There’s no place like home.
For the majority of Geelong players who run out in Saturday night’s AFL grand final against Richmond, the big country town either is home or resembles it.
It’s no coincidence, given the Cats have successfully employed a recruiting policy over many years that puts an emphasis on local products and country lads.
They’re the types who are in their element on farms (power forward Tom Hawkins) or in quiet surf towns (megastar Patrick Dangerfield) outside Geelong, rather than the footy fish bowl of Melbourne.
The policy was a cornerstone of three premiership teams from 2007-2011, successes the club hopes can be replicated in the historic Gabba flag decider.
No fewer than 16 players in the Cats’ 46-man squad for 2020 hail from the greater Geelong area and four others, including Bendigo-raised captain Joel Selwood, are from regional Victoria.
Ruckman Rhys Stanley, from Berri, leads a seven-strong contingent of players originally from regional South Australia and a total of 13 are from interstate towns smaller than Geelong in population.
A trio of Irishmen, featuring grand final starters Zach Tuohy and Mark O’Connor, have been welcomed with open arms.
By and large, those recruits feel a sense of belonging.
The Cats’ squad boasts five original father-son selections, including Coleman medallist Hawkins and retiring champion Gary Ablett, who has returned from Gold Coast.
St Joseph’s product Sam Simpson, whose father Sean played 114 games for the Cats in the 90s, is as ‘Geelong‘ as they come.
“The local connection that we have is awesome,” the 22-year-old Simpson told AAP before his first appearance in a premiership decider.
“We’ve got a few father-sons and plenty of local boys on the list so it’s amazing to have this opportunity to play together in the grand final.”
Simpson went to school at Joeys with Jack Henry, idolising homegrown Cats premiership heroes Jimmy Bartel, Cameron Ling and Ablett.
“Jack and I were good mates through school and even better mates now,” Simpson said.
“We were watching a lot of footy together and saw Geelong playing in those ’07, ’09 and ’11 flags.
“We were really enjoying it as supporters back then and now for us to get the opportunity together is going to be amazing.”
While Simpson and Henry followed the direct path from local junior ranks to the Cats, others have moved away in the national competition – via the draft or other means – and come back.
No Victorian club lures players on the “go-home factor” quite like Geelong.
Half a dozen of their locals – Luke Dahlhaus, Lachie Henderson, Gary Rohan, Jack Steven, Dangerfield and Ablett – returned to the region from rival clubs and all bar Steven will play in the grand final.
Newtown & Chilwell product Shaun Higgins looks likely to join Geelong from North Melbourne post-season and Greater Western Sydney forward Jeremy Cameron, from Dartmoor in western Victoria, likes the idea of living in the regional city.
The Giants’ nine-time leading goal kicker, a restricted free agent, has nominated the Cats as his preferred destination.
The club environment the Cats have built in a parochial town dubbed ‘Sleepy Hollow’ by detractors up the highway in Melbourne is so attractive to some recruits that they take unders on their contracts to join Geelong.
Winning helps, too, and the Cats boast an enviable 71.5 per cent success rate under long-term coach Chris Scott.
“It’s always very different for each individual,” Anglesea product Dangerfield said of the Geelong lure.
“Gaz (Ablett) and I were from the area, Rhys (Stanley) came for different reasons around getting rucking opportunities and that’s the same for Gary Rohan and different players who have come from different environments.
“(Recruiting players) is easier when we’re playing good footy and Wellsy (recruiting manager Stephen Wells) and his team have built the side that will run out on the weekend (in the grand final).
“It’s a credit to those guys and all their good work.”
Not unlike the SA contingent, Harry Taylor has found a familiar feel in Geelong.
From coastal Geraldton in Western Australia’s Mid West region, Taylor was drafted as a mature-age recruit in 2007 and has never left.
It’s just as well as the veteran defender eyes off a third premiership this weekend in what could be his final game.
Another WA product, East Perth junior Mitch Duncan, is one of relatively few current Cats recruited from major metropolitan areas.
The nine of them make up less than a quarter of the list.
“We win a lot more than we lose … but the community feeling is awesome and