THE prodigal son Gary Ablett is back at Geelong and the Cats are confident he can have a big impact next season.
But there are other areas the club can eek out some improvement as it fights to take the next step after consecutive preliminary final exits.
Here are eight reasons Geelong can challenge for the premiership in 2018.
What hasn’t this guy achieved? Unquestionably the best player of the past decade, Ablett is a two-time Brownlow Medal winner and eight-time All-Australian. He won two premierships with Geelong in 2007 and 2009 before moving to Gold Coast for the 2011 season, where success did not follow. But can his return to the Cats help deliver some more silverware to Kardinia Park? While a shoulder injury limited him to 14 games last year, Ablett still won the Suns’ best-and-fairest and was the sixth-ranked SuperCoach scorer in 2017, averaging 114 points. While he might turn 34 next May, he still has plenty to offer.
Will Ablett play midfield or forward next season? It remains to be seen. But regardless, Geelong’s onball brigade is a dangerous proposition for opposition sides. Patrick Dangerfield, Joel Selwood and Mitch Duncan are three of the best midfielders in the competition and if Ablett is thrown in, that becomes an even more scary combination. Selwood had a 2017 season that was interrupted by concussion and ankle injuries, meaning he missed or was heavily restricted for the better part of six games. If the Cats can get a full season out of the skipper next year it will go a long way to bringing about significant improvement.
Six of last year’s eight finalists will face double-up matches against three fellow finalists next year. Geelong and Essendon are the two teams who have avoided this. The Cats face Richmond, Sydney, Melbourne, Hawthorn and Gold Coast twice, making for a 2018 draw that is rated the sixth-easiest by Champion Data. Keep in mind the Cats had the sixth-hardest draw in 2017 — with double-up matches against Adelaide, GWS and Hawthorn — and finished second.
HOME GROUND FACTOR
There is no underestimating the home ground advantage Geelong enjoys at Kardinia Park. Of their past 50 games at the venue, the Cats have won 43. Across their past 20 games at Kardinia Park, they have averaged 27 points more than their opponents. It is an incredible record and a unique situation for a Victorian club. This year Geelong hosted seven home games at the ground. Next year they play nine games — the most since 1999. Free kick, Cats.
NOW OR NEVER
There is a feeling among Geelong fans that it is almost now or never for the side. Bringing back Ablett is an indication the club thinks it is right in the premiership window. Ablett turns 34 in May, Harry Taylor turns 32 in June, Selwood will be 30 in May and Tom Hawkins will be 30 in July. It is not exactly this year or bust, but the clock is ticking if the club is to win another premiership anytime soon given its reliance on those stars.
The Cats’ small forward stocks were crippled by injury in 2017. Between them, Nakia Cockatoo, Corey Gregson, Lincoln McCarthy and Brandan Parfitt played a combined 29 of a possible 100 games. Geelong still ranked fourth in the competition for kicking goals once inside-50 but if those smalls — who are all 24 years old or under — can get back on the park and continue their development it will add a whole new dimension to the side’s forward mix.
GET BACK, HARRY
With the retirement of Tom Lonergan, Harry Taylor looks set for a permanent move back to defence next year. Taylor split his time at both ends of the ground this year and did have some success forward, highlighted by the day he kicked four goals on Richmond superstar Alex Rance. He finished the year with 22 goals from 25 games. However, defence is where he looks more natural and his move back there will strengthen the Cats’ defence and potentially make their forward line look more nimble.
Before this year, Jed Bews, Nakia Cockatoo, Tom Stewart, Sam Menegola, Brandan Parfitt and Jake Kolodjashnij had played five finals between them. This year each of them played in three finals with the exception of Cockatoo who only took part in the preliminary final after missing the first two through injury. That is some valuable experience for a group of promising, developing players. Add that to the experienced campaigners like Selwood (26 finals), Taylor (23 finals) and Hawkins (19 finals) and Geelong should be raring to go next September.