How 2022’s most underrated footballer and a reborn all-timer bullied the Dees

If someone told you, 20 minutes before the first bounce on Thursday night, that Patrick Dangerfield was going to have one of ‘those’ nights, increasingly rare the longer his career has gone, chances are you wouldn’t be surprised.

If someone told you, 20 minutes before the first bounce on Thursday night, that Tom Atkins would be a more subtle but equally important contributor to a famous 28-point Cats win over Melbourne as said performance from Dangerfield, chances are you would be.

Atkins is no one’s idea of an elite AFL talent: he’s small but stocky, rugged in that quintessentially country Victorian way, and you’d fancy he’d be doing the sort of things he does whether they be on the MCG in a big final or at a suburban ground in Carrum Downs.

In years gone by, he wouldn’t even have got a look into this Geelong midfield – them of the all-time greats in Dangerfield and Joel Selwood, and of modern tyros in Cameron Guthrie, Mitch Duncan and Isaac Smith. He’d have slotted somewhere in defence, or maybe as a nuggetty pressuring forward: think Tom Ruggles but with a less catchy name.

But perhaps that’s why this Geelong team can do things the old Geelong couldn’t. Atkins is a wrecking ball with muscles: the man tackles like a demon (pardon the pun) and does it to hurt. He explodes from clearances in a way that’s almost Dangerfield-esque, except instead of launching into a sprint and barrelling the ball long, he dishes out a quick handball for someone else to get the glory of the kick forward.

On a night for the scrappers, with the pressure dialled up to ‘Finals’ and neither side giving an inch, it was made for Atkins. The Cats’ midfield, which suffocated and smashed and ultimately defeated the best side in the business, was made in his image: Geelong’s tackles stuck all night, with Demon after Demon trying and failing to release the shackles, and paying the price.

Atkins himself had eight tackles, eight clearances – more than anyone on the night bar Dangerfield and Clayton Oliver – and was the man for the moment with the game up for grabs in the last quarter. Telling marks, colossal chasedowns and intelligent ball use – he did everything, he did it wonderfully, and he did it tough. All while putting the clamps on Oliver at the stoppages, and ensuring that while his lightning-quick handballs remained a permanent threat, his damaging extraction into space wasn’t.

Tom Atkins of the Cats in action.

Tom Atkins of the Cats in action. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

This wasn’t some sort of one-off, once-in-a-blue moon performance, either; Atkins has been doing this for months, since at least Round 10, when he was permanently moved to the on-ball brigade. Since that day, when he was mostly shifted in as a replacement for an injured Patrick Dangerfield, he’s offered something new to a Cats’ midfield brigade with a past history of being bullied by the big dogs.

No one bullies Tom Atkins. When he nailed a runaway James Harmes with a crunching tackle at a crucial stage in the last quarter – yet another Demon trying and failing to fend clear – it was symbolic. The Dees were within a goal at the time; they’d never look likely to challenge from there.

There is no more underrated player in the game at the moment than Atkins. There has been no more improved player in the game this year. This 26-year old, with 73 games under his belt, has forced his way into the midfield of an already great side and made it even greater.

If the second half was Atkins’ canvas, the first half was Dangerfield’s. It was as if Melbourne hadn’t just travelled down to Geelong, they’d somehow stumbled on a wormhole down the Princes Freeway and been transported back to 2017.

This was Prime Dangerfield, with an emphasis on DANGER.

Explosive from the centre – helped by repeated blocks from Mark Blicavs and, you guessed it, Atkins, he surged forward as if heading full throttle towards that elusive premiership, peppering the Demons’ defence with high balls aplenty.

By quarter time, he’d had the pill 11 times, with four clearances and seven contested possessions. James Harmes had the unenviable task of trying to curb his influence; as if Dangerfield can be curbed in this sort of mood. Even at 32 years old.

If Atkins’ tackling pressure epitomised the Cats’ ruthlessness and ferocity, Dangerfield’s match-defining trait was less positive: he embodied their profligacy in front of goal. Four golden chances were spurned for the match, three of them in the second quarter alone; nail even two of them, and this becomes HIS night alone rather than a share of the spoils.

For some, it would justify that old criticism of Dangerfield: he can’t kick, he butchers the ball under pressure, he doesn’t own the big moments in the manner of a Dusty. Poppycock.

Yep, he had a bad night in front of the sticks, but every other part of his game was ace. Refreshed by a training drill with points at stake against North Melbourne last week, he’d well and truly shaken off the cobwebs by the first bounce tonight.

And who got the ball to Isaac Smith for this goal?

31 touches and 702 metres gained was the damage – when you’ve got a forward line as menacing as Geelong’s, sometimes you can afford to bang it in there and hope for the best, even on Melbourne’s defence. With Steven May occupied by Tom Hawkins and Jake Lever doing his best to mind a menagerie of Jeremy Cameron, Gary Rohan and Mark Blicavs when he chose to venture down there, the intercepts dried up, and the chances came.

There were other heroes, to be sure: Gary Rohan had one of those tantalising games that would go a long way to removing the big asterisk on his career had it been an actual final and not September-lite; a defence marshalled by the unlikely duo of Sam De Koning and Zach Guthrie nullified the Demons’ forward line to the extent that it was left to Christian Petracca to kick most of the goals (Tom Whowart, anyone?).

Tyson Stengle was manic with his pressure, dangerous whenever the ball went near him, and only one or two missed snaps away from perhaps his best night as an AFL footballer (it’s becoming quite a list); Mark Blicavs spent time on Petracca at the stoppages, shifted into the ruck on occasion and helped the Cats dominate during his time there on even the mighty Max Gawn, and pushed forward to be an attacking threat too.

But it’s so fitting that Dangerfield and Atkins were their two finest contributors. Because this unlikeliest of pairings couldn’t sum up Geelong’s long, often frustrating but seemingly eternal, stay near the top of the ladder.

Dangerfield has been destined for greatness since being snaffled with an early pick in a draft 15 years ago, and has been steadily accumulating every award in the game except the one he craves most ever since. Atkins is a former superannuation adviser from Geelong’s VFL team, got a chance at 23 via the rookie draft, following in the footsteps of Stewart 12 months on, and is now the glue in a midfield good enough to even conquer Melbourne’s.

For all the crowing about the Cats raiding the veterans’ department of rivals, the truth is far more significant: this club can lure the finest players in the game with a near-guarantee of success and find a way to slot them into the salary cap, all the while developing, identifying and transforming plodders from the VFL into A-grade game breakers.

31 scoring shots to 18 is a hammering; 54 to 36 from the clearances is a thrashing; 16 to 8 out of the centre is even greater. That hasn’t happened to Melbourne since 2018.

And two men whose AFL careers couldn’t have panned out in more distinct ways were chiefly responsible: 18 clearances between Dangerfield and Atkins was precisely the gap between the two sides.

On top of the ladder, and having won seven on the trot, the Cats are making those post-preliminary final predictions of a long-awaited fall look silly.

The turnaround was 111 points from that fateful day – a superstitious number for some, a dream for everyone associated with surely the most professional football club the game has ever seen.

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