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Gary Buckenara analyses Geelong’s list after the 2017 season
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IT was another forgetful end to a promising season for Geelong in 2017 but don’t expect the Cats to be going anywhere. This team is very much a premiership threat in 2018.

While the list is ageing and has just brought in 33-year-old Gary Ablett, the top tier players are so good and are still producing great footy that it will be enough to see Geelong finish up the top of the ladder.

But will it be enough to win the flag rather than just being a threat? The Cats have been belted in consecutive preliminary finals and needs to find an answer to bridge the gap and take the next step — getting to the Grand Final and winning.

While some clubs like North Melbourne are lacking star power — Geelong is in the enviable position of having three of the best midfielders in the league as Ablett prepares to join forces with Joel Selwood again and team up with Patrick Dangerfield for the first time.

It is one of the best midfields the game has ever seen. That midfield alone, without taking the rest of the Geelong side into account will have every opposition team worried.

It’s an exciting prospect and all Geelong people should be counting down the days until the start of next season.

Is Gary Ablett’s return enough to lift Geelong to a premiership?

The deal to get Ablett back was a pretty good one — the Suns initially asked for the likes of Mitch Duncan and Nakia Cockatoo as a swap but the Cats rightly baulked at that in the end essentially only gave up a 2018 second-round pick for him while dropping back five spots in this year’s draft from No.19 to No.24. While next year’s draft is very good, it’s a decent deal because the Cats are chasing a premiership and Ablett will obviously help them do that.

The Cats played it perfectly in the end by playing down their interest and saying they might not be able to get a deal done, while knowing the Suns would need to accept something or risk him retiring, which wouldn’t help them at all as they would receive nothing for losing him anyway.

But while Ablett has arrived, Steven Motlop has departed which is a blow given he is an x-factor player despite being far too inconsistent.

When you look at Geelong’s best 22 from end of 2017 to start of 2018, they have lost three players in Andrew Mackie, Tom Lonergan and Motlop but gained Ablett. Is that enough to get Chris Scott’s team into a Grand Final? I’m not sure.

The Cats were found out this year up forward, they simply don’t have enough different and dangerous avenues to goal outside of Tom Hawkins and Daniel Menzel who they were, bizarrely, happy to let go. Ablett’s arrival will allow them to play both he and Dangerfield forward as that wildcard but I don’t think that’s enough to elevate them and be the difference between getting smashed in a preliminary final two years in a row and making it to the premiership decider.

I was surprised Geelong didn’t go harder for Jake Stringer and Jack Watts — particularly given the price Port Adelaide eventually paid to get Watts. The Ablett deal complicated things for list manager Stephen Wells but in my opinion, either Stringer or Watts should have been the priority over bringing Ablett home.

Getting either of those two would have given Hawkins a chop out and added a different dynamic to the forward mix that could potentially be the difference. Former Kangaroo Aaron Black was recruited with that type of role in mind but that hasn’t worked.

The Geelong forward line just isn’t potent enough once Hawkins is shut down.

That’s why I was so surprised the Cats a) left Daniel Menzel out of the qualifying final against Richmond and b) were happy for him to explore free agency after only offering a one-year deal.

Menzel kicked 40 goals in 2017 and has booted 109 in his 60-game career. OK, he’s not the best in the league for forward pressure but you still need to kick goals to win games. Whenever he gets the ball something happens and players like that are really hard to find and you should do all you can to keep them when you do get your hands on one. You need dangerous players and goalkickers. That’s what wins teams finals.

But the beauty about the Cats is that a couple of players really improved this year and became far more consistent performers. Duncan took another step forward and is a genuine gun, while Sam Menegola has become a really important player — he has added another dimension to their side because he can play high half forward or in the midfield — as has Cam Guthrie. So there has been development and improvement coming from within and below the Selwoods and Dangerfields.

I think the development of those guys has allowed the Cats to move past the ‘Dangerwood’ tag to a degree because there are a number of good players who are now consistent contributors. Look at Zach Tuohy, he had a great first season at the club after crossing from Carlton and Tom Stewart slotted in seamlessly into the backline. Mark Blicavs is also a valuable player because he provides so much flexibility.

