TONIGHT GEELONG held off a desperate late charge by the Bombers to reach their first preliminary final since 1995, hanging on by just ten points. Despite dominating the entire match, Geelong were unable to complete shake the Bombers, but held a five and a bit goal lead early in the final quarter, courtesy of a Paul Chapman torpedo from well outside 50m. 53,356 fans packed the MCG, many of them (but not this correspondent) getting wet in the last term.
Following on from their victory over the Bombers in Round 9, Geelong was too good almost all over the ground. Before a ball was bounced, Essendon lost the services of Adam McPhee, replaced by the veteran Mark Mercuri. It was to be Mercuri's last ever AFL game.
Essendon started the game fairly well but the Cats soon took over. The Bombers did not manage a single goal in the first quarter, while the Cats had just the two and a disappointing five behinds.
It was more of the same in the second quarter, Geelong booting three more goals to the Bombers' one - courtesy of Matthew Lloyd, who took the mark of the day. In the first half Essendon suffered two crucial injuries; utility Ted Richards being carried from the field, taking no further part in the game, and to full back Dustin Fletcher. Fletcher spent some time off the field but later returned.
Ben Graham kicked a lovely long bomb from outside fifty and marked very well. This form would continue into the next quarter. Cameron Mooney battled well all over the ground. Henry Playfair, after spending the bulk of the season in attack, found himself switching from the bench to the forward line, and relieving in the ruck.
At the half time break Geelong fans milled over lost opportunities. The Cats dominated the game, all over the ground, and did have a good run of luck and free kicks. But they did make some mistakes and probably should have been further in front. During the quarter the retiring Sean 'Not A' Wellman injured his arm, taking no further part in what was also his final game.
Gary Ablett was the playmaker of the half, and the story of the match. After kicking the opening goal, Ablett had a hand in most of Geelong's next four goals. Charlie Gardiner, coming into the team to replace Kent Kingsley, made the most of his opportunity. David Haynes equally presented very well. In the middle, Darren Milburn, Joel Corey and James Bartel contributed very well.
The third quarter started off with the Cats once more on top. The Bombers did manage to snag a few goals, however. Jason Johnson kicked two while Marc Bullen kicked one. At Geelong's end, Steve Johnson kicked a good goal from a set shot, Henry Playfair kicked one from a tight angle, even Captain Steven King got into the act. Geelong, at one stage, lead by forty-three points.
Despite missing Brenton Sanderson, Geelong's backline held up very well. And up forward, after missing the suspended Kent Kingsley, the forward line was effective in the conditions. The loss of these two allowed the inclusion of Corey Enright, playing his first game since having his jaw broken in Round 18, and Gardiner.
In the final term Geelong fans awaiting the fat lady's tune. It looked like it would come early, a Paul Chapman torpedo from outside fifty making the lead over thirty points. But two goals to Matthew Lloyd, one from a dubious decision, and misses in front of goal by the Cats gave the Bombers a sniff. Former Cat Justin Murphy kicked a long goal from outside fifty to make the lead just twenty points. Soon after, it was another son of a gun, Jobe Watson, soccering a goal to make the margin just thirteen.
The architects of the fightback were the golden boy, James Hird, and Adam Ramanauskas. When the ball landed in the arms of James Hird, even though he was on his 'wrong side' and heading for the boundary line, Geelong fans groaned. Their fears were confirmed, Hird kicking a 'checkside' goal to put his Bombers to within two goals. But the Cats would hold on, missing another couple shots at goal for the quarter but emerging with a very hard fought, and memorable, ten point victory.
Steven King, who appeared to suffer a nasty injury and possible break to his nose, had to leave the field temporarily in the final quarter. Coincidentally this was when the Bomber fightback really gained momentum. The rain also coincided with the Essendon revival, after staying away all game.
Freshly reconfirmed All-Australian full back Matthew Scarlett held Matthew Lloyd for most of the game, besides his two marks leading to goals and an unfortunate free kick. David Wojcinski played very well off a half back, as did Darren Milburn. Ben Graham had a good middle patch but faded away in the final term.
Best for the Cats were definitely Ablett, Milburn, Corey, Scarlett, Bartel and Haynes. Geelong fans sung the song with gusto after the final siren, and happily walked back to their cars/trains in light drizzle, secure in the knowledge that their side had done what most through unthinkable after the round two loss to Carlton: their beloved Cats are playing off in a Preliminary Final, this season!
Next Saturday night, at the same venue, Geelong take on triple reigning premiers the Brisbane Lions. Geelong of course defeated the full strength Lions by twenty-seven points at Skilled Stadium back in round thirteen, which should give the young team some confidence. It is sure to be another hard fought affair, hopefully played out in similar conditions to tonight, which should suit the Cats more so than their opponents. Win or lose, this has been a great season for the Cats, one which can be used as a launching pad for 2005 and beyond. GO CATS!
GEELONG 2.5 5.8 9.11 10.14 (74) DEFEATED
GOALS: GEELONG: Haynes, Chapman 2, King, Graham, Riccardi,
S Johnson, Playfair, Ablett 1
CARRRRN THE MIGHTY CATS!!! - 'Lance' from Lara
GARY ABLETT, PUMPED UP AFTER KICKING GEELONG'S OPENING GOAL
THE OLD AND THE NEW; FORMER SKIPPER AND CURRENT SKIPPER, BEN GRAHAM AND STEVEN KING, EMBRACE AFTER A LONG GRAHAM GOAL
AGAIN ONE OF GEELONG'S BEST, JOEL COREY