For a decade, the Cats have tried to climb the mountain. And once again, they’ve fallen short of the peak.
It’s a group that has been built for the present at the expense of the future; so what does that mean when midnight strikes?
Foxfooty.com.au analyses Geelong’s list, how it got to this point, what went wrong and what can be done from here.
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THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH IS IN A DIFFERENT GARDEN
There are two ways an AFL team can be old; at an overall list level, and on a week-by-week team selection level.
The Cats are the clear league-leaders in both. Per Draftguru, they are the oldest (average 25.4 years) and most experienced (average 88 games) list in the AFL; the next-best in each category are St Kilda (average 25.2 years) and West Coast (average 76.9 games) respectively.
It’s that experience gap that really tells the tale. If finals experience really mattered, they’d be clear flag favourites, but in 2018 we found finals experience is irrelevant.
We think of West Coast as a very experienced list, but the gap in average experience between them and the Cats is bigger than the gap between the Eagles and the seventh-ranked Western Bulldogs.
For perspective, the average player on Geelong’s list has played four full home and away seasons, while the average player on Gold Coast’s list has played just over two seasons.
Most experienced lists for 2021
1. Geelong (average 88 games)
2. West Coast (76.9)
3. St Kilda (74.7)
4. Richmond (73.7)
5. Port Adelaide (69.6)
6. Hawthorn (67.2)
7. Western Bulldogs (66)
8. Carlton (65.7)
9. Melbourne (65)
10. Sydney (64.5)
11. Collingwood (62.6)
12. Brisbane (60.7)
13. Fremantle (58.2)
14. North Melbourne (56.8)
15. GWS (56.2)
16. Adelaide (54)
17. Essendon (53.7)
18. Gold Coast (51.9)
Numbers via Draftguru
But an old list doesn’t have to equate to an old 23-man team each week. The Western Bulldogs, with the fifth-oldest list in the AFL, had a preliminary final side with an average age of 26 years and 94 days. The night before, the Cats’ side was more than two years older, an average of 28 years and 97 days.
It’s safe to say this is a trend; the nine oldest line-ups in VFL-AFL history have all been sent out by Geelong over the last two seasons.
The pinnacle was the 2020 qualifying final against Port Adelaide, with an average age of 28 years and 139 days old, and as many players 32 or over (Joel Selwood, Tom Hawkins, Harry Taylor and Gary Ablett) as 24 or under (Mark O’Connor, Jack Henry, Brandan Parfitt, Gryan Miers).
The closest the 2021 Cats came to matching that record was with the same stakes, venue and opponent, with a side featuring an average age of 28 years and 134 days losing another qualifying final to the Power.
Chris Scott’s side then set a record in the preliminary final loss to Melbourne, with 11 players aged 30 or older (Hawkins, Selwood, Shaun Higgins, Isaac Smith, Patrick Dangerfield, Lachie Henderson, Zach Tuohy, Mark Blicavs, Mitch Duncan, Gary Rohan and Rhys Stanley).
But the average was brought down by 2020 draftee Max Holmes, at 19 years and 12 days.
Here’s the thing – it hasn’t always been this way at Geelong, even in recent years.
THE LACK OF REJUVENATION
In the 2019 preliminary final, where they led Richmond by 21 points at halftime, the Cats had an average age of 26 years and 167 days – right around where Port Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs were in their prelim on Saturday night.
Of course with the same core group of players, that number was always going to rise, but that almost sums up the issue. The number has risen by two years because it’s essentially the same group, two years older.
Back in 2017, the Cats were around the same age as they were in 2019, facing Adelaide in the prelim with an average age of 26 years and 209 days.
How did they get younger? From the 2017 group, Tom Lonergan (33) and Andrew Mackie (33) retired, while Scott Selwood (27) battled injuries and became a fringe player.
In came players like Gryan Miers (20), Esava Ratugolea (21), Brandan Parfitt (21), Quinton Narkle (21), Jack Henry (21) and Mark O’Connor (22). Youth, speed and energy.
But that’s a rejuvenation process that hasn’t really happened between 2019 and 2021. Brad Close (23) and Max Holmes (19) are young newcomers, but Shaun Higgins (33) and Isaac Smith (32) balance that out.
Smith has had a very good finals series, but the inclusion of he and Higgins – and to a lesser extent the 28-year-old Jeremy Cameron – goes to the Cats’ decision-making over the last two off-seasons.
TOPPING UP AN EXPERIENCED LIST WITH… EXPERIENCE
The Cats thought they were close to a flag – and fair enough too, having made the final four in the last two years. That saw them decide to top-up across the 2019 and 2020 trade periods.
But topping up doesn’t have to mean getting older.
Look at Melbourne, for example. Their line-up from their 2021 prelim was markedly different to that of the 2018 prelim loss to West Coast; their top six draftees in that period – all of them picked in the top 33, including first-rounders Luke Jackson and Kozzie Pickett – all featured against Geelong.
They also traded in a then-23-year-old Ed Langdon, who has been excellent since coming across from Fremantle, while Steven May joined as a 26-year-old before the 2019 season, right as he entered his prime.
In contrast, Geelong has recruited five players from other clubs in the past two trade periods. All but one were 29 or older, the exception being a then-27-year-old Jeremy Cameron, with a hefty 171 games of experience behind him.
They didn’t pay much for Josh Jenkins (30 years old at the time of recruitment) or Jack Steven (29), only losing picks 37 and 58; but Jenkins is about to retire and Steven already has.
