After a thrashing in the 2021 preliminary final at the hands of Melbourne, many wrote Geelong off for season 2022.
Instead, the club made changes both on and off-field, which led to 16 straight wins at the back end of the season on the way to the most dominant of displays in the Grand Final to claim their 10th VFL/AFL Premiership.
Finishing position: First (18 wins, four losses – premiers)
In a nutshell, pretty much everything worked. When you win the grand final by 81 points, it is hard to argue otherwise.
The first major shift that had a positive impact on 2022 was clearly the off-field changes at the end of last season.
Moving on assistant coaches including club legends in Corey Enright and Matthew Scarlett can not have been an easy decision, but clearly, fresh faces and ideas were needed to support Chris Scott.
Together with Scott, the group realised the slow ball-movement game plan was not going to get the job done come September, and made the adjustment to utilise their strengths and move the ball with purpose to their dominant forward line.
The new game plan took some time to develop earlier in the season, but the players clearly had bought into the new style. Key forwards Tom Hawkins and Jeremy Cameron and new addition Tyson Stengle all enjoyed the delivery into the forward 50, with all three ending up with All-Australian honours.
The use of utility Mark Blicavs was also a clear win for the coaching staff. After a loss to St.Kilda in mid-May (the side’s last loss), it was clear some changes needed to be made in the midfield.
The decision to use Blicavs as a pure midfielder, who would then ruck around the ground was a master stroke, as it allowed Rhys Stanley to push back to help in defence. This then freed up the likes of Tom Stewart, Jack Henry or Zac Tuohy to help repel forward attacks and quickly move the ball back the other way.
The decision to rest key players throughout the season also paid dividends. It did not matter the time of year, the opponent, or the venue, the club had clear strategies in place for its elder players to make sure they were primed come season’s end.
Captain Joel Selwood played 18 games, Isaac Smith and Blicavs were also rested at times, and Patrick Dangerfield, instead of being rushed back from injury, was given plenty of time to get fully fit, so as to be most impactful when he returned.
The natural improvement of many players also worked in Geelong’s favour this season. Brad Close, Zach Guthrie, Max Holmes and Tom Atkins (to name a few) really stepped up from fringe players to locks in the best 22.
This made it really competitive for spots in the side, with the likes of Sam Menegola and Brandan Parfitt pushed out of the side at various stages.
There is not a lot that did not really work for Geelong in season 2022. The dominant season and great run of injuries meant that a few players may not have seen as many games as they/the club would have liked.
Players such as Esava Ratugolea and Quinton Narkle would likely have gotten more action in any other season, or for any other side. Perhaps it could be argued that their development has been stunted due to a lack of opportunities, to the point where they will look to seek opportunities elsewhere.
The club, however, does have a great record of ensuring players develop in the reserves and really earn a spot, and many youngsters were still given a taste of senior football, including Shannon Neale and Oliver Dempsey.
A large part of the reason for the Cats’ dominant season was the improvement of a large number of players, with some laying claim to now being stars of the competition.
Delisted free agent Tyson Stengle was thrown a lifeline by the club and had a season to remember. 50-plus goals, an All-Australian selection in the forward pocket and four goals in a Grand Final make him probably the recruit of the year.
Stengle will only be 24 at the start of next season, so it is scary to think of how much more he can improve in the upcoming years.
Few had heard of key backman Sam De Koning prior to season 2022, but everyone sure has now. Despite a lack of football the last two years due to COVID, De Koning worked tirelessly on his defensive craft to gain a spot in the Round 1 side, and never looked back.
His calmness, ability to intercept and read the play and excellent reach have meant he has slotted into a well-oiled Geelong defence seamlessly.
By the midpoint of the season, the outside world was beginning to take notice. Then by season’s end, he had come runner-up in the Rising Star award, won a premiership and collected votes in the Norm Smith Medal for his efforts on the big day.
At just 21 years of age, there is a huge upside to De Koning’s game, which is a scary thought for opposition forwards for years to come.
Running wingman Max Holmes, like De Koning, was highly rated within the club, but by season’s end, his importance to the side was known to all.
Holmes was rated as the best wingman in the competition for the second half of the season – his gut running, speed and ability to win the contested ball made him a valuable asset. His performance in the Cat’s first two finals highlighting how good a player he has become.
It was shattering for the young Cat to miss the Grand Final due to injury, but at just 20 years of age, he hopefully gets another opportunity in the future. Further improvement in his game could take him to a level right at the top of the competition in the coming years.
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It goes without saying that the Grand Final was the high point of the season. All of the hard work, change in game style, and belief in the new plan and themselves all culminated in a brutal, dominant display.
The fact that the Cats were able to win the premiership when many had again counted them out at the start of the season as ‘too old and too slow’, would no doubt have been very satisfying for the club and its supporters.
Another high point was the great come-from-behind victory in Round 3 against Collingwood. Five goals down at three-quarter time, the side stormed home in Selwood’s record-breaking game for the most games as a captain in the AFL.
Round 15 against the Tigers was another high point of the season. To beat a resurgent Richmond on the MCG after falling three goals down in the last quarter gave the players and supporters real belief that this side was a genuine contender.
Then in Round 17 up against the reigning premier Melbourne in a stand-alone Thursday night heavyweight clash, the Cats dominated, having 31 scoring shots to 18 and winning by five goals. It is at this point of the season that supporters felt as though this was their year.
The qualifying final against Collingwood was a hard-fought, contested contest from start to finish. This fixture in previous seasons had caused Geelong some issues, so it was a huge game with respect to getting the ‘monkey off the back’ and winning straight through to the preliminary final.
Are there any low points in a season where a side wins 16 in a row on the way to winning the premiership? No.
Even in their biggest loss of the season, a five-goal result in Round 2, the players still got to be part of history when Lance Franklin kicked his 1000th AFL goal.
Hawthorn supporters can take solace in the fact that they beat the eventual premiers, and St Kilda really opened up Geelong’s midfield in the club’s last loss back on May 14.
This loss, however, forced the coaching staff to make some key changes – most notable Blicavs playing more ruck/mid and Tom Atkins being played in the centre square more often – so it wasn’t all bad.
Where to next?
With the retirement of club captain, champion and legend Joel Selwood, there are big shoes to fill, most notably off-field. How the club handles his departure will go a long way to determining how the Cats go in 2023.
There is still plenty of experience, however, to fill the void. The club will need to manage its older players as it did so magnificently this season – Hawkins is 34 but was still an All-Australian, Dangerfield is 32 but finished the season so strongly, and Isaac Smith is 34, but just won a Norm Smith medal.
These older players still have plenty to give, and Geelong’s unique way of getting the best of their veterans means they should be just as formidable next season.
The defence will keep Geelong in most games – De Koning will only get better, Henry is young, Bews and Kolodjashnij are both mid-20s and Stewart is as dominant as ever.
The forward line is also built for pressure – Brad Close and Tyson Stengle are young, Gryan Miers is ever-improving and Jeremy Cameron is still at his peak.
If the Cats can get the midfield right, avoid multiple long-term injuries and continue to blood youth to blend with their experience, there is no reason they cannot go close again in 2023.
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