Hawthorn wound the clock back, not to their glory days but to last year. Geelong inched their clock forward, not to premiership favouritism but at least to victory this day and another scratchy notch in their 2021 belt.
In truth, it wasn’t for the most part an Easter Monday classic. For three quarters, it wouldn’t have made the top 10.
But as is so often the case when these teams meet, so often the way of great rivalries, something sprang from nothing. In the last quarter, a seemingly workaday Geelong victory almost slipped through their fingers, prised apart by a Hawthorn team that demonstrated great character.
You could say that if Isaac Smith was still playing with his silky touch for the Hawks and not the Cats, this result might have been overturned. It’s too simplistic, of course, and yet it illustrates the slimness of the margin between the teams. It came down to a sliver of class.
Hawthorn came with a defensive mindset, ranging players behind the ball. Geelong were happy to accommodate them on those terms, nursing the ball around while looking for openings. It meant the Cats’ goals came at long intervals, but the Hawks had to wait even longer for theirs.
In the meantime, midfielders ran up cricket scores on the MCG. Geelong’s Cam Guthrie had a scarcely credible 43 touches, teammate Mitch Duncan 37 and the Hawks’ Jaeger O’Meara 34.
The Hawks’ patience almost paid off. When Mitchell Lewis marked and kicked truly 28-minutes into the last quarter, the margin was less than a goal and still fully four minutes of play remained. They became minutes of desperate defence for Geelong, minutes of frantic efforts to scramble forward for the Hawks. At last at 34 minutes, it stopped.
Not much in the first three dour quarters foreshadowed this. As a contest, it wasn’t a complete reversion to 2020 type. The new rules make that impossible. But it showed that there are workarounds for the team that wants to play that way. It means that the game was less fluent than we have come to expect of it in 2021 and the scoreboard looked more like last year’s than this year’s.
The malaise spread to the umpiring. At times, it was, well pedantic. Doubtlessly, the AFL will say the rules were correctly applied, but the question was whether they were sensibly applied. Two 50-metre penalties and two reversals for off-the-ball matters all worked in the Cats’ favour. They didn’t decide the contest, but they affected its shape.
The overture was note-perfect. Smith’s first two touches, both silky, formed part of a train of transition from defence, the second landing in the forward pocket on the chest of Tom Hawkins, who duly kicked the first goal of the match.
So this was how it would be. The Cats had the preponderance of possession, taking the ball forward twice as often as their opponents early, but the Hawks showed plenty of initiative when they had the chance and in the meantime silted up Geelong’s avenues to goal.
The Cats looked to have found a workaround of their own in the third quarter when they sent career defender Jack Henry forward to assist Hawkins. He kicked two goals, widening the margin to four, which in a low-scoring match looked to be plenty enough.
But the Hawks would have none of that, and ruled in the last quarter as the Cats had ruled in the first. In the end, it was a more typical Henry incursion that proved decisive. His interception at half-back triggered a breakaway dash in which he involved himself a second time before hand-balling to Jordan Clark in the goal square for the Cats’ only goal of the final term. It was enough, just.
The Cats are stuttering along. This was their second one-kick win in a row, to follow a first-round beating from Adelaide. They have serious firepower in reserve. Patrick Dangerfield, Jeremy Cameron and Garry Rohan will stiffen them and straighten them up. But it is a strange premiership campaign whose keynote is relief.
Hawthorn are men down, too – Jack Gunston for one – but are at a different stage on their journey. Arguably, the Cats took the spoils this day, but the Hawks took the moral points.
GIVEN THE BIRD
One of the MCG’s famous pigeons clearly had not updated himself on the game in 2021. He spent the first half-hour of the match pecking away in the centre circle, oblivious to the danger all around. Last year, he would have been safe enough in the central corridor. This year, he was both danger and distraction, so much that eventually the emergency umpire was dispatched to capture and re-nest him.
The AFL’s decision on season’s eve to introduce a medical sub continues to be vindicated. Geelong’s Frank Evans was forced out of the game in the second quarter and sub Charlie Constable made an immediate impact, eventually collecting 14 touches and a clever goal. In the third quarter, Shaun Higgins was also invalided out of the match because of a hamstring strain. If the Cats had been left two men down, it’s doubtful that they would have scrambled out of this.
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