All Eyes On… The Barometer
It’s fast becoming a football cliché’ but there’s no denying that this game will be won or lost in the middle of the ground. While the Demons’ on-ball division is enjoying some well-earned time in the sun, even without a hamstrung Brandan Parfitt, the Cats remain deep and dangerous, especially with a fully fit Mitch Duncan looking likely to spend some extra time around the footy on Friday.
Both sides sit around the top of the table when it comes to the contested ball and ultimately win the game when they take the honours in that department – the Cats are 17-2 when they outduel their opposite numbers in the contest and Melbourne have only lost the count four times this season. Both sides fought to a standstill back in Round 23 at 140 apiece.
While all eyes will likely be trained on the likes of Selwood, Petracca, Dangerfield, and Oliver, don’t underestimate Sam Menegola who has proven to be a barometer for Geelong as this season has gone on. Menegola picks up an average of 24.4 touches in Cats victories and 20.8 in losses. Generally, when he plays well, the Cats win.
This week, his ability to transition, get back to support the back six, and then generate forward thrusts will be crucial to Geelong’s chances. And doesn’t the local boy love Optus Stadium? His 24 disposals per game average at the Burswood bowl is second only to his output at Docklands.
There’s no place like home, it seems.
All Eyes On… Battle of the Big Men
No discussion of the midfield tussle is complete without running our eyes over the men in the middle. Max Gawn is well, Max Gawn; his tap work the key in the ignition of the Dees’ high-powered midfield.
The good news is Rhys Stanley has been good lately, make that very good. He was able to use his superior athleticism to great effect against Shane Mumford last weekend - go and take a second look at his third-quarter performance if you’re tired of waiting for Friday’s game to start. He was exceptional. And though Gawn’s after the siren kick made all the highlight reels, Stanley was the No.4 rated player on the ground to 3QT back in RD23, more than holding his own against the bearded one.
We also know how much Chris Scott likes Esava Ratugolea to have a run on the ball so you’d expect to see both Stanley and Sav using their considerable tanks in running big Max around the wide expanses of Optus Stadium.
Break even here and we’re almost there.
All Eyes On… The Interceptors
There’s no denying the impact that Melbourne’s All-Australian defensive duo Jake Lever and Steven May had on the result of the Round 23 nail-biter at GMHBA Stadium – Lever was supreme in curtailing Geelong’s forward advances with 12 intercept possession. So how do you stop them? Chris Scott would say you’re asking the wrong question.
"Lever and May have got to stop our guys - that's the way we're looking at it," Scott said in his Wednesday press conference. We know what Hawkins, Cameron, and Rohan at their best are capable of - there may not be a more dangerous forward setup in the game. One thing to be mindful of is that a common theme in all of Melbourne’s losses this season has been when Lever, May, and Christian Salem have been made to play more accountable football and they've been limited in their ability to drift off their man and play the interceptor role. Once again, this is where Ratugolea will have an important role to play.
He adds an extra dimension to the Cats forward of the ball with his athleticism and ability to bust open packs. With Big Sav lurking as a constant threat, that may force the Melbourne defenders to play a bit tighter which should work in Geelong’s favour.
Incidentally, the Cats are 8-2 with him in the line-up this season.
All Eyes on… The Misfits
Do you know who else has a pretty good defence? That’s right, Matty Scarlett’s Misfits. While Tom Stewart’s injury is obviously a big blow you’ve just got to get on with it and that’s exactly what they’ve done. The boys down back have started to find their groove again in Stewart’s absence and they looked even more imposing with Zach Tuohy and his marvelous Moroccan Sunset mo back on the park. And let’s not forget Jack Henry who seems to be getting better each time he pulls on the Hoops.
Notably, if there’s one ground outside of the Greater Geelong area that the Cats defend particularly well, it’s Optus Stadium where they have conceded an average of just 49 points across their last five games at the ground.
The last time Melbourne played a Preliminary Final in Perth was back in 2018 where they’d registered just the six behinds by halftime and went on to lose by 11 goals. Granted it was against the Eagles with a big, loud Perth crowd but who knows the impact that game had on the psyche of those on the field that day. History says teams coming off long breaks can take a bit to get going, so if the defence holds up and helps provide some early scoreboard pressure, just maybe the ghosts of Demons past might emerge.
Is it Friday yet?