There is also loads of improvement to come from the younger players like Cockatoo who is a potential star, I really like him and Brandan Parfitt who has shown great signs, James Parsons is a nice size and kicked crucial goals at times, Jake Kolodjashnij is going to be a nice player, Jed Bews has locked down the small defender role and Wylie Buzza looks like he’ll be a good fit as a forward/ruckman. They also have Cory Gregson and Lincoln McCarthy to come back in after injury-wrecked seasons.

Geelong has enough B and C-grade players to complement their stars and that’s why I believe they will still be around the mark next year.

The critical aspect for Geelong to get the balance right and elevate themselves from a preliminary final team to a Grand Final team is for Scott Selwood to get himself fit because they do look a better side when he’s doing the grunt work and to sort out the forward mix. The forward line is the Achilles heel that holds it back.

With a midfield of Dangerfield, Selwood, Duncan, Guthrie and now Ablett for 2018, the Cats should be kicking more than an average of 97 points per games. That is a dominant midfield that will be bombarding the forward line with scoring chances.

 

WHAT THEY NEED

The list is reasonably well balanced but what they will need for the future are some key defenders and rebound defenders with a bit of size about them. Tom Lonergan has retired, as has Andrew Mackie who could play as a third tall as well as a rebounder because of his height (193cm) and athleticism and Harry Taylor is in the twilight of his career, he has one or two more years left. So that would be my focus at the draft this year and via either trade or free agency in the future to fill the immediate need.

The Cats also need a dynamic small forward. I know Cockatoo has been used in that role at times but I think his future is in the midfield or off halfback where he can use his explosiveness because he’s such a power athlete. He could be anything he’s got that much talent. I could really see him coming off half back, taking the game on, having a bounce and kicking long. He would be an 80-90 metre player.

UNDER THE PUMP

Hawkins needs to produce more in terms of his consistency. He booted 51 goals this year but he’s just not producing that really powerful and imposing football we know he can. He really struggled throughout the finals series — hopefully he can have a big pre-season and become a bit more mobile because as we’ve seen over the last two or so years, big forwards are struggling with the way the game is currently being played. He’s just as important as Dangerfield, Selwood and now Ablett.

Gary Buckenara wants to see Tom Hawkins get back to his best.

George Horlin-Smith is contracted for 2018 but I’m sure the Cats and his management would have explored options for him to get some senior opportunities elsewhere. That didn’t happen in the end and he will remain at the club under pressure to become a senior regular. He shows glimpses but remains far too inconsistent, which is why he can’t lock down a regular best 22 spot. He was given opportunities in the first half of 2017, playing six of the first eight games but played just one match between Round 9 and the preliminary final. 2018 will be his last chance.

Rhys Stanley is entering a critical time in his career. Buzza is snapping at his heels for that forward/ruck role and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the preferred option over Stanley next year. The former Saint just hasn’t maximised his potential despite his athleticism and pace for his size. Plus he’s very injury prone.

BUCKY’S LIST CHANGES

Lonergan and Mackie have retired, Darcy Lang has been traded, Motlop has gone to Port and Josh Cowan has been delisted so that’s five changes from the senior list and I don’t expect there to be any more ahead of this draft.

Is there still a spot for Tom Ruggles at Geelong? Picture: Getty

But in my opinion I would move on Jackson Thurlow and Tom Ruggles who has really slipped back in the pecking order behind Bews and Stewart.

Horlin-Smith and Black are also vulnerable — they have been around for a long time and had numerous opportunities but I think the Cats will give them another 12 months to see if they can play a role and if not, then they will be moved on at the end of next year.

CRYSTAL BALL

I still see the Cats as a top-four contender but is the acquisition of Gary Ablett enough to get it to a Grand Final? It’s not that simple. As good as Gary Ablett is, one player does not make the difference. He will certainly help Geelong get back into the top four but to win a premiership you need everything to go right from team and individual form to coaching strategy to injuries. Geelong’s hopes are pinned on more than just Gary Ablett. But the Cats’ premiership window is now and I see them being contenders for at least another 2-3 years.

Gary Buckenara helped build Hawthorn’s three-peat premiership list and now he runs a rule over club lists in an exclusive column for the Herald Sun.

Buckenara was a major part of Hawthorn’s recruiting team between 2004-2015 and was responsible for bringing Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead and Jordan Lewis to the Hawks in 2004 when he was the Hawks’ sole full-time recruiter.

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