Geelong looked like it had found the secret to unpicking West Coast but fell victim to a powerful second half fightback from the premiership favourites, who won a Saturday night thriller at Optus Stadium by nine points.
The Cats built a 22-point lead halfway through the second quarter, taking away the Eagles’ marking game with a high-pressure assault that had them poised for a memorable win.
But the Eagles proved they are on another level, kicking four of the last five goals to win 11.7 (73) to 10.4 (64) in a classic clash that was sealed by champion forward Josh Kennedy in the last two minutes.
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The 2018 premiers moved equal on points with fourth-placed St Kilda, winning their fifth straight match as they build fearsome form during an extended run at home.
Ruckman Nic Naitanui was sublime at stoppages, setting up midfielders Luke Shuey and former Cat Tim Kelly with his vast array of artistic taps.
Kelly and the Cats
The reason West Coast chased Tim Kelly so hard was encapsulated at the opening bounce in the star midfielder’s first game against his former club.
Nic Naitanui won the tap down to captain Luke Shuey, who handballed to Kelly on the burst, with the 26-year-old sending the ball deep to Josh Kennedy for the opening goal.
It was the new Eagles’ midfield at its best, and it all happened in 12 seconds.
The Cats know as well as anyone how dangerous Kelly can be, and there was clearly still great respect between the clearance specialist and his former teammates.
Kelly played a crucial role in ending West Coast’s 2019 season as one of the Cats’ stars, kicking two goals in last year’s semi-final victory.
He was among West Coast’s best on Saturday night with 23 possessions and five clearances, with his clean handling in traffic a clear sign he is on top of his game right now.
Was that the blueprint to strangle slick Eagles?
The Cats showed they knew how to beat the Eagles. They just didn’t maintain the pressure for long enough.
West Coast averaged an AFL-high 84 marks before Saturday night’s clash, but there is a massive contrast in their ability to get into space and mark in wins and losses.
During a three-match losing streak their marking totals were restricted to 56 (Gold Coast), 47 (Brisbane) and 71 (Port Adelaide), and Geelong had taken notice.
The Cats took away the Eagles’ ability to control play and share the ball with their relentless pressure in the first half.
At the main break, the Eagles had taken just 27 marks, with Geelong controlling uncontested ball 100-76 and making West Coast scratch for every forward entry.
The biggest loser? Josh Kennedy. Where the Eagles spearhead had received silver service against Collingwood and booted, he was now leaping from four deep in packs as the Cats ensured nothing came easy.
When the Cats’ pressure subsided, Kennedy came into the game and was a matchwinner with four goals.
Cats interceptor shows his value
Geelong defender tom Stewart was back to his best on Saturday night in his second game back after recovering from a collarbone injury.
The All Australian was superb across half-back with a game-high 11 intercepts to go with his 22 disposals.
Geelong was severely undermanned as its stay in Perth came to an end, with the absence of captain Joel Selwood felt in the midfield and champion Gary Ablett missing across half-forward.
But Stewart showed how valuable a good interceptor is, with the Cats hoping their key ingredients can come together as they relocate to Brisbane.
WEST COAST 3.0 4.2 7.6 11.7 (73)
GEELONG 4.0 7.0 9.2 10.4 (64)
West Coast: Kennedy 4, Sheed 2, Darling 2, Cripps, Ryan, Ah Chee
Geelong: Hawkins 2, Tuohy 2, Duncan, Dangerfield, Menegola, Parfitt, Miers, Simpson
West Coast: Naitanui, Kelly, Shuey, Sheed, Kennedy, Yeo, Ryan
Geelong: Stewart, Duncan, Guthrie, Tuohy, Dangerfield, Miers, Menegola
West Coast: Edwards (concussion)
Nathan Schmook’s votes
3. N Naitnui (West Coast)
2. T Kelly (West Coast)
1. T Stewart (Geel)