AFL Round 20 – Geelong v Fremantle: Of camels and fate

You know you are on to a winner of a day when you pass a field of camels basking in the sunshine.

The humped creatures do not exactly fit in with the general scenery in south west Victoria, near Simpson. But as much as I wish the camels were the source of my journey down the hill Lavers Hill-Cobden Road, my object is a bunch of Tigers. With Simpson’s senior footballers at the top of the ladder and having a dream season after missing out on finals last year, they’ve been quick to swoop and secure the signatures of a chunk of their senior players ahead of September – wiping out the distraction of other clubs in higher leagues making overtures at their stars.

Catching the players during the second quarter of the reserves’ game, I get the usual instruction: “Just shoot from the waist up” to hide the mismatch of khakis and jeans being paired with the proud yellow and black club jumper.

Photo taken, it’s straight back to Camperdown, half an hour away, to get photos of the netball. The Magpies are fighting for a spot in the top five, but have lost a few crucial contests after conceding too many goals in opening quarters. A few nervous moments early. The third-placed Hamilton Kangaroos, the big improvers after not winning a game in their debut season in 2013, score the first two goals. Déjà vu? No, not for the Magpies, who are that transitional mix of experienced stars and truly exciting teenagers. They force the tide to turn their way with efficient passing and impressive finishing from the goalers. They lead it at quarter-time. As enthralling as the game is, my job today is as photographer, not just reporter, so I’ve got to keep moving.

It’s a 15-minute trip to Cobden Recreation Reserve, where the young Bombers’ A grade netballers are battling bravely against a breathtakingly good, experienced Koroit outfit. Photos for a quarter there, then around to the footy field to snap some shots of the senior footballers. They’ve scored 2.2 and kept second-placed Koroit scoreless so far. A good start for the Bombers who are just about on their last chance to keep their finals hopes alive. The Saints wrestle their way back into the contest, but the Bombers aren’t going to sit back and let this one slip away. They doggedly hang in there. They lost a group of experienced players after last year and had an atrocious run with injuries early on in the piece, but they’ve fought hard all season. The teenagers who have come up have made an impact. Finals may be beyond them this year, but the future is bright.

It’s back to Camperdown again for the senior footy – last job of the day. I get there early in the third quarter. The Magpies are just outside the five by a win and a couple of points of percentage, and they’re hosting Hamilton Kangaroos, who are on the same number of wins and competing for the same spot in the five. Fourth-placed Portland could drop out; they’ve got a tough run to finish the year and today take on ladder-leaders Warrnambool. The top side have only lost one game all year, by one point – interestingly, it was to the then bottom-placed Hamilton.

Camperdown leads it 79-21 when I get there. Sensational. A quick check of Twitter tells me the Magpies kicked eight goals to two in the second term. Brilliant. This is just the win the home side needed. With Portland trailing Warrnambool by a fair bit, a big win would launch the Magpies into the five for the first time this season, with only two rounds remaining. Going into the season with top-three ambitions, the Magpies lost a wealth of experience on the eve of the season. They’ve fielded a team whose average age is under 20 on a few occasions this season – a 24-year-old who brought up his 100th game last weekend is in their top handful of experienced players.

It seems a bit like they’re just marking time in the second half, but they hang on for a 10-goal win. It’s enough to secure fifth position for them. After losing the first five games of the year (they copped five of the top six teams from last year in the opening five rounds; they had finished fifth), they’re building momentum at the right time of the year. Their young guys have nearly a full season at the top level behind them now, they’re finding their place and growing in confidence. After fighting all season to break into the five, they’re there now; it’s their spot to defend.

I catch up with the netball coach – they won by a goal, they’re still in the hunt for finals – and the footy coach after the game. Interviews done, it’s off to Kardinia Park for the Cats and Dockers clash.

