Bomber’s grand plan

Sunday October 4, 2009

Geelong’s victory over St Kilda in the 2009 AFL Grand Final confirmed the Cats as one of the greatest teams of all – a deserved mantle considering the dominance the side had displayed since 2007.

But the Cats very nearly ran out of lives on the way to 2009’s Holy Grail: a poor finish to the home-and-away season – by their own lofty standards – and question marks hanging over the fitness of a host of key players entering the finals had Geelong thrust into the unaccustomed role of underdog.

The Cats only lost four games all season; but 2009 would prove to be by far Geelong’s toughest test since the horror 2006 season when all that could go wrong, did go wrong. However, as history will forever show, the Cats rose above all to claim the Cup – a success that in part should be attributed to Bomber’s grand plan: a plan that began in Round 15 with a trip north to Brisbane.

Thompson needed to take a chance – like the Rebel Alliance sending Luke Skywalker into the Death Star, knowing he had but one unlikely shot with a photon torpedo to take out the evil Galactic Empire’s weapon of mass destruction – Thompson knew he had one chance to carry his wounded squadron to the Promised Land. He could see Geelong’s Premiership dreams beginning to fall apart at the seams under the weight of injury and fatigue.

His side had just fought – and lost – one of the greatest battles of all-time against St Kilda in Round 14. The thrilling loss to the Saints left the Cats in a world of hurt. Not only were they bruised and battered, Geelong’s pride had been dented – so Thompson took a chance: he rested most of the team’s stars for the following week’s trip to Brisbane.

Seven players missed the game: Gary Ablett, James Kelly, Cameron Ling, Andrew Mackie, Darren Milburn, Matthew Scarlett and Travis Varcoe; with Steve Johnson and Brad Ottens already out with long-term injury. Predictably, the Cats were flogged; and the doubters were starting to question if 2007’s flag would be all Thompson’s Cats would have to show for three years of brilliance.

Geelong’s bandwagon was fast becoming lighter; and the Gabba loss meant the first back-to-back losses since the fateful 2007 defeat to North Melbourne at Skilled Stadium in round five. History shows the Cats bounced back from that loss to crush Richmond by 157 points the following week – the first of 15 straight wins on the way to the 2007 Premiership.

There would be no instant revival in 2009 – the Cats limped to round 22, suffering defeats to Carlton and the Western Bulldogs along the way. The nature of those defeats would not have pleased Thompson: the Cats had been completely overrun in the second half in both games. Geelong’s problems were mounting: fitness was seemingly failing; the side was making 3-5 changes every week as Thompson looked to freshen his players before September; and there was still no sign of Ottens or an injury-free Johnson.

Round 22 – the last game before the finals – may have seemed like a regulation match against strugglers Fremantle; but it was much more than that to Geelong.

Looking back, this encounter was as important as any in Geelong’s quest to win the 2009 premiership. Returning to the fold was captain Tom Harley, James Kelly and arguably one of the most important links in the Cats’ premiership chain, Brad Ottens, who had not been seen since round two. Harley and Kelly played well; and Ottens did enough to suggest he could still have an impact come finals the following week.

Thompson’s last ditch effort to save the season had passed its first test – but the icing on the premiership cake was still missing. Paul Chapman and Steve Johnson were undoubtedly the most important players in the Geelong side: both capable of kicking big bags of goals and accumulating high numbers of possessions in the midfield; but both would have to enter the finals without any match practice and severe doubts over lingering injuries. Chapman’s annual hamstring twinge had kept him out of the last part of the season; while the diagnosis was much worse for Johnson.

The 2007 Norm Smith Medalist had taken little part in Geelong’s campaign after round 13 – a debilitating hip problem threatening to derail the magician’s season.

The Cats ran into a red-hot Bulldogs in the Qualifying final; but with Paul Chapman making a successful return, Geelong won the game; however, the Dogs did not capitalise on their opportunities. Despite being only one win away from another Grand Final, Geelong was still struggling to recapture its form of old and looked shaky heading into the prelims. Worryingly, Johnson was still not right, as footage from training at Kardinia Park showed the once-genius reduced to a cripple.

Thompson took another risk and sent the champion forward to Tasmania for key-hole surgery. Surely it was too late to save Johnson’s season? Having just had surgery, was it wise to throw an underdone player into the deep end against Collingwood in a prelim? The answer to that question was a resounding yes. Johnson not only played, he helped tear the Magpies apart.

Geelong looked something like the juggernaut it once was; and Thompson’s master plan – whether it was genius or an act of desperation, we may never know – had helped send the Cats into a third Grand Final in succession; and just one win from immortality.

Funnily enough, Geelong probably won this year’s decider for all the same reasons it lost last year’s to Hawthorn: capitalsing on opportunities. In 2008, the Cats had entered the Grand Final on the back of a dominant regular season. They had won fifteen games in succession by an average of 61 points.

The premiership seemed a matter of four quarters away. Geelong, however, failed to convert its nine more scoring shots and 19 more inside 50s into what mattered most: a victory. Hawthorn, on the other hand, looked for even the smallest of windows and climbed straight through, kicking a host of goals against the run of play. Basically, Geelong blew it.

In 2009 it was St Kilda who dominated but could not finish off the job. That is not to say the Cats did not deserve to win. Just as Hawthorn had done to them a year earlier, Geelong persevered, never throwing in the towel even when it seemed its opponent had strangled it to death. Perhaps the Hawks taught Thompson’s men a lesson in 2008; a lesson the Saints must heed if they, like Geelong, are to bounce back and gain retribution in 2010.

One thing is certain: the Hawks created a monster by beating Geelong in 2008. The Cats were hell-bent on retribution this year. Thompson now faces the task of getting his battered warriors up for one more crack in 2010.

If 2009 is anything to go by, he knows what he has to do to get his side there. Don’t expect Geelong to steamroll opponents like they have done in the past three years. But don’t jump off the bandwagon, like so many did this year; Thompson and the Cats may yet again descend into the heart of Melbourne in September and hit the target with a precision torpedo punt – just like Luke Skywalker.