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Clinical Cats almost played the perfect prelim. The one thing that went wrong could cost them the flag


Finals scorelines can tend to be deceiving.

When a team’s season is shot to ribbons at this time of the year, the white flag goes up swiftly and completely. There’s no percentage to play for, no spot to hold for next week, and facing a high-quality team still with a season to play for, things can get brutal fast.

And so it was for Brisbane in their preliminary final thrashing at the hands of Geelong. Comfortably outclassed in the first half by the Cats, the Lions’ capitulation once the match was officially out of their reach, if anything, showed that they’d actually not been doing too bad to remain somewhat close before half time.

Because this Geeloong team is a menace. Cold, clinical, ruthless and relentless, they’ve kept all the stinginess and discipline from the sides that came close but not close enough repeatedly in the past decade, while adding a dash of flair to get themselves out of trouble whenever they’re challenge or put teams of all shapes and sizes to the sword in a matter of minutes.

It’s the latter, though, that goes into the grand final considerably weakened. We’ll go more in depth about what Max Holmes’ looming loss for the big dance, after reacting to a hamstring injury in the third term like a man who knew he’d just suffered footy’s ultimate heartbreak; but suffice to say that filling his wing will give Chris Scott more headaches than any other matter for the next seven days.

You’ve got to start with the good stuff, though, for a night as impressive as this. Really, the match was summed up in full by the opening salvoes of both the first and second half.

From the first bounce, Lachie Neale, the Lions’ most dominant player in their two finals wins and a live chance to end this weekend with two Brownlow Medals to his name, burst through the stoppage for the first clearance of the match.

But any warning klaxons going off inside Cats fans’ heads about their famous finals slow starts would have ended after the first peal. A strong mark was taken on the wing in a one-on-one contest by that man, Holmes, who instantly looked inboard, and sent a well-weighted pass to Patrick Dangerfield, running back with the flight and facing no Lion coming in the opposite direction.

From just inside 50, the champion would make no mistake. First blood Cats – and worryingly, the Lions had had exactly the sort of start they’d wanted, with an early clearance win and Neale into the game.

If that was the Cats at their damaging best, the start to the second half showed just why the Lions were always considered long, long outsiders for this game. Another visitors clearance followed the centre bounce, with Oscar McInerney thumping it forward as part of a fine if fruitless night in the ruck. Cameron Rayner attacked the ball at full tilt – his third-term ankle injury, more than anything else, was the final nail in the Lions’ coffin – and sent a well-weighted pass onto the chest of the hitherto unsighted Joe Daniher.

Kicking from just outside 50, but well within Daniher range, he’d do exactly what Dangerfield did not – spray it wildly out on the full. Cats fans cheered, any Essendon fans watching at home reminisced, and the 30-point deficit suddenly felt as good as 30 goals.

The Cats showed no mercy: taking the ball from end to end without a single Lion wresting it from their control, the play ended in the hands of Tyson Stengle in the forward pocket. From a significantly tougher shot than Daniher’s mere seconds earlier, he snapped a brilliant goal.

Game, set, match. Already.

To be fair to the Lions, the headlines that will invariably come about a side comprehensively outgunned, that probably punched above their weight getting this far in the first place, aren’t really fair.

For parts of the first term, they held their own, asserting an early dominance over the Cats at the coalface with seven of the first 12 clearances, including the first three out of the centre, and piling on eight of 10 inside 50s in a purple patch.

The problem was their opposition. No team in the game comes close to being as effective as Geelong in thwarting other teams’ use of the 6-6-6 rule: it’s not often you see someone surge out of the centre against the Cats and lace out a pass onto a key forward’s chest.

Either the midfield will pressure, harass and force either a high hopeful ball or a scrubby kick along the ground in, either of which can be safely defused, or the defenders will chime in with a crucial spoil (Sam De Koning), a timely intercept mark (Tom Stewart) or a combination of the two (of all people, Jake Kolodjashnij on Friday night).

