ESSENDON 17.8 (110)
GEELONG 13.15 (93)
GOALS: Essendon - Daniher 5, McDonald-Tipungwuti 3, Stewart 3, Fantasia 3, Green 2, Hooker. Geelong - Hawkins 4, Menzel 2, Dangerfield 2, Horlin-Smith, Parsons, Motlop, Stewart, Smith.
BEST: Essendon - Daniher, Merrett, Zaharakis, Hurley, Fantasia, McDonald-Tipungwuti, Stewart, Kelly. Geelong: Dangerfield, Hawkins, Taylor, Menegola, Selwood
UMPIRES: Justin Schmitt, Shane McInerney, Leigh Fisher.
CROWD: 57,173 at MCG.
In football, as in life, reputations count. At three-quarter-time on Saturday night at the MCG, Essendon led Geelong by 40 points. Only six times in 120 years of VFL/AFL football had a team trailed by 40 or more at the final change and won.
But the Bombers and Cats have reputations. The Dons have had recent fadeouts against Melbourne and Fremantle. Geelong have been freakishly fast finishers since the start of last year, and had already secured one highly improbable victory this year, against North Melbourne in round two.
For three quarters the Cats had battled in vain to kick consecutive goals. Then in the space of 11 minutes at the start of the final quarter they kicked four in a row. Suddenly those reputations seemed very important.
Orazio Fantasia fleetingly stemmed the bleeding by kicking the next one for the Dons, but majors to James Parsons and Zac Smith soon followed for Geelong. Suddenly the margin was just 10 points, and time-on hadn't even been reached.
The Cats were running harder. Essendon needed something desperately, and they found it when Joe Daniher banged home his fifth goal of the night, this one on the run from 50 metres. Still Geelong peppered. Tom Hawkins had kicked four for the night but hit the post. George Horlin-Smith, Steven Motlop and Nakia Cockatoo had chances too, but none of them could finish.
And so as Cat Rhys Stanley was assisted off the ground by trainers with a suspected knee injury, the Dons raced down the other end and Fantasia finally sealed the deal by kicking his third of the night. It shouldn't have been that hard, but the Dons had advanced to 4-4 with a 17-point win.
Doubts about Geelong's bona fides as a premiership contender had remained even after the Cats went 5-0 to start the season, and despite their late charge those concerns seem entirely justified.
Just as they did around the same time last year, the Cats are repeatedly losing games to teams outside the top eight. Collingwood, Gold Coast and now Essendon can all claim to have beaten the riddle that is Geelong, meaning the Cats have lost three in a row for the first time in 11 years.
Coming off two defeats in a row you might have thought Geelong would bring abundant intensity early in the game. You'd have thought wrong. The Cats laid just five tackles to quarter-time, in contrast to Essendon's 22, and the half-time tally of 52-13 was similarly damning.
With such little pressure the Dons were allowed easy passage, and the impact was laid bare on the scoreboard. The Bombers no longer looked like a team feeling the post-Anzac Day pinch. Their ball use was crisp, even when unconventional, as was the case for their second goal, which came about after a soccer from Fantasia was in turn toe-poked through by Daniher, a move more likely to be seen at the Nou Camp that at the MCG.
Wth David Zaharakis, Zach Merrett and 300-gamer James Kelly influential, the margin was 27 points at the first change after James Stewart marked his first senior game as a Bomber with a goal on the siren, the second of three majors he would kick to half-time.
As expected Geelong lifted a notch after quarter-time. But they couldn't make any significant inroads before Daniher kicked the quarter's first goal after more than 11 minutes. After a quiet start to the game Patrick Dangerfield finally started to click into gear, with a thrilling dash setting up Daniel Menzel for the Cats' second goal of the night.
But the Dons got a quick response through Stewart. It became a recurring theme for Geelong, as the margin hovered around 30 points for a lengthy stretch either side of half-time. Yet again too much was left to too few, with Motlop, Stanley and Mark Blicavs among the experienced players in the hoops not having much say in the game.
Essendon had left the door slightly ajar though, and very nearly paid. But it would have been a steal for the Cats, because the Dons were clearly the better side on the night.