EXPERIENCE is a quality that is valued extremely highly at Geelong, and that's not just at AFL level.
While so much has been written and said about the over-30 AFL brigade, having a similar albeit younger demographic was a big part of the Cats' VFL success as well.
Led by listed pair Josh Jenkins (32) and Darcy Fort (28), former AFL players Aaron Black (30), Jackson Thurlow (27) and Darcy Lang (25) and long-time VFL star Oliver Tate (30), Geelong had plenty of wise heads to bring the young Cats through the ranks.
And it worked, with Geelong winning seven of its nine matches to finish fourth, with its only defeats being to the two premiership favourites – Casey Demons (one point) and Footscray (33 despite leading by 26 early).
Among those seven wins were two interstate trips for wins over Sydney and Brisbane, one of only three Victorian teams to travel more than once (Essendon and Port Melbourne being the others).
Coach Shane O’Bree, who has been in charge since 2016 and will become the VFL's longest-serving active mentor if he continues in the role next season, said having that experience was vital for the development of the next breed.
"I thought we had a really good year – we got to test ourselves against some quality opposition and (Casey and Footscray) were two of the better VFL teams this year, which had us in good stead to have a really good back end of the year," he said.
"We've got a really good list with our VFL players, we have a lot of young guys coming through who need opportunity and we recruited pretty well with guys like Darcy Lang and Jackson Thurlow, which meant we had a nice balance to complement the AFL boys who were playing with us.
"They're (Lang, Thurlow and captain Black) critical to our VFL program, having guys who have played AFL – they're still good footballers and understand how hard it is as an AFL player trying to get a game, the highs and lows, being out of contract.
"They have a great sense of understanding of our young VFL-listed players who are eager to play footy and test themselves out at the highest level – the more players we can get with that sort of experience is critical.
"Having guys like Josh (Jenkins) forward of the ball, he helps our young key forwards coming through and does a lot of work with them behind the scenes to help them progress.
"They are quality people, obviously during their time at Geelong they had a ball, it didn't end the way they hoped it to but for them to come back, it's more the character those guys are – and the club as well.
"We treat our people with a lot of respect – circumstances may mean they have to leave, but those guys came back and still wanted to give a bit back to our club and test themselves out by playing the highest level of footy they can for as long as possible."
Of course, those experienced players need young talent to lead towards the big time, and contrary to popular belief, Geelong actually has quite a bit, led by ball magnet Charlie Constable, 22, who racked up 26, 31, 22, 32, 34, 33, 44, 42 and 30 disposals in a remarkable season that O'Bree said proved him capable of taking the next step.
"Charlie is now too good for VFL, he averages over 30 possessions (32.7), you know what you’re going to get with Charlie and he’s a really good leader of our midfield group," O'Bree said.
"Darcy Fort and Oscar Brownless, those guys have been in our system for two or three years and played regular VFL football and are good players themselves – their culture and character just helps the team so much with their positive natures."
"Guys like Jack McLaughlin and Luke Smith have played a lot of VFL footy for us now – they're comfortable at the level, they show up every week and you can really rely on those guys getting the job done.
"(Then there's) a young up and comer in Jye Chalcraft who has been on the list for a couple of years straight out of the NAB League, for him to play the number of games he did this year with a quality VFL midfield with Clark, Constable, Narkle, Sam Simpson, those type of guys going through your midfield, was a credit to him.
"Guys like Isaac Wareham from the (GWV) Rebels only played a couple of games, but we’ve got half a dozen guys who are ready to play VFL footy, they just need opportunity to progress nicely into the future – however far that goes we'll know down the track, but they have the attributes."
O'Bree pointed to the Sydney game in round two, when the Cats came out on top in a hard-fought struggle, as the highlight of Geelong's season, but was obviously disappointed not to have the chance to create more in the finals.
"It was good as an AFL standalone team to play against other AFL-listed teams, we got to play the Brisbane Lions and the Sydney Swans, who we hadn't played before and get a look at our young AFL talent versus theirs, which was the positive in the limited number of games we played this year," he said.
"We played Sydney in Sydney, got up at 6am, and it was one of the toughest games of VFL footy I've seen and we handled the pressure really well and played the right way to the end and came away with a really good interstate win in our first time doing it in the new competition.
"I think that was the highlight of our year, the belief of the group, the challenge of it, it was well handled by everyone.
"Jye (Chalcraft) kicked a couple of goals in the last quarter and it was one of those games that determines your season really, getting away with it or not getting away with it, having a win like that on the road.
"You want your VFL team making the top four and being ready to compliment your AFL team in the finals and have guys still pressing for a game if you have anything happen.
"They still get to showcase what they're good at, which is the downer that we got ourselves in a good position in the top four and not being able to play is disappointing for those players and the club overall."
O'Bree said the two losses were real "learning curves" for his team.
"When we played Casey at Casey with the wind blowing one way, we learnt a lot from playing in the conditions and we came away knowing Casey are a quality team who played the conditions better and obviously won that game," he said.
"The Bulldogs were just better at what they're good at for longer, and obviously as a young developing group who you want to play AFL football you learn a lot from those games – the Bulldogs were just too good for us around the contest and they did it at the critical times."
Geelong's VFL Record
Record: 7 win | 2 Losses - 4th on Ladder
What went right: Unlike most of the Victorian clubs, the Cats had to travel interstate twice, and did it in style with a gutsy win over Sydney and a thrashing of Brisbane. Beating Williamstown away was another huge tick, while they showcased Generation Next with two big wins on Thursday Night Fox Footy.
What went wrong: Just two defeats and both came to teams on top of the ladder at the time. The Casey thriller could have gone either way, so the only real hiccup came against Footscray, when they gave up a 26-point lead to lose by 33 at GMHBA Stadium.
Best and fairest prediction: It's likely to be between Charlie Constable and Darcy Fort. Fort (20.1 hitouts per game) was the dominant ruckman in the competition and was a big part of the reason why Constable (32.7 disposals) was unstoppable on the ball.
Best young players: So much has been written about the young Cats who are struggling to break into or hold down spots in the AFL team such as Max Holmes, Constable, Jordan Clark, Quinton Narkle, Francis Evans (due to injury) and Nathan Kreuger, while Brownless, Sam de Koning, Nick Stevens, Shannon Neale and Stefan Okunbor also show promise. From the VFL list, Jye Chalcraft looks to have a big future and Jordan Johnston also saw plenty of game time.
Coach status: The VFL's second-longest serving coach, Shane O'Bree is hoping to continue into a seventh season to take top spot on that list, with discussions to be held now the Cats’ AFL season is over. "I enjoy the mix of developing our AFL players and providing a good VFL list with experience plus players who could be drafted, so I hope to do it for future years," he said. "It's helping me to become a better coach with all aspects of dealing with the VFL program."