It’s one of sport’s great myths that a team needs to suffer defeat and disappointment before it can enjoy success.
Sometimes bright eyes and unbridled enthusiasm is enough to carry a rapidly rising team to the top, as it did for the Western Bulldogs in 2016 and Richmond in 2017.
And just as often, a team that gets battered by real after real can find it hard to recover, the fear of further failure so overwhelming that the feeling of winning can’t properly register.
But for some teams, if all the circumstances are right, painful experience can be alchemised into glory. It can create a sense of urgency, making the stage familiar while they strive for something entirely unfamiliar.
This year, Geelong has been told it is now or never, the insinuation being the Cats’ best chances to claim a premiership with this group may have passed them by.
But you get the feeling the Cats have never seen it that way. For Geelong, forget the past and forget the future — there is no better time than now.
There’s been something more quantifiable about Geelong this season, brought about by their unique and exquisitely executed game style.
In previous seasons, even the ones that brought them within striking distance of grand final appearances, the Cats have lacked personality. Trying to pinpoint exactly what it was they did was more difficult than you might expect for a team that objectively good.
It will take you about five minutes to get a read on this Cats team. They are good at winning the ball, and they are better at keeping it. They are patient with the football, immaculately skilled, resolute at the back.
Then inside attacking 50, it’s Hollywood. Tom Hawkins, Gary Ablett and Patrick Dangerfield, ably supported by the supporting cast of Gary Rohan, Gryan Miers and Luke Dahlhaus.
In a breakthrough preliminary final win over Brisbane, every part of the Geelong machine was working as intended.
Indeed, if not for an off night in front of goal, this would have been over much earlier than it was. The Lions were more than gallant, but were faced with a much different proposition than in their famous qualifying final win over Richmond.
That night was all chaos, two teams that wanted to turn things up to 11 and wait to see whose speaker exploded first. It ended up suiting Brisbane down to the ground as they beat the Tigers at their own game.
But that’s not what Geelong is all about. Every time Brisbane tried to turn up the heat, the Cats casually took their jacket off.
In previous preliminary finals, that sort of pressure had proven too much for Geelong, but this time around it was able to call on the composure and assuredness that had characterised its entire 2020 season.
Cam Rayner has just bombed one from 60 to lift the roof of the Gabba? No matter, Ablett will stroll through a centre bounce stoppage and slot one right back.
Game up for grabs at the start of the second half? Just send defender Jack Henry forward to bang home the first goal of his career and set the Cats on their way.
In the end, a margin of 40 points didn’t flatter the Cats.
And with that, Geelong is back in a grand final. Somehow it’s been nine years since the Cats’ last appearance on the last day of the season, in what can only be considered a drought for a club that has owned lengthy periods of this century.
They will more than likely be underdogs up against the relentless force of the Tigers, but there is plenty to be positive about.
It’ll be such a treat to be able to watch Ablett have one last go at a grand final. Dangerfield, the force of nature he is, finally gets his defining moment. Good players like Mitch Duncan, Sam Menegola and Tom Stewart can become club greats.
And best of all, this grand final is going to be a fascinating battle of contrasting styles.
Richmond’s full-throttle motion against Geelong’s mastery of pace. Richmond’s art against Geelong’s science. Richmond’s fury against Geelong’s finesse.
But with the last major hurdle cleared, Geelong has earned its opportunity. The shots it wasted don’t matter now, nor does what happens next.
It’s been a hell of a road to get here, but at last the Cats have arrived. The timing may just be perfect.