The Cats’ structural set up to start was fascinating, for its minute tweaks from their usual plan as much as anything. On one wing, Zach Tuohy started next to Deven Robertson before zoning back, with Isaac Smith starting forward and then pushing up the ground, remaining always in dangerous space on the outside of the contest.

Even more interesting was their use of Rhys Stanley. After a poor game in the qualifying final, debate raged all week about his spot in the team. Scott backed him in – but there was a twist.

Stanley would contest the majority of centre bounces all night, but from there, would immediately head into defence at every opportunity. The plan was to ensure a presence to neutralise the Lions’ three key talls in attack – Dan McStay, Eric Hipwood and Joe Daniher – and create an outnumber to permit Tom Stewart to do as he pleased as the loose man.

It wouldn’t be feasible at most teams, but the Cats have Mark Blicavs up their sleeve. Starting on-ball, Blicavs’ versatility was used to full effect by Scott: he’d take the lion’s share of the ruckwork forward of centre all night, while forming part of the brigade responsible for keeping Neale under wraps following his damaging start whenever he wasn’t.

Aside from one moment where a hard-leading Daniher drew Stanley too far up the ground, allowing space inside 50 for Lincoln McCarthy to drift in, mark and goal, it worked perfectly. By half time, the Cats had 13 marks, with seven coming in defensive 50. Let them rule the skies back there at your peril.

Stewart is the poster boy for that kind of intercept work, but in truth, it was Sam De Koning, with three strong grabs in the first quarter and a half, and Jake Kolodjashnij, shaking off a knee injury with seven intercept possessions among 13 touches to half time, were just as impressive, as was Jack Henry. Equally crucially, the Lions’ tall trio, so impactful against Melbourne even without Daniher, barely fired a shot.

With such a miserly defensive display, little wonder the Lions produced one of the season’s most staggering stats – by half time, and indeed by the 28 minute mark of the third term, they hadn’t registered a single score from a turnover.

The Cats are masters at stopping teams from kicking goals via this method – they rank first in the league for points conceded in that category, and first as well for scoring from it. With five goals from turnovers to half time, repeatedly making the Lions pay for even a single errant kick, they tore the Lions to shreds.

The difference in the two teams was encapsulated in two passages of play in the second term. A risky kick inboard to Joel Selwood, surrounded by Lions, looked for all the world like a Brisbane turnover, and a scoring chance.

Selwood, though, has made a living out of winning impossible contests; he didn’t quite do that, but he held the ball in close, prevented a Lions breakaway, and allowed time for the cavalry in the form of Zach Tuohy to arrive.

From there, the Cats surged forward in a wave – so distinct from seasons gone by, where they would have been content to build patiently having so narrowly avoided disaster – always finding a handball over the top with an extra player at every contest, until it ended in the hands of Tom Hawkins five metres from goal. Bang.

Brisbane’s efficiency – remarkably, by halfway through the second term they had just three disposals inside 50, all of them goals – kept them within striking distance, and the threat of what they did to Melbourne in the second half last week remained in the back of the mind. But in truth, they never looked remotely likely to win.

If the defence was a team effort, the attack was, by and large, led by Patrick Dangerfield once again. It’s now that Scott’s bold plan to ease his veteran through the home-and-away season, missing four straight games between Rounds 10 and 16 to prevent aggravating a calf issue, is bearing fruit.

Dangerfield has looked like the Danger of old this finals series after beginning to dwindle in the last few seasons. Attacking the ball at full tilt, exploding away from stoppages and gaining maximum territory with every kick, he flipped the Lions’ early coalface domination on its head with brutal ease.

Two early goals set the tone for the Cats, and from then on, it was always going to be his night. By half time, while the goal tally hadn’t changed, his contested possession count had risen to a game-high 11, while 408 metres gained was also the highest of anyone on the ground. Throw in five clearances and four inside 50s, and it was the complete game from a player whose best might be behind him, but his 7.5/10 is still absolutely fearsome to behold.

By the end, he’d risen to 28 touches, eight clearances, 16 contested possessions, seven inside 50s and 720 metres gained. Every single one was a game high.

