Can Geelong Win The Premiership Without Tom Stewart?

Barring a medical miracle, Tom Stewart will miss the remainder of the 2021 season, nearly extinguishing Geelong’s hopes for the ultimate success this year.

The Cats have had to cope with a number of serious injuries to key personnel, dealing with the absences of Jeremy Cameron, Mitch Duncan and Patrick Dangerfield with relative ease.

Stewart, on the other hand, is the single most irreplaceable component of Geelong’s team.

The Cats are known for being so strong behind the ball and controlling possession, sucking the life out of the opposition and being able to transition when they have their opponents where they want them.

The 106-game defender is known for his intercepting and indeed, he’s the best at Geelong, averaging 3.1 intercept marks and 7.8 intercept possessions a game, ranked number one at the club. 

Stewart is the king of the cut-off at the club, but if that’s the consensus perception of his game, then many are underestimating just how important the 28-year-old is to the team.

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Geelong is clearly the worst intercepting team in the AFL, averaging just 61.1 per game. They’ve been a regular in the bottom four in this statistic for the last five years.

Sure, Stewart is important in the air, but the intercepting part of his game isn’t actually the most important factor in his role at the club.

A byproduct of the safe style of football played at Geelong is their protection of the ball, and they’re ranked a clear last in turnovers. Stewart himself averaged a career-high 24 disposals at an astonishing 84.8% disposal efficiency, to go along with a clear league-high 8.9 marks per game.

While it’s Stewart’s aerial work that wins praise, his offensive output has been stellar this season and is the aspect of his game the Cats miss the most.

Stewart’s kicking efficiency alone is 84.4% and he is the club leader for metres gained, averaging an elite 487.7 per match. 1.9 score launches a game is a career high, as are the 4 score involvements per game. 

Not only is he the premier option in the air, but he’s the most direct and efficient option the Cats have coming out of defence. While he is surrounded by safer ball users, Stewart takes the game on by foot and does it so well, which lets the likes of Smith and Tuohy run in waves out of defence and use their rangy styles to have better offensive impact.

It’s this multi-dimensional style of play that enables Stewart to keep flying under the radar in the attacking chains and has allowed him to be a two-time All-Australian to this point in his career, likely to be three in 2021.

Highlighting just how good Stewart is, we can dive a little deeper into Geelong’s offence.

For the year, the third-placed team has averaged 57.4 more disposals than their opponents, 20.6 more marks, 1.5 more contested marks, 7.5 more inside 50s, 4.1 more marks inside 50 and, despite ranking 13th by themselves in the statistic, they averaged 259.7 more metres gained than their opponents.

In the first 21 rounds of the season, the Cats also averaged 16.4 disposals per scoring shot.

In the last fortnight, since the injury was announced, the Cats have played St Kilda and Melbourne, sneaking over the line in the first game before completely capitulating in the final game of the season.

Over the course of these two games, Geelong has averaged 21 disposals per scoring shot, a near 30% increase on what they had been doing with Stewart.

Against the Demons, the type of opposition the Cats will come up against in the next month, they had just 19 more disposals and 19 more marks. Melbourne had 7 more inside 50s, equaled the marks inside 50s tally and quite remarkably, had 10 more contested marks than their opposition. 

The home team conceded 20 tackles inside 50, 11 more than usual, which placed their defensive players under immense pressure and caused a number of errors deep inside 50, resulting in direct scores from turnovers increasing. Stewart’s positioning and ball retention has been sorely missed.

Geelong won the metres gained statistic against St Kilda by just 63 and lost it by 512 metres against the Demons. Thriving with their ability to either counter-attack efficiently or flick the proverbial switch to work through a zone, without Stewart, the Cats have found it extremely difficult to be decisive with ball in hand and have struggled to be efficient in transition.

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With players like Lachie Henderson and Jack Henry in defence, Geelong’s coverage in the intercept game is perfectly adequate statistically. These two are averaging 12 intercepts per game alone, while the latter has been one of the team’s best players. 

Stewart’s absence, however, means that more one-on-ones are needing to be defended by the Cats, which eliminates their ability to peel off without their main man by their side. Henderson is a poor one-on-one player and requires the assistance of Henry and Jake Kolodjashnij to be undersized keys and to risk losing their direct matchup to help cover him at times.. Mark Blicavs will need to recapture his best form and play a major role.

They’ll need full functionality defensively, given the last fortnight’s worth of evidence we have of the transitional issues. The rebound is lacking the usual, springy bounce it has when they decide to take the game on and shifts the focus to requiring the midfield to take control and bully the opposition. That isn’t always successful in finals.

Make no mistake, the absence of Tom Stewart has derailed the natural momentum the Cats created for themselves.

We’re seduced by his defensive prowess, but it’s his career-best offensive output that has taken the Cats to the next level.

Geelong’s hopes of winning a 10th Premiership have rapidly diminished in the absence of Stewart and they’ll be banking on a minor miracle to get them back into favouritism.

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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