It’s September at the MCG.
The opposition gets away to a flier, kicks five goals clear in the early part of the second quarter. For the West Coast faithful, confidence is starting to wane.
But then the Eagles respond and lead by a few points at three-quarter time. The mood is expectant.
Even when Geelong kick the first two goals of the last quarter there is hope. The Eagles faithful have seen this before – about 12 months earlier in the great grand final victory against Collingwood.
Unfortunately, in this instance, that’s where the sense of de javu was extinguished. Where the Eagles surged against Collingwood to win the 2018 premiership, they could not find a way to navigate past the Cats.
Senior Geelong players like Joel Selwood, Tom Hawkins and Cam Guthrie steeled themselves for the contest and did not allow the Eagles to kick back into life. Combined with champion midfielder Patrick Dangerfield, who had been relatively quiet until the last change, the Cats had the answers, endured and advanced to the preliminary final.
Dangerfield almost single-handedly saw the Cats through the threatening Eagles with a masterful final 30 minutes, imposing himself on the game with a midfield masterclass.
The Eagles were also de-stabilised in the lead-up, having Willie Rioli ruled unavailable as ASADA and the AFL launched an enquiry into allegations that he tampered with a urine sample taken a couple of weeks earlier.
When the travelling party arrived at the team hotel late on the Wednesday night preceding the Friday evening fixture, an AFL official was waiting to deliver the news. As well as the club and the players handled that situation, it surely had an impact on this performance.
It wasn’t just the loss of Rioli, who left the team hotel the next day, but the distraction of the news and the subsequent energy spent around the issue. Coaching staff and players did their best to quarantine the matter to those directly involved, but it was deflating experience.
As a result of Rioli being unavailable, young forward Jack Petruccelle, who had played in a losing WAFL semi-final on the Sunday, was rushed to Melbourne and eventually selected to play his first senior final.
He would give a solid account of himself, particularly in the middle quarters when the Eagles challenged strongly.
Geelong, who finished as minor premiers, received a lot of flak for their qualifying final defeat at the hands of Collingwood and it was not surprising that they responded so strongly at the start of the game.
They opened with great intensity and ferocity – as one would expect in finals football – and the Eagles struggled to get any system flowing in the first 40 minutes.
But slowly the wheel started to turn. The Eagles began to establish a midfield presence, wingman Andrew Gaff, Elliot Yeo and Luke Shuey working their way into the game as they enjoyed the presence of Nic Naitanui.
In addition Jack Darling was offering a target deep in attack, Josh Kennedy was threatening and Petruccelle and Liam Ryan were working nicely in tandem with the big targets.
Down back the defensive unit had settled after an inauspicious start; Jackson Nelson was doing a good job on champion Cat Gary Ablett, while Brad Sheppard and Shannon Hurn were also important. Lewis Jetta was providing his trademark run and precision ball use, generating outstanding transition from defence to attack.
When Gaff, who had kicked one goal all season, nailed consecutive majors in the space of two minutes in the third quarter, the pendulum had swung and the Eagles were poised to advance to another preliminary final.
Unfortunately, the three-quarter time siren gave Geelong the opportunity to take a collective breath and their early assault in the last quarter enabled them to power to a commanding 20-point victory.
The Eagles reign as AFL premiers had ended. At least for now.
First Semi Final
Friday, September 13
Geelong 5.2 7.3 9.9 13.10 88
West Coast Eagles 1.1 5.5 10.7 10.8 68
Goals – Geelong: Hawkins 4; Ratugolea 3; Kelly 2; Bews, J Selwood, Dahlhaus, Atkins. West Coast Eagles: Darling 3; Gaff 2; Masten, Kennedy, Petruccelle, Ryan, Hickey.