Mid-season report: Are the Cats a lock for a top-four berth?

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As AFL clubs enjoy their mid-season bye and list managers turn their attention more towards 2018, we take a daily look at one club and how it has performed so far – and what to expect from here.

GEELONG

Pre-season expectations: Having been crunched by the Swans in last year’s preliminary final, and seen champions Corey Enright and Jimmy Bartel head into retirement, the debate surrounding the Cats was this: Were they still a top four, even premiership, contender or more likely to finish in spots five to eight?

Record: 8-3

What’s gone right: Home cooking, that’s for sure. Having endured three straight defeats (more on that below) the Cats have enjoyed the taste of three home matches under lights at a redeveloped Simonds Stadium. Wins against legitimate premiership contenders Western Bulldogs, Port Adelaide and Adelaide have shown they are for real – but questions abound. Elsewhere, Patrick Dangerfield, averaging a team-high 29.64 touches, has backed up his record-breaking Brownlow year with another blue-chip campaign, and is always looking to bring teammates into the contest, while skipper Joel Selwood has been equally effective at finding the ball as he is at leaving the field with a bloodied face. Mitch Duncan has also found plenty of the ball, averaging 28.36 disposals, while former Blue Zach Tuohy, given the role Enright once had, has struck the right balance between defence and counter-attack at half-back – as shown in his blanketing of Eddie Betts on Friday night. A streamlined Tom Hawkins (team-high 30 goals) has been more active up the ground and Daniel Menzel has been managed well, for his ability to play as a marking small forward is crucial. The Cats boast the league’s second-most potent forward line. Lachie Henderson and Tom Lonergan have been key pillars inside defensive 50. The return of tackling machine Scott Selwood has added midfield depth. Coach Chris Scott adopted a philosophical line when asked about the campaign so far. “At the halfway point of the season we are just among a group of teams that are fighting and scrapping to finish as high as we possibly can,” he said.

What’s gone wrong: The Cats began the season with five straight wins, but only one was against a side now in the top eight (Fremantle at Domain Stadium in round one). Concerns were raised about their defensive character when they had three straight defeats – two on the wider expanses of the MCG, against Collingwood and Essendon, and one against the Suns at Metricon Stadium. Hawthorn great Dermott Brereton is one who has questioned whether the Cats can seriously handle the heat when away from the more narrow boundaries of Simonds Stadium. They have only two more home-and-away matches at the MCG – against Hawthorn in round 17, and Collingwood in round 22. That they were out-tackled by the Bombers 81-40 also exposed them to questions about their mental toughness. The Cats say the Harry Taylor experiment has achieved the desired outcome, ensuring Hawkins isn’t the only tall marking option. Taylor has nine goals, including five against the Bulldogs in round five, but his best role would still appear to be in defence. Mark Blicavs, the 2015 best and fairest, is averaging 16 touches a game and has provided ruck relief but hasn’t had the impact many would like. Steven Motlop, in a contract year, can be brilliant or disappear at inopportune times.

Standout star: Hard to split the “Dangerwood” pairing of Patrick and Joel, but the votes would have to edge slightly towards Dangerfield this season. Even when he was relatively well held by the Power in round 10, Dangerfield snatched victory off his left boot with just over a minute remaining. Still battling sore ribs from the round-four clash against the Hawks, Dangerfield was omnipresent against the Dogs five weeks later, claiming a game-high 36 disposals, 12 tackles, 10 clearances and four goals. He is equal leader in voting for The Age’s player of the year award.

Players under the pump: The Cats have some interesting list management decisions to make, particularly if they welcome Gary Ablett home. Motlop and Menzel are restricted free agents. The latter almost certainly stays, but will Motlop again be put on the market? Will premiership veterans Tom Lonergan and Andrew Mackie go on? Lincoln McCarthy and Josh Cowan are both off-contract and have struggled for a regular senior game.

The run home: The Cats don’t appear to have the most difficult of run homes. They begin post bye with a trip to Domain Stadium to face the inconsistent Eagles, but then have Fremantle at Simonds Stadium. A major test then awaits against the Giants at Spotless Stadium, and the clubs meet again in round 23. That Brisbane, Hawthorn, Carlton and Sydney are still to come should mean the Cats are a lock for a top-four berth.

Grading:A minus. The three-straight defeats took a touch of gloss off their campaign but they are well positioned for a run deep into September.

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