How Geelong Can Cover For Tom Stewart

The repercussions for Tom Stewart’s hit on Richmond’s Dion Prestia will be felt for a while at the Geelong Football Club.

A team that, under coach Chris Scott, has been deliberately set up for the second-half of the season to combine the defensive schemes of previous campaigns with the much-improved offensive game shown in the first half of the year, is now without its single biggest asset for a considerable amount of time.

Many know that the 29-year-old is an important cog to the Geelong machine, but perhaps we underrate just how good Stewart is as a player, simply because of his position.

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Stewart sets the standards for Geelong

The offensive development at the Cats this season has completely transformed them from a perennial finalist, into a genuine premiership threat.

After 15 rounds in 2022, Geelong is averaging 90.43 points per game, up from 83.86 in 2021 while maintaining the defensive integrity that has held the club in such great stead for over a decade.

While it might not be the first aspect of his game that comes to mind, Stewart has been superb as part of this shift in focus, where counter-attacking has been demanded of the Geelong defence and his contribution has been irreplaceable.

The Cats are averaging their most metres gained per game by nearly 200 metres, since the statistic was first recorded in 2015. Unsurprisingly, this coincides with Stewart’s clear career-high in the category, which has him ranked 13th in the league.

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It’s not just the yardage he gets with his disposals though. Stewart’s kicking efficiency sits at 85.8%, which is astonishing when you consider the aggressiveness of his ball use in 2022, as well as the fact he is averaging 19 kicks per game.

We laud his intercepting and overall defensive work, which has gone to a new level this season as well, but the former mature-age recruit holds much more than just the defensive burden in this team. 

While the likes of Mitch Duncan and Isaac Smith feature consistently in the defensive half and use their work rate to drive the ball forward, Stewart consistently positions himself around the opposition’s main key forward and counter-attacks from extremely deep.

This has remained consistent in 2022 but consider the numbers that have him rated elite for his position – he’s averaging 4.6 score involvements and 2.7 score launches a game.

In score involvements, Stewart only ranks behind Sam Docherty, Bailey Dale and Caleb Daniel positionally, while he is far and away ahead of anyone else for score launches. 

These players are offensive-minded rebounders. No one carries the weight of their defence like the Cat and provides such offensive influence. Tom Stewart's career-high average of 2.1 inside 50s just highlights his directness and impact on attacking plays.

Stats Insider's 2022 Geelong Predictions

Stage of AFL 2022 SeasonProbabilityOdds via Neds
To win the Premiership
13.2%
$6.50
To make the Grand Final
28.1%
$3
To finish in the top four
66.4%
$1.30
To finish in the top eight
92.7%
$1.03

RELATED: AFL 2022 Premiership Probabilities

The Cats rely on Stewart more than anyone

It’s not as if Geelong is unstoppable with Stewart in the team, but he makes life a lot easier when he’s patrolling the defensive 50.

The sample size without him isn’t huge – they won in Round 4 this season against Brisbane, went 2-3 to finish 2021 in his absence and in 2020, they went 2-1. 

When they’ve won, it’s been quite convincing, but a few of those losses have been a demolition job undertaken by formidable opponents who could’ve inflicted greater punishment with more efficient play. The 2021 AFLfinals series felt particularly damning.

This season though, given the power and strength in Geelong’s two-way football, it’s going to take far more to cover the three-time All-Australian.

We discussed the incredible numbers offensively but even more so, this is simply a career-best season for Stewart.

He’s averaging highs in a heap of different statistical categories. Disposals, inside 50s, disposal efficiency, contested possessions, intercept possessions, one-on-one loss percentage – he even won a hitout against Port Adelaide in Round 10!

Stewart has had career-best performances in almost every major category in single games this season too and his influence matches the statistical output.

We needn’t look much further than Geelong's game against Richmond itself, after the much-maligned incident.

Stewart had 29 disposals, 6 marks, 737 metres gained and operated at 82.8% disposal efficiency. He had a career-high 13 contested possessions, 5 score involvements, 3 inside 50s and another career-high 17 intercept possessions.

With the game on the line, Stewart took match-saving marks, threw his body in at the contest to extract the ball and was clean under pressure. He took the ball up onto the wing during the second and fourth quarters and created scoring opportunities for his teammates.

The Cats’ next captain may have been involved in an incident taking out the opposition’s best midfielder, but he ensured that the lasting impact he had on his team was the win.

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How can Geelong cover for Tom Stewart?

Here’s where it gets a little tricky because, as previously mentioned, Stewart has been too influential on both sides of the ball to cover with one particular player.

Geelong has to be able to replace intercepting, strong defensive positioning and clean, aggressive ball use in one hit, as well as the versatility to lockdown on an opposition player.

There aren’t many players in the league that have these traits, perhaps Richmond’s Nick Vlastuin is the closest, and it makes Stewart irreplaceable.

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The issue here is that the Cats have set themselves up so nicely everywhere else, that any change will take adapting to.

They can’t take Mark Blicavs out of his role through the middle on a permanent basis. Perhaps situationally he can fill a gap, but his desire to win the ball more than anything has been a huge lift.

Tom Atkins too, has been a revelation through the midfield and offers an even stronger tackling and extracting option than the man he is replacing, Brandan Parfitt.

Zach Tuohy is having a career-best season higher up the ground, as a purely offensive-minded player, but his ball use is the closest thing Geelong has to covering for Stewart. There’s risk in taking a veteran out of a comfortable role.

Mark O’Connor has the height and ability to fulfil a similar role to Stewart. He’s supremely underrated as a member of the Cats team and astonishingly, hasn’t lost a one-on-one contest this season. Perhaps he’s best suited to staying as a lockdown option.

Ultimately, it will come down to players needing to step up.

Jack Henry has had an interrupted 2022 but it never started particularly well. Intercepting is what Henry does best, although his defensive work became more important in 2021. He has to recapture some form.

Zach Guthrie has been maligned from the outside and been an inconsistent member of the team, but has had some continuity in 2022 and his reading of the play has shone through.

The younger Guthrie has used his frame to improve his intercept marking considerably, he isn’t afraid to lay a tackle and has held his own when caught one-out, but his ball use is suspect and he’s a particularly uncontested player.

Then, there’s young Nick Stevens who has lacked regular playing time recently but has performed well at VFL level as a likely, intercepting type.

MORE: Geelong vs North Melbourne Round 16 AFL Predictions

Will Geelong keep winning without Stewart?

While Geelong plays North Melbourne this week, games against Melbourne and Carlton are going to be where the absence of Stewart is felt greatly.

Replacing the defensive work of their star is going to be most difficult. The intercepting will be down to Henry and Guthrie, while Jed Bews and O’Connor will help lockdown. Duncan, Tuohy, Smith and potentially Shaun Higginswill all be across half-back to maximise their aggressive and elite ball use to help with counter-attacks.

But the best teams in the AFL aren’t solely reliant on one player and can cover absences, no matter how vital the player is to their team.

Tom Stewart might be the league’s most valuable player, but this Geelong team is built differently in 2022.

The repercussions of his hit against Richmond will be felt, but it’s up to the Cats to limit the damage.

One senses that this version of Geelong will be able to fight through.

{# PRE-MATCH AFL_2022_16_GEE_NME #}

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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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