At a superficial level, Geelong shouldn’t be too alarmed by its 18-point loss against Richmond on Sunday.
It was essentially only a sloppy couple of minutes early in the last quarter which allowed the Tigers to get off the chain with a couple of quick goals, and in difficult conditions, anything beyond that margin and against a side as good as Richmond was going to be difficult to reel in.
Headed into its weekend off, Geelong is fifth on the ladder at 8-5, equal on points with fourth, and with an impressive catalogue of injured senior players due to return to the fold.
The Cats play only three top eight teams in their last nine games, and have four of their final six at their own GMHBA Stadium, still the most intimidating venue for visitors in the competition.
That is what you call pretty handy positioning.
And yet I find it difficult to shake the feeling that for a third year in a row for Geelong it’s going to be a case of “close but no cigar”. Which isn’t even to dispute what Cats coach Chris Scott had to say after the loss.
“It’s not a game where we’re coming away thinking that there were really important parts of our game that didn’t stand up,” he said.
“We didn’t come away from the game thinking we’re miles behind the benchmark, we’re going to have to tip our game style upside down.”
They’re not, and they don’t. But Geelong continues coming up just short against the very best opposition, even if it’s rarely by much.
Of course you’d rather be in the Cats’ position now than, say, Adelaide, which after a fourth morale-sapping loss in a row to Hawthorn on Saturday night looks increasingly likely to become a second grand finalist in as many years to miss out on the following September altogether.
Not to mention the first example of that, the hapless Western Bulldogs, who already floundering at 4-8 with a long casualty list, have now also lost skipper Easton Wood, midfield star Jack Macrae, Tom Boyd and Lukas Webb to the medical room.
Unlike those teams, Geelong is a definite finals starter and still a very likely top four prospect. It’s how much damage the Cats can do once they get there which is open for debate.
Three of Geelong’s five losses this season have come against the top three sides on the AFL ladder, all between margins of 15 to 18 points. The Cats’ average losing margin in 2018 has been just 17 points. But it’s the consistency of those shortfalls which perhaps is the concern. And that is a trend which has been going on for a while.
Where Richmond and the Western Bulldogs have both leapt from outside or just inside the top eight all the way to a flag in the past two seasons, and in 2018, West Coast has defied the critics to top the ladder and win 10 games straight, Geelong it seems has the greater consistency but not necessarily highs quite high enough.
Against the Tigers on Sunday, it was little more than an errant kick here or there, a minor defensive lapse or two, and perhaps the failure of some less-heralded members of the 22 like Jordan Murdoch, Cory Gregson, Zach Guthrie, Jack Henry or Lachie Fogarty to make enough of a contribution.
But they are explanations we’ve heard before when Geelong has bowed out in the penultimate week of the season the past two years, when it went out in straight sets in 2014, or even when it was a kick away from a grand final five years ago.
Since 2014, the Cats have gone 2-5 in finals. And indeed, their record over the same period anywhere away from the Cattery isn’t much more than 50-50.
They’ve won 29 of 35 games for a strike rate of nearly 83 per cent at Geelong over that same five-season sample. Elsewhere, it’s 41 wins from 72 starts, or only 56.9 per cent. And after Sunday’s loss at the MCG, it’s 16 wins from 30 games, or 53 per cent at the grand final venue, supposedly a second “home ground”.
Is the undeniable edge home territory gives the Cats a double-edged sword when they have to leave its confines? And why don’t we make more it?
West Coast, for example, has been routinely pilloried for its supposed frailty whenever it plays away from Perth. But the Eagles’ narrow loss to Sydney at the SCG last Friday night was its first defeat in five road trips this year.
Geelong’s interstate record since the start of 2014 is, you guessed it, 50 per cent, 12 wins and a draw from 25 games.
The big wildcard for Geelong, of course, is the amount of talent it can add to the mix over the back half of this season.
Harry Taylor, Cam Guthrie and Scott Selwood should all be back after next weekend’s bye. Forward Dan Menzel, a critical part of the equation, should return if not then, soon after, as may key defender Lachie Henderson.
But as coach Scott has noted, big names on paper don’t always equate to big returns in reality when they’ve missed as much football as have those players mentioned.
They need to recapture match fitness. They need to again learn to gel with the players around them. And their returns, no matter their capabilities, can arguably sometimes disrupt the synchronicity of the 22 that has taken the field in their absence.
How, for example, will Taylor and Henderson impact on the use and form of Mark Blicavs, who has been outstanding since moving to a key defensive post? Will the return of a defensive mid in Scott Selwood potentially compromise the performance of Tim Kelly or Sam Menegola?
That point about balance and continuity is something to which Scott himself has often referred during the recent influx of imported talent to the club, despite the obvious success of the likes of Patrick Dangerfield and defender Zac Tuohy.
But it’s a calculated gamble you think Scott will have little choice but to take. Because, again, even at this early stage, it’s looking like he’s in charge of a team which is pretty good, but still not quite good enough.