In the first nail-biter, early in the 2006 season, the Dogs triumphed by just one point. The Cats returned fire by winning another thriller, securing a two-point victory later in the year.
I remember both matches as classics. The ball kept whizzing down the field at breakneck pace, the lead changed several times, and both teams played helter-skelter, almost joyful, footy. An epic battle between young guns, our Ryan Griffen versus the mop-topped Gary Ablett Junior, typified the tantalising match-ups that made these contests a delight to watch.
It looked like the start of an amazing rivalry between two clubs, who’d each languished for decades without a flag, and known their share of heartache.
The Dogs made the finals that year, blitzing Collingwood in the first week. The consensus was we'd arrived as an up and coming, serious contender. Geelong, in contrast, missed the finals - a disappointing result, seen as a waste of their immense potential, and another example of an enigmatic club with a frustrating inability to capitalise on the flair and at its disposal.
Fast forward, and many of the Cats’ 2006 line-up are now triple premiership heroes. Names like Bartel, Chapman, Corey and Johnson will resonate forever as Geelong legends. The team is still right in premiership contention again this year, playing an exciting, complete brand of football that even a parochial Dogs fan like myself loves to watch.
My memory told me that many of the 2006 Dogs were much younger than their decorated opponents who’ve gone on to achieve such glory. But when I look at the stats, it seems it wasn’t so. Surprisingly enough, we were actually two years older on average, quite a big difference in footy terms — the mean age skewed by the presence of our champion players, Grant, West, Johnson and Smith, who each played more than 300 games for the club.
Despite their brilliant careers, the ‘Fab Four’ have now exited the game without premiership medals. All except Brad Johnson had in fact departed from the 2006 squad even by the time of our next finals series in 2008. Brad captained the three Bulldog lineups who came ever so close in the years 2008-10 (but maybe it's significant we never beat Geelong in a final in that period, despite three attempts.)
I went into this trek down memory lane before last Saturday’s match, a reverie that started with Bob Murphy’s fantastic article in The Age this week. Bob wrote about nearing the end of your footy career and having to face the gaping hole that footy retirement would leave in your life.
As fans, no matter how disappointing the match, how sour the year, how bitter even a loss like our infamous collapse in the Preliminary Final against Adelaide in 1997, we always have another year, another new batch of kids to look forward to. Age and decreptitude don't affect our chance to get out there for another season, another shot at that premiership that for our club has been so elusive.
Bob's final eloquent paragraphs tell us what it’s like to know you’re getting near the end of your career, you’ve given it all you’ve got, but you’re not going to taste the ultimate success:
We keep moving forward, hurling ourselves from week to week, contest to contest, hoping, just hoping that one day we might be Cameron Ling – kicking a goal with his last kick in the game, to put the finishing touch on a third premiership, leaving the screams of Geelong fans to echo in his ears like the sound of the ocean in a sea shell.
His footballing death was the equivalent of a heart attack at the peak of orgasmic pleasure on a secluded Thailand beach at the age of 102. The reality for the rest of us is that we will be told, probably before we are ready to go. That is bound to happen even when all we want to do is play forever.
It was this rather melancholy frame of mind, about sliding doors and missed opportunities, that I took into Saturday night’s match. This time the Bulldog team really are the young underdogs, a good two years younger on average than the Cats.
Amazingly, we have 16 players out there who have played less than 50 matches. I understand that makes us younger even than the expansion ‘franchises’ (don’t get me started on that subject). Even in the four short weeks since we thrashed the Lions in round one, we have lost more than 500 games of experience from our forward line, with Higgins, Giansiracusa and Murphy all sidelined.
With the Bulldogs looking all at sea the last two weeks, and the calibre of the opposition, a shellacking was on the cards. Yet the players had other ideas. Their spirit and endeavour was unquestionable, even if their skills lagged behind.
Our style has been dour, grinding and slow-looking over the past few weeks, but there were moments of sheer exhilaration in the last quarter as they threw themselves recklessly into the contest, and were suddenly a chance to produce what would have been the boilover of the season. Like the 2006 Dogs and Cats, young guys like Jones, Smith, Roughead and Stringer looked like they didn't yet know what was possible, were still testing out and wondering how good they can be, and what the journey ahead will hold. We just have to hope that when they find out, Bob Murphy's still out there alongside them.