Then last year, the aforementioned Cameron was brought in. As everyone knows, three first-round picks went out the door for him; it’s not as bad as that sounds, because they got two second-round picks back. But unfortunately for the Cats, the original owners of those picks (GWS and Essendon) both made the eight, so they’ve fallen in the 30s.
Look, you trade for a 27-year-old Coleman medallist when they want to join your club, no problems there. But it cost them plenty of draft capital, earned when Tim Kelly went home to WA, and limited their ability to bring high-quality kids into the club.
Isaac Smith (31) was a free agent, so all he cost was cash, but Shaun Higgins (32) cost them Pick 30, and couldn’t break into the starting 22 once the finals rolled around.
We’re not trying to pick on Higgins, Jenkins or Steven, but it’s those types of moves that have proved the most costly.
In their places could’ve been draftees, who were either developing or already playing at AFL level; North used the Higgins pick on Charlie Lazzaro, a Geelong Falcons boy who played 12 games in 2021, just six fewer than Higgins.
We’re able to look back with perfect hindsight, and the Cats didn’t have that at the time. It’s not as simple as ‘they should have drafted this kid we know is talented instead’.
But it’s not like Geelong hasn’t done extremely well in recent years with late draft picks. They got Tim Kelly with pick 24, Brandan Parfitt with pick 26, Tom Stewart with pick 40 and Gryan Miers with pick 57 in recent years alone, plus Max Holmes – who was good enough to play in the prelim – with pick 20 just last year.
They went with what they knew – veterans who’d shown their value at AFL level – over what could’ve been. It hasn’t paid off.
COMPOUNDING THE PROBLEM
When you’re adding veterans to a list full of them, all you’re doing is pushing the rebuild down the road.
A team relying on 11 players in their thirties is a team that’s going to need to fill those spots very soon, and ideally with starting-calibre players. After all, you’re losing players from your best 22.
Having to replace players en masse also makes it harder to do so on the run. If you’re giving three or four youngsters a chance every year, you’re naturally cycling through your group.
But if you’re forced to play a bunch of kids at once – rather than doing it when you want to – then you’re backing yourself into a corner, and you’re suddenly reliant on them being good right away.
And if it turns out you had a bad draft or two, there’s nothing you can do but wait until the next one to find different youngsters.
Not only does that mean more years out of contention, but it wastes any prime-aged talent left on your list. If you’ve got a 30-year-old Jeremy Cameron in 2023, but no A-graders to kick it forward, what’s the point of having him?
SO WHAT EXACTLY ARE THEY GOING TO DO IN 2022?
There’s not a whole lot they can do immediately. Massive list turnover is rare in the AFL, and this year it would be even more difficult because not much movement is expected, with salary caps bulging across the country.
If you’re a team built around Joel Selwood (33 years old), Tom Hawkins (33) and Patrick Dangerfield (31), you have to try and win with them while you can. At this stage the Cats have committed to this path, so they need to see it out.
It doesn’t make any sense for them to trade any more players in, because that would just exacerbate the problem; they also have a tight salary cap, with a tight structure of payments which enabled them to squeeze in Jeremy Cameron last year.
They don’t even have their first-round pick, trading it to Richmond during last year’s draft to nab Max Holmes.
Sure, they could listen to the social media critics and simply axe some of their older players who struggled in the finals. But that wouldn’t make them any better on their current timeline.
“We’ve been talking all season about the players who are 30-plus, and the question marks that might have over their head, but you can’t just move them all out, because this is the same group of players that’s got them to a top four spot and a preliminary final,” Hawthorn great Jason Dunstall said on Fox Footy’s AFL 360 on Monday night.
“And if you analyse each player, there’s probably only one or two where you’d sit there and say, ‘well, he’s probably done’.
“All of the others in their own way have something to offer, but can you afford to keep that many of them? And by playing these players, you’re also keeping out some of the younger ones.”
Of their out-of-contract players, Josh Jenkins (32) is expected to retire, while the future of Lachie Henderson (31) is unclear.
The Herald Sun reported Gary Rohan (30) will be given a one-year deal, even after a quiet finals series, while Rhys Stanley (30) will reportedly get a two-year deal, having finished the season strongly. All of their other veterans are contracted for next year, some also beyond.
If anything, the change will come at the younger end of the list. Jordan Clark (20) may finally head back to WA after again failing to cement his spot in the senior side; Quinton Narkle (23) and Charlie Constable (22) would consider opportunities elsewhere if they arose. Nathan Kreuger (22) has interest from Collingwood.
K-Rock reported on Monday Ben Jarvis (21) and Cameron Taheny (20) were set to be delisted.
Their long-time staff of assistant coaches has already changed with Matthew Knights heading to West Coast.
These aren’t moves that are going to change the Cats’ fate in 2022 dramatically. If anything, everything is lining up for moves at the end of next year, when veterans like Selwood, Hawkins, Smith and Zach Tuohy come out of contract.
But perhaps most pressingly, Chris Scott is out of contract after next season. It will be his 12th year at the club, and typically when clubs go through a major list change, they go through a change at the top, too.
The simplest plan at the Cattery is clear: run it back one last time with this group, and then with or without a premiership in 2022, finally make the tough calls to set up their next five to 10 years.
The alternative is much tougher, and requires bravery. It would require them to almost give up on 2022 and trade out some players for draft picks; this could accelerate the rejuvenation. But again, the timeline doesn’t quite match up for that, and it remains to be seen if the club as a whole has that appetite.
A fresh start looms. It’s up to them to decide how fresh.