By Jon Pierik
August 11, 2020 — 12.05pm
Geelong veteran Tom Hawkins says the Cats’ suffocating defence has given them the confidence they need for another premiership tilt.
'Defence first': Suffocating Cats primed for premiership tilt
Two-time premiership star Hawkins was instrumental in the Cats’ 59-point dismantling of St Kilda at the Gabba on Monday night, booting five goals and creating havoc alongside Gary Rohan (four goals) and midfielder Sam Menegola, the latter pushing for All-Australian selection. The victory set up a Friday-night blockbuster against competition leaders Port Adelaide at Metricon Stadium.
The Saints had been the league’s highest-scoring team but managed only four goals, none after half-time. It was a stunning performance for many but close observers have been praising the Cats’ defence, which has conceded less than 60 points in seven of their past eight matches. Only West Coast (73) had broken through the 60-point barrier in recent times.
Lachie Henderson, who had appeared out of favour earlier in the season, held Max King in check on Monday, while Mark O’Connor shut down Dan Butler, arguably the league’s most dominant small forward. Tom Stewart, Mark Blicavs, Jed Bews and Harry Taylor were typically steady on a night the Saints failed to score more than 70 points for the first time since round three.
Hawkins, set to have his manager Tom Petroro re-open contract negotiations with the club, said on Tuesday the Cats took immense pride in their defensive work.
“We believe that we are a defence-first side. At Geelong, we pride ourselves on that. When we don’t play well, it often comes back to how well we didn’t play defensively,” he said.
“We have got some key personnel down there doing a fantastic job. Probably some of our unsung heroes down there include Jed Bews, Mark O’Connor, I thought did an outstanding job on Dan Butler … they are doing a stellar job. Harry Taylor was outstanding on Max King. They are a real collective unit and we have a lot of players that can play through there.”
What makes this side intimidating, and has raised hopes of a breakthrough flag for Patrick Dangerfield, is that they also know how to score, as shown in that they boast the second-best percentage in the league (130.7), behind only the Power (142.7). That they had less inside 50s than the Saints highlighted their efficiency.
The Cats’ game plan appears set – a controlled build-up across half-back before picking apart their opponents through the midfield and into attacking 50.
“It [Monday night] was probably our most balanced performance of the year, I think. I thought we attacked really well, we controlled the footy and entered on our terms inside our forward half, at least inside our forward 50,” Hawkins said.
“Defensively, I thought we were outstanding as well. Our ability to be able to press up on St Kilda and try and turn the ball over early on in their attacking chain, was really good. It was a really even performance from us.”
Ahead of the Power clash, Hawkins and his teammates look forward to reuniting with their families after a six-week absence. The wives, partners and families emerge from quarantine on Thursday. Then comes the match of the round, against opponents boasting flair and who have the benefit of an extra two days’ break.
“They are a really high-pressured side. We will have to be able to manage the pressure they they put on us, to be able to find options and build the ball up,” Hawkins said.
Coach Chris Scott said Esava Ratugolea was likely to return against the Power, having been rested on Monday, while Nakia Cockatoo, seeking his first senior match since 2018, was one of “eight to 10” in the mix. The Cats have had four games in 14 days.
“Our staff have done a really good job with macro planning. The micro was always going to be flexible and think on our toes,” Scott said.
“I’m proud of the way the football club handled it, both mentally and physically, especially with the quality of the opposition too – and Port are the best team in the competition at the moment.”
Jon Pierik is cricket writer for The Age. He also covers AFL and has won awards for his cricket and basketball writing.