong’s slowing of the Dockers’ momentum, there were three goals apiece for the second quarter. They had not found a way to win, or even impose themselves sufficiently on the contest, but momentarily Joel Selwood and his ageing cavalry of midfielders including Joel Corey and Jimmy Bartel had stemmed the bleeding.
Even with a favourable first half free kick count of 15 to 6, in conjunction with Fremantle’s inaccurate kicking (8.9) the Cats still trailed by 34 points at the main break.
Geelong’s start to the second half delivered the fight back from a reigning champion every observer in the partly-filled MCG expected. Ross Lyon would have certainly instilled in his players that the Cats are a team who will pounce on you in finals if you put as much as a toe out of line. No doubt Lyon spends less time than most speaking of Geelong, finals and toe-pokes.
Two quick goals to Steven Motlop and Mathew Stokes had the crowd in a buzz, before Pavlich again caught Lonergan out of position and duly banging home another major from 45 metres. However a similarly long set shot goal in reply from emerging ruckman Nathan Vardy handed the Cats 6 of the last 8 goals.
Pavlich’s fifth goal then came after swift hands from the explosive Stephen Hill, with the tackling pressure from Geelong now meeting their more lofty standards of previous years. This match was not a case of Fremantle holding on to a diminishing lead, instead they rolled with the Cat’s inevitable punches and refused to see their lead dwindle.
In what may be seen as one of the most alarming shifts of momentum of the night, a crushing Podsiadly tackle on the lackadaisical Lee Spurr was met with no reward, leaving several Geelong players at half forward, arms outstretched in disbelief. Two disposals by foot later and the people’s villain Ballantyne buried the first nail in Geelong’s coffin from 40 metres on a tight angle.
A 38 point deficit at the final change felt more substantial as their main chance of kicking a serious match-turning bag in Hawkins looked completely disinterested in the contest. This was a job for the rascal-ish Stevie J, a man confined to a coaches’ box upstairs more confining than a stoppage in the forward pocket.
The final term lifted to more of a finals-like intensity, however it was a case of too little too late for Geelong. Early goals to Andrew Mackie and Allen Christensen had the crowd in frenzy, before goals were traded between the sides for the remainder of the match. Two late goals to Josh Hunt drew the margin back to 23 points with 12 minutes remaining, however it seemed the Cats had already thrown their kitchen sink at Fremantle and there were no more rabbits left in the hat.
The sealer came from man-of-the-match Pavlich, after selling the farm to the helpless Tom Lonergan he steadied from 40 metres to prolong his team’s season for another week.
Similar to the question raised earlier in the afternoon at AAMI Stadium, did the result say more about the performance of a team with 22 performers pulling in the same direction, or more about the lack of performance from a side with too many players standing by, watching proceedings unfold?
Talk of the end of a Geelong dynasty is farcical, this is not the same side of previous years. An Elimination Final loss may empower the club to ask the question of some of its ageing champs, compared to previous seasons when triple-premiership players had the right to leave on their own accord.
Matthew Scarlett left the premises with minimal fanfare, typifying his career to date. He will be sorely missed in a team defence, with potential retirements from James Kelly, Joel Corey and James Podsiadly leaving considerable holes in the Geelong spine.
But the effort from Fremantle must not be denied, a year of uncertainty lent itself to the great potential of an upset result. With 9 wins from their previous 10 matches, they are a serious chance of setting up a Preliminary Final berth with a win against a down-on-confidence Crows at AAMI next week. The only loss of the previous 10 was to Adelaide by 4 goals. Another thrilling sudden death playoff awaits.
Justin Falconer is a first-year Bachelor of Journalism (Sport) student at La Trobe University, Melbourne. You can find him on Twitter: @jfalconer6.