If not for Geelong’s first week finals disaster, Friday night’s AFL preliminary final could well have been the last-Saturday-in-September matchup.
Instead, it’s all or nothing for two of the season’s best performed teams.
The Tigers have players back from injury and run into form at the right time, while the Cats top-of-the-ladder form has been elusive in recent weeks. Tom Hawkins’ suspension is not going to help either.
The team’s coaches have mirrored the formline this week.
Geelong coach Chris Scott was testy at his Tuesday media conference and fired a shot across the Tigers’ bow, saying they are not as good as a year ago.
On Thursday, Hardwick cut a joking and relaxed figure at his pre-game media commitment, saying he had learned the hard way about needing to lighten the mood when the pressure was on.
Hardwick was no certainty to keep his job when his dropped out of the top eight in 2016, saying he now understood he had become a stress head.
“I’ve learned my lesson – 2016. Case in point,” he said. “I like to think our boys walk in with a smile, walk out with a smile most days.
“You watch them outside there today, they’ll be playing cricket, they’ll be doing something that will give me the shits. But the reality is, it’s how they operate. It’s a game.
“I look back now and without 2016 we wouldn’t be sitting anywhere near where we are today.
We wouldn’t have won that flag … we wouldn’t be sitting here playing in our third prelim. You often learn most in your darkest times and no doubt that happened to me and this football club.”
The Cats are clearly preparing to counter the Tigers’ renowned fast starts, having won 16 first quarters in their 23 games this season.
“They’re a very fast-starting team,” said Geelong swingman Mark Blicavs. “They’ll be up for it. They will be fresh and ready to go.
“And it’s how we adjust and adapt to their pressure and try and bring our own.”
— Geelong Cats (@GeelongCats) September 19, 2019
Blicavs said the Cats were heartened by their own improvement in opening terms which has resulted in 16 quarter-time leads from 24 games this season, the second best record in the league.
“It’s something we have spoken about all year, our starts,” he said.”For us, it’s just about not going into our shells when that happens and still taking the game on.”
The Cats have formed their plans to fill the void left by the suspension to All-Australian forward Tom Hawkins, with Blicavs believing numerous players would take the key attacking position throughout the game.
STILL SUSPENDED >>> https://t.co/zuvmgXpXbv
Tom Hawkins fails to have his one-game striking ban overturned at the Tribunal, and won't play in the preliminary final against Richmond. pic.twitter.com/gZ27zviuCw
— FOX FOOTY (@FOXFOOTY) September 16, 2019
He praised Hawkins’ contribution since copping a one-game ban which ruled him out of the preliminary final.
“He has been really good,” he said.
“At the club with all the boys he has been happy, he has trained really well. “He has added to all the meetings, he has come up with some ideas himself so he has been really involved.
“He has got his fingers crossed that we win and make it next week for him to come back.”
PRELIMINARY FINAL – RICHMOND v GEELONG MATCH UPS
Dustin Martin (Rich) v Jake Kolodjashnij (Geel)
Martin was stationed in attack in the qualifying final win against Brisbane and duly delivered a stunning six-goal performance which will tempt Tiger coach Damien Hardwick to again deploy him forwardWhile there’s arguably no-one in the competition that can match Martin’s explosiveness and innate footy smarts, Kolodjashnij has the physical tools to combat the Richmond megastar – the Cat backman is slightly taller, a kilogram heavier and has the defensive discipline required for a lockdown role.
Dion Prestia (Rich) v Patrick Dangerfield (Geel)
Dangerfield is the ace in Geelong’s pack but also a conundrum for coach Chris Scott: does he put the Brownlow medallist on the ball, or use him in attack to cover the absence of suspended spearhead Tom Hawkins? Most likely, a bit of both. Dangerfield’s drive from midfield will be vital against the battle-hardened Tiger onball brigade featuring Prestia, who has the strength to match him around the packs and the speed to counter him in open play. Dangerfield can expect Dylan Grimes for company when he drifts forward.
Jack Riewoldt (Rich) v Mark Blicavs (Geel)
Riewoldt was kept to just six disposals in the qualifying final triumph against Brisbane – but three of them were goals, evidencing his danger. The Richmond forward has just 20 goals from his nine finals but this is his first campaign where he isn’t the sole focal point. His work in attacking tandem with Tom Lynch looms as game-breaking on what is forecast as a warm night with no rain to dampen their marking abilities. Geelong’s Blicavs could find himself on both at various stages but his athleticism is best suited on Riewoldt, who prowls further and wider from goal than Lynch.