Yes, his sometimes poor kicking efficiency gets bandied around a lot – but his go has never been to lace out leading targets. When you’re kicking to Tom Hawkins, you don’t need a lot of fancy stuff – just sit it on his head and give him the chance to outbody whatever poor sap is on him in a one-on-one.

The first half was enough for Nathan Buckley to deem it a ‘systematic dismantling of Brisbane’s game’ on Fox Footy.

Once the sting went out of the game, the Cats ran rampant. The Lions’ kicking went to pot – they went at 48 per cent by foot forward of centre in the third term – and let Geelong dictate terms. No team, however good, should have a 10-minute patch going at 91 per cent disposal efficiency – as clinical as the Cats were, it was clear a towel had been thrown in.

With Tom Hawkins finally kicking accurately after a wayward second term, getting so many one-on-ones that even an admirably dogged performance from Harris Andrews couldn’t prevent a bag of four from seven shots, it became a bloodbath. Had the Cats not shifted their eyes to next week midway through the last, enabling two ultra-cheap Lions goals, a 71-point thrashing could easily have become a 100-point evisceration.

By the end, though, the only concern was whether another injury would strike. Because already, the one dampener on the Cats’ dream evening had occurred – and it’s going to cause problems moving forward.

A lot of footy fans might not fully grasp the role Holmes plays in this Geelong team, or how nightmarishly difficult it is going to be to replace next week.

He’s not quite at Hawkins-level importance, or Stewart, or Jeremy Cameron (who, incidentally, played a remarkably selfless decoy role to take attention away from helping Andrews battle Hawkins). But ask Scott or anyone in the know at the Cats how important the role Holmes plays is in this team, and watch how highly they rate him.

By the time his hamstring went, midway through the third term, Holmes was the highest-rated player on the ground according to the official AFL ratings. For the last two months, if Garry Lyon was correct on Fox Footy, he’s been the league’s highest-rated winger.

Always an elite athlete, he is both the embodiment of the changing skills required to be an elite AFL talent, and the strings added to Geelong’s bow this year. Holmes has that rare double act of being both capable of running all day – by the time he went off, he’d spent 89 per cent of time on ground – and being incredibly quick when it’s time to sprint.

When the Cats get the ball at half-back, the raw pace of Holmes, and of Gryan Miers, and Brad Close ahead of the play allow their ball movement to be equally aggressive. So many times tonight, their Lions opponents just couldn’t go with any of them.

Remarkably, with 359 metres gained, Holmes was fourth at the Cats in that stat on Friday night, and seventh-best on the field, from in essence two and a half quarters. His move up the ground to a permanent wing spot this year has been Scott’s most crucial piece of the puzzle to turn the Cats from a clinical but dour side in years gone by, to one capable of exhilarating play as well.

On the other wing, Tuohy, or Kolodjashnij, or Zach Guthrie, were able to zone back and help out the defence, precisely because of Holmes on the other wing on hand to carry the attack forward at all times. It’s a perfect balance, and losing him for the grand final should the injury, as expected, prove serious, makes it a mighty tough balance to replicate.

Neither of the emergencies Mark O’Connor and Brandan Parfitt loom as ideal like-for-likes, either; while Mitch Duncan, a winger in years gone by, has been so effective marshalling the troops behind the ball that it’d be a risk to move him away.

Smith will probably shift up to the wing now, having started forward for a lot of the preliminary final; but 33-year old legs are seldom as pacy for as long as those of a 20-year old. Smith is a cool head, a lovely kick, and his grand final experience will serve the Cats well; but Holmes’ raw speed is a weapon he probably can’t replace on his own.

It makes for a fascinating lead-up to grand final week. Like Melbourne last year, the Cats’ preliminary final blitzkrieg will leave them as heavy premiership favourites for much of the week, no matter who they play.

But sometimes it only takes one new chink in the armour for things to start going wrong; and for Holmes and Geelong, 2022’s resident finals heartbreak story could end up proving the missing link that costs the Cats everything.

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