It’s time to recognise the Cats as premiership favourites

It’s time to recognise the Cats as premiership favourites

It’s been a season full of distractions in 2020 and we’re perhaps all a bit guilty of having our attention turned from something that’s been a fixture of the AFL for the last 16 years.

We’ve had the surprising rises of Port Adelaide and St Kilda and the notable splutters of Collingwood and Greater Western Sydney. We’ve seen Adelaide reach for futility’s history books, Gold Coast get themselves to competitiveness, matches played in every corner of the country except Melbourne and a virtual public revolt on holding the ball.

But, as they have done for all but two seasons since 2004, Geelong have gone about their business of winning a lot more than they lose. As we enter this year’s home stretch, the Cats boast the competition’s best percentage, sit one win off first place and are the equal-most credentialed top four side (with West Coast).

Perhaps their perennial success has been lost amongst a year of chaotic change and uncertainty. Maybe everyone has been writing about Geelong’s chances for months and I’ve been under a rock.

In any case, I haven’t given Geelong their time in the premiership spotlight and it’s time to right that wrong.

It’s easy to forget (because it feels like an eternity ago) that the loss of Tim Kelly made them a popular pick to slide in 2020. As one of the least-hyped reigning minor premiers in history, their season started poorly too with a five-goal loss to the flaky Giants.

But even though offseason recruits Jack Steven and Josh Jenkins have barely played – joining Gary Ablett on the sidelines – they’ve barely put a foot wrong since.

Their most impressive scalp up until last week was Brisbane, but their last seven days have been superb. Off a five-day break, they put the high-flying Saints to the sword by 59 points before backing it up with a 60-point demolition of ladder-leading Port just four days later.

Their midfield machine is firing on all cylinders once again, boasting the best contested possession differential in the competition (+9.1), but crucially also sitting in the top half for disposal efficiency and averaging the second-fewest turnovers – not typically hallmarks of a contested possession team.

In fact, they’re far and away the best ballwinners in the competition right now, averaging 46 more disposals per game than their opponents (next best is 30), while sitting third for clearance differential at +3.6.

Patrick Dangerfield’s exploits need little further explanation, with Joel Selwood and Mitch Duncan also performing their roles to perfection. Instead, it’s the rise of Sam Menegola that warrants exploration.

Sam Menegola of the Cats celebrates kicking a goal

The 28-year-old had his 2019 ruined by injury, but his breakout in form this year has seen the hole left by Tim Kelly filled more quickly than anyone could have predicted.

After averaging 19 disposals, five marks, three inside 50s, 1.7 clearances and no goals last season, his numbers have improved to 21.4 disposals, six marks, three inside 50s, 2.2 clearances and one goal in 2020. If you extrapolate that across full-length quarters, he’d be on track to put up 27 touches, seven marks, three clearances and four inside 50s – easily career-best figures.

His stunning form is a huge factor to them being in contention again and you’d imagine he’ll figure heavily on Carji Greeves night.

Up forward, the Cats are best in the business too, averaging 74 points per game – but this is also the part of the ground that worries me the most.

I said before the season resumed that priority A for Geelong was finding a second avenue to goal and they haven’t managed to do that yet.

Tom Hawkins is an absolute gun and, in retirement, will receive more plaudits than he does now. This season has affirmed that further, with the Tomahawk again leading the side with 30 goals and 40 marks inside 50.

They’ve got a decent small forward brigade in Gary Rohan and Gryan Miers, but their forays forward are very Hawkins centric. Last season, he accounted for 18 per cent of their goals and 23 per cent of their marks inside 50 – this year those percentages have jumped to 22 and 31, respectively.

Since the start of 2017, the Cats have averaged 98 points per game but in the six games Hawkins has missed, that plummets to 73. If he goes down, has a bad day or gets suspended (as he did before last year’s preliminary final loss), they’re in trouble.

Ex-Crow Jenkins hasn’t donned the hoops so far this year and could play an important cameo yet, although this suggestion went over like a lead balloon last time I published.

(Mind you, so did my declaration that Melbourne were back last week and look how that went?)

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The other big factor is, of course, Geelong’s awful September record under Chris Scott. They’re 4-11 in finals matches since the 2011 premiership – going 0-4 in preliminary finals. It’s very hard to put a positive spin on that and it will probably hang over Scott’s legacy unless they claim a second flag.

I will note, however, that all four of those preliminary final losses were either against the eventual premier or that year’s minor premiers. Three of those losses also saw Geelong’s opponents coming off the bye, so the ‘chokers’ tag doesn’t seem appropriate.

But, while the Cats aren’t without question marks, they aren’t as big as those hanging over their top four contemporaries. The Lions still have huge issues with their forward line, the Power now officially have a problem dealing with the big teams and the Eagles still need to prove they can win away from Perth.

Richmond obviously can never be counted out, while I wouldn’t want to face the Bulldogs if they get their act together in time.

But in a year that’s given us so much in the way of the weird and unusual, perhaps the ultra-consistent Cats winning the flag is the paradoxically safe finale we’re set for.