AFL Round 1: Ah, Cats, it’s good to have you back

Paul and I meet Dave and Heather, fresh from their engagement party the week before, just outside the Bunton Room. It’s about 80% full and we’ve got 10 minutes to fight our way through the crowd, get served, knock over a pot and then get a good vantage point before the season officially begins for us.

Woz texts and he’s on the top deck. That’s a long way up, Paul concedes. And if you know Paul like I do, then you’d know that he doesn’t do anything fast or punctually. I make the official call that we should fuel up from the near-empty Barassi Bar. There are gentle moans about mid-strength beers in plastic cups versus draft in glass. It should be a no brainer but I dig in and minutes later we’re perched on the barrier on the ground level with our kiddy cups next to a strangely deserted bar and enough space around us to swing the 07’ and 09’ premiership cups.

The game starts with a series of quick touches, taps, handballs and even the occasional kick. After what seems like months of Ablett Gold Coast innuendo and speculation it was mighty fine to finally have the game back and the little master in the hoops. It was a beautiful sight watching him cut a swathe through opposition teams. I’m trying to remain philosophical about his considered relocation to a place that peaked about the same time as Miami Vice did on TV.

I’ve come out in my Stevie J number 20 jumper tonight; but I’ d given jumper selection some thought. There were other options in the cupboard: the five (still too soon after Christmas feasting – it’s a bit small), the seven, the zero seven, the 11 (officially retired) the 15, (retired hurt, 2006) the 150 anniversary model or the silver training jumper with the long sleeves which doesn’t see much action because of the lack of hoops (seemed like a better buy at the time).

So I go with Stevie J in a show of faith but I’ve been concerned about him over summer. Waking in a cold sweat in the middle of the night I’ve feared that opposition’s had finally figured out the razzamattazz that is he. But he’s into it early, WB40-ing the rust in the old hip joints and alleviating my fears by getting on the end of a few touches.

Mooney knocks through the first of the night after some typically “Selwood” Selwood bustling through heavy traffic. Selwood’s straight back into it again at the next bounce. He goes all right, this kid. The only average game I can remember from him was the opening game of 2009 when he’d been knocked into round 2 a week early by a loose Hawthorn knee. And Bartel, still sporting his pre-season tan is in everything. It’s clear that Geelong’s big bodies haven’t been on the Jenny Craig over summer.

By quarter time I’d forecast the buzzwords for the following morning’s papers would feature phrases like “blowing out the cobwebs” and “just doing what they needed to do.”  And really, that’s all they did need to do.  We’ve learnt this the hard way; you can’t win a flag of substance in March.

Ablett nails a long bomb inside the first minute of the second, and then nearly goes back to the well a minute later. Prismall’s starting to get a fair bit of it and it’s then I realise that I miss him like I missed the unheralded Carl Steinfort when he was shipped off to Collingwood.

When I notice Prismall again he slides one just right of the goal post and the Don’s lead is out to three goals even. In the corresponding fixture of 2002 a lead of that size would have spelt imminent disaster, but this new model Geelong reduce that with goals to Hawkins, Johnson, Ablett then Hawkins again. The game ebbs and flows until Geelong eventually take a small lead into the sheds at the break.

‘Skinny’ Fletcher curls one through after a Haley’s comet-rare Enright error and the Don’s pinch the lead. Stanton dobs one, then Monfries from just inside the boundary. Zaharakis misses.  Woz has wandered down from the top deck and we’re chatting without concern when Howlett, in his first game, puts one through. It’s 23 points but none of us are really fazed.

When Neagle marks inside 50 and has a brain fade trying to play-on before being mown down, you sense Essendon missed the moment to pull the hammer and nails out of the tool bag. Forty seconds later James Kelly slots one and we laugh sensing that even in this newfound casual approach to life as a Geelong supporter, the Neagle brain snap could possibly have been a defining moment. I wonder – as he limps off the ground – whether it’s possible to limp with embarrassment?

Ling and Bartel round it out, Bartel with a long bomb from the 50. At the final change the lead’s pegged back to the solitary major. Yet somehow I sense it’s all over.

Selwood goals in the first minute of the final quarter.  When Mooney ends up in a vacant paddock we’re seven points clear.  Then Byrnes and Lonergan win the raffle in the square. Byrnes – who’s been good all night – collects the meat tray with another. Stevie J lands a special from just inside the boundary line, a snap around the body that makes me conclude that the razzamattazz is still a mystery. They haven’t got him pegged just yet.

Hille, who I’d been happy to see make his return, undoes his good work with a meaty charge on Bartel and the Bombers are officially a rabble when a nest of them spill a fly ball. Hille cops it from the crowd and Mooney skids through another that takes the lead out to 25 points. When Byrnes marks two metres out it’s shut the gate.

After the game it’s a no brainer: the Bunton Room with heavy beer in glass, even if it’s just for a little while, because it’s good to have the Cats back.

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