What Makes Geelong So Damn Good At Kardinia Park?
In modern day AFL football, every little bit counts. And Geelong knows that better than most teams.
For the Cats last Friday night, it was the few more seconds left on the clock as they mounted one last desperate attack in order to pinch a game they trailed by one point to the Western Bulldogs.
It was the extra levels of commitment of skipper Joel Selwood as he dived full length at a ground ball and smashed it forward. It was the sure disposal of wingman Isaac Smith as he got his hands on the football. And it was the uncanny accuracy shooting for goal of Gary Rohan as he ended up with the kick to win the game after the siren.
But the biggest edge Geelong had as it snatched victory from the jaws of defeat had been a constant over the whole game. Simply, it was the ground on which it was playing.
We talk about fortresses when strong teams seem even more invincible on their home grounds, but surely football has never known as pronounced a home ground advantage as the Cats have enjoyed at Kardinia Park, more recently known as GMHBA Stadium, over the past 15 or so seasons.
Footy pundits have long since given up quoting the numbers, they’re just accepted as a given. But they become more staggering by the season.
Geelong famously lost at home to North Melbourne early in 2007, what become its “line in the sand” moment, the Cats launching a blistering assault on a hapless Richmond at Docklands the following week to win by 157 points, and from then never looking back.
Since then, in a golden era which has delivered three premierships, Geelong has played in five grand finals and no fewer than 10 preliminary finals. None of those, obviously, have been played at its own ground. But it has sure played a major role in getting to that stage.
Since that Round 5 2007 loss to the Roos, the Cats have played at Kardinia Park 108 times. They’ve won on 97 of those occasions, and lost just 11. Yep, not even a dozen. A winning strike rate of 89.9%. In a competition which is more even across the board than it has ever been, that borders on incredible.
And before Geelong fans start getting annoyed, let me stress I say good luck to them. I don’t think for a moment it’s an unfair advantage.
It’s their geographic territory, after all. And unlike the two WA and SA teams at Optus Stadium or Adelaide Oval, or Brisbane at the Gabba, the Cats still give up a couple of “home” games to the MCG or Marvel Stadium.
Fewer, though, since the refurbishment of Kardinia Park, Geelong’s quota there having risen from seven or eight to nine games. And that single extra appearance may be another little bit counting over this or the next few seasons.
What are the factors which have made it so impenetrable for away teams? Obviously, relative unfamiliarity, no away team ever playing there more than once per season. But the dimensions play a part, too.
Kardinia Park is only just the longest of the grounds used regularly for AFL football, at 167 metres goal-to-goal only one metre longer than Adelaide Oval, two metres more than Optus Stadium, and five metres longer than the MCG, Giants Stadium or Blundstone Arena.
But it is significantly narrower than all other venues. At just 112 metres wing-to-wing, the Cattery is 27 metres skinnier than the MCG, 25 and 24 metres narrower than the Gabba or SCG, 18 metres for Perth, 16.5 for Marvel Stadium and 10 for Adelaide.
That near 30 metres difference to the MCG is as good as one less kick for sides trying to switch the play side-to-side to create space. No wonder away teams often seem to find themselves kicking the ball out-on-the-full more than usual when they play the Cats away.
Geelong’s tremendous defensive qualities already make it hard for opponents to take a direct route to goal. And just that much harder again when they’re playing at GMHBA Stadium, the switch more difficult, the boundary line inhibiting, and often, seemingly, just no space in which to work.
That Cats have been a great side anyway for 15 years, of course, whether at home or pretty much anywhere else. And it’s clearly not just a question of chicken or the egg. But their quality as a team so often makes an already seemingly backs-to-the-wall mission for visitors nigh on impossible.
Who’s been able to break through? Sydney is responsible for four of those 11 Geelong defeats, three times in a row no less between 2016-18. Fremantle famously upset the Cats in the 2013 qualifying final, the Dockers doing it again in 2015, the one occasion since 2007 Geelong has missed finals, losing three games at home in the process.
But it’s been a fruitless exercise for everyone else, many opponents seemingly beaten psychologically before they even run out against the Cats on their own turf.
Consider how a side as capable as West Coast simply turned it up at Kardinia Park early this season, booting three of the first four goals then promptly conceding 13 goals in a row, smashed by 97 points as the Cats effectively danced around witches hats.
In those 97 wins from 108 starts over the 15-year period in question, Geelong has 31 times won by a minimum 10 goals. Indeed it has won by more than 100 points eight times.
That’s some sort of dominance. It counts for lots of percentage when the Cats beat up on teams who don’t have the self-belief. And it may well count for the difference between victory and defeat when they’re in as tight a spot as against the Bulldogs last Friday night.
*You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at footyology.com.au
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