ON the night of the 2020 grand final, Geelong coach Chris Scott began to assemble a wish list — draw a mud map — of a way to get over that last hurdle.
The Cats did not have the power to hold off a more seasoned Richmond in the final quarter of the final game of the year, but Scott already had a plan.
“Clearly I have allowed myself to dream a little bit about what he’d be like in our team, but it’s just not the right time for me to speculate because it’s going to take a lot of hard work and time with the coaches and senior players to work through how we might adjust our plan to play a bit better,” Scott said after the game.
The missing link in the Cats puzzle to whom Scott referred was Giant Jeremy Cameron — who has since changed clubs and become a Cat.
The decision to leave Patrick Dangerfield in the forward line in the last match was one most concentrated on in examining the Cats’ failure to make an impact when the biggest prize was at hand.
With the exciting Cameron on hand, Dangerfield can return to what he does best.
For some, 2020 was miserable; confined, isolated and exiled, players and coaches climbing walls while they slid down the ladder.
For others, it was an extended school camp; a concentrated time free from the distractions of the daily grind, a chance to bond and plot a path.
Sydney coach John Longmire believes it was beneficial in this way to his young Swans.
If Cameron’s shift has made Geelong stronger it has, equally, added further weight to the suggestion that the Giants are a luxury car broken by the 2019 grand final and cannibalised for parts by passers-by (as they have been since Year One).
It wasn’t just the hood ornament that was pilfered in the off season.
Cameron (Geelong), Zac Williams (Carlton), Aidan Corr (North Melbourne), Zac Langdon (West Coast), Jye Caldwell (Essendon) and Jackson Hately (Adelaide) all decided they wanted out at the end of the disappointing season.
It is hard to spin anything positive from the recent past for the western Sydney outfit, which has had an Icarus-like rise and fall, except to hope the return to home may check the decline that saw them finish outside the eight in 2020.
One loss they can and must turn around is in the contest. In 2020 they were uncharacteristically beaten around the ball.
“The biggest thing for us is we want to be closer to the 2019 Giants,” Cameron said recently. “We need to bounce back with our appetite, our contested method.
“We’d actually built up a really good brand, a really good DNA at our footy club over four or five years. That was the most disappointing thing.
“Our players feel that. They realise we let ourselves down.
“You’d normally go to most games and Giants supporters would walk away, win or lose, there’d be some inconsistency with our defence, but never on our contested stuff, we’d normally be around the mark.”
Brisbane hosted a grand final, but not the home side despite a season that saw the Lions flex their muscles and finish second on the ladder.
Beaten by the Cats in the preliminary final, the club is further strengthened in 2021 by the addition of Joe Daniher and Nakia Cockatoo, but the loss of Stefan Martin from the ruck and Alex Witherden from defence has placed pressure on those areas.
Port Adelaide finished the season on top of the ladder and were just six points shy of a chance to play for the premiership — the inaccurate Tigers pipping them in the preliminary.
“The opposition were fierce themselves. They’ve been the top side for a reason. They were never going to give it away. Our blokes gave it one hell of a shake,” Port coach Ken Hinkley said after the match.
“We learnt a lot. We learnt a lot this year. We said we were improving and coming and we didn’t quite get to where we wanted to go, but we gave it one hell of a shot and should be proud of that and they should learn from it.
“This is what happens in the game. You get these days where you get the harshest lessons but we know every prelim final you’re going to have to stand up the whole way through and we didn’t quite get there this week.”
The West Coast Eagles were overtaken by Collingwood, losing the elimination final by a single point at Perth Stadium in a homecoming that proved more permanent than they may have wished.
Having finished a credible fifth, coach Adam Simpson was emotional after the game.
“Every club has sacrificed a lot to put this show on the road,” Simpson said.
“Players are playing for half of their salary, we had to stand down a third of our staff and it’s been an emotional rollercoaster really – and it’s really disappointing that you don’t have anything to show for it.”
The most interesting team likely to make the eight this year might be St Kilda, a club who made advances in 2020 to make a first finals appearance in a very long time.
The Saints recruited well, picking up Brad Crouch as a free agent and securing key position depth by bringing in former Bomber Shaun McKernan, who will provide a target up forward and can chip in to ruck contests.
Collingwood finished eighth last year and clearly believe less is more, failing to pick up anyone in the off season but ushering Jaidyn Stephenson, Adam Treloar and Tom Phillips out the door.
The club has had a tumultuous off season and faces a new year without president Eddie McGuire, who departed mourning the injustice of his fate following years of failing to deal with racism problems.
For much of the country there is some optimism that teams will play at home in front of crowds who were denied the pleasure and pain of attending the footy live last season.
For Victorians in particular, the greatest wish must be to never see the MCG sit vacant on Grand Final day and even interstate fans must concede it was a terrible sight.
Fingers crossed 2021 is a better year for all.