The hour-and-a-half trip is less than ideal after a day of driving around from ground to ground, but the prospect of what is sure to be an enthralling contest keeps me going. The beacon of the gorgeous, glowing ground draws me from the ring road to South Geelong. The light towers really are the best things ever. Weaving in and out of the suburban streets, I eventually stumble across ample parking at East Geelong’s home ground at Richmond Crescent. Ah, this takes me back. My first job in reporting (a whole of three years ago) was covering the Geelong and District Football League for the Geelong Advertiser. I’ve spent many a Saturday at this ground. It’s close enough to Kardinia Park that I used to be able to hear the cheers and sirens from the AFL while working at this ground. I’m really pleased with the find.

I make it just as the teams run out, and the crowd is steadily filling in. There’s a lot of noise and a buzz. No disrespect meant to other teams, but it’s not every day we get a genuine contender down at the Cattery. And, as people were constantly reminded during the week, we really, really don’t like the Dockers. It’s a different sort of rivalry to the one we have with the Hawks. The Hawks break our hearts, and we love nothing more than pulling off implausible wins against them, but there’s a fair bit of respect between the teams. Between Geelong and Fremantle, it’s more a grudge match. There’s niggling, there’s boundary pushing, there’s general “your mum wouldn’t be happy to see that” moments.

The crowd noise is phenomenal – particularly by usual Sleepy Hollow standards. Unfortunately, early on, it’s dominated by booing. This isn’t the usual Geelong way, but we really don’t like Freo. They had the audacity to beat us at our first home final at Kardinia Park. They stole that historic, won’t-be-repeated-in-100-years moment from us. Or we cost ourselves, but it’s easier to blame them. So it’s booing, and there’s lots of it, because the Dockers have plenty of opportunities early. But they miss, and miss again. It’s a tricky wind, or the crowd getting on their nerves. The fans will take that. Jimmy Bartel gets a free kick and Geelong gets the breakthrough. Mackie nails a trademark goal from about the 50-metre mark and the Geelong faithful are on their feet. The noise is thunderous. Freo has clearly been the better team early on, but the Cats find a way to be in front at the end of the quarter.

The free kicks keep rolling on for Geelong – some are there, some aren’t, others that can be paid are let go. It’s a roulette with the whistleblowers and even though Geelong leads the free kick count substantially at halftime, a quick opinion poll of the crowd would suggest the umpires weren’t doing enough. There’s holding, there’s unnecessary body contact, but it goes both ways.

At halftime, my sister Katherine has picked out a best on ground, but it’s neither a Cat nor a Docker: it’s a little girl from the Auskick. At the Gary Ablett Terrace end of the ground, Katherine notices a young girl standing apart from the action, dancing on the sideline. She pulls her shorts up to Steve Urkel proportions and dances, stomps, struts and stops. She screams at the crowd, at no one in particular. She runs to the fence, getting high-fives from the crowd. The poor parent goal umpire ushers her back onto the field. She runs down the boundary, hurdling over the witches hats. While the goal umpire at the other end has her camera out to take a photo, the young girl steals a fluoro behind post and starts riding it like a hobbyhorse. The umpire puts her camera away, sees what’s happening, is horrified, and chases after the girl. The girl goes to the boundary, screams some more, loses herself among her adoring fans at the fence, hurdles the witches hats once again, and sees her moment. The umpire has her camera out again. Now, the girl steals a behind post and a goal post, running off with one under each arm. The goal umpire realises belatedly again, and chases after her.

Katherine is in hysterics beside me. Eventually, the girl gets a possession. She has meandered over to the play, sees the ball on the ground, picks it up. Tucking it under her arm like she’d rather be playing NRL, she runs and runs. She doesn’t run to goal, though. Instead, she makes a beeline for the spot just beside the behind post and slams the ball on her foot for all she was worth. The most spectacular out-on-the-full kick of all time. The girl makes one last attempt for a behind post, but the goal umpire is onto her this time. The game is suddenly called to an end. The other matches continue around them, but I think the girl has thoroughly worn these officials out.

With stitches in our sides from laughing, we watch hostilities resume in the main game.

Pavlich is not having his greatest game of all time and shanks a kick terribly. Geelong pounces, swiftly releases through Motlop who runs up the guts, sets up Bartel, goal. When the Cats can move it, they move it breathtakingly well. Freo replies, but Motlop boots one through soon after – it’s the Cats by nearly three goals.

Fyfe gets Mackie high as the Cats defender has his head over the ball. He gets up groggily and is helped off. The contact was purely accidental, but try telling that to the partisan Cats crowd. While Geelong has its concussion sub activated, Freo have to make the full sub commitment, with McPharlin going off injured.

Harry Taylor is in rare form, seemingly nabbing absolutely everything going into the Dockers’ forward 50. At the final change, the Cats lead the scoreboard by 24 and the free kick count by 20. It is as uncomfortable as it is ridiculous. I reckon this season umpires have definitely been kind to Geelong – completely uncharted territory – but that is not the popular opinion among Cats fans. Or my family. So I bite my tongue.

But it’s a good lead and I wonder what I was so worried about heading into this game.

Then Fremantle reminds me. The Cats don’t look dangerous going forward but the Dockers have found another gear. They’re closing and closing. The Cats get one back. Then they’re closing again. I was calm before. I refuse to lose my cool. I try to enter my Zen-like state. The surface is calm, the face implacable. It is just a game. I am calm. I can accept defeat. But my jittery legs are dancing.

Pavlich has it. He misses. Breathe.

Katherine knows the time. She keeps updating us on how long is left. Two minutes. A minute and a half. A minute 17 and it’s in their attacking arc again.

GET IT OUT! We do, but Selwood gets caught as he tries to run through the middle of the ground. Freo launches it forward again, but our desperate defenders hold it up.

Come on, siren!

Rushed behind. Three points. Thirty-seven seconds.

We scramble it out, it goes out of bounds. Throw in. Fyfe gets to the ball and sends it to Sutcliffe, who hurriedly plays on and launches it forward for one last, desperate attempt.

With horror, Cats fans look on as Mundy gets onto the end of it. He’s 45 out on a 45 degree angle.

This is cruel, too cruel. Four seconds left. He’ll kick it after the siren. Fremantle hasn’t led since early in the first quarter. A goal after the siren and they’ll win it.

Of course they’ll get it. They’ll win. They’ll have beaten us again in the cruellest of ways. With a gloomy Cats’ mentality that has persisted even through all the years of glorious success, we accept this was the inevitable outcome.

The fateful kick is delayed as someone is sent off with the blood rule. Oh, let the torture be over.

The siren eventually sounds. This is it. But the fans won’t just stand by and watch. We do the only thing we can do.

A rumbling boo starts up somewhere in the Premiership Stand pocket. It picks up around the ground. Get in his head. Some of the Cats players on the ground lift their heads to look at the fans. Tommy Hawkins, channelling the spirit of a WWE wrestler (not the first time it has been done at this ground; see: Matty Scarlett c.2004), pumps his arms in the air, actively encouraging the crowd to make some noise.

It grows and rolls out like a storm cloud. Mundy begins his run up. We’re at the opposite end of the ground, so will have to rely on crowd reaction.

The booming boo rolls on, Mundy releases the kick. It’s close. I can’t tell which way it goes.

The boos are drowned out by a primal roar.

It’s missed!!! Just!

Un-be-lievable.

The Cats hold on by two points. We’ve done it again – another narrow win. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much you win by, just that you win. And the Cats are better at finding a way than anyone else in the competition.

We just need to keep doing for the rest of the year. Keep not losing, even if we really should.

Come on, Cattas…

 

About Susie Giese

Born into the worship of the mighty Hoops, Susie has turned to adopting a Zen-like state during games in recent years to preserve her heart. The Cats of 2015 have the ol' ticker a-racing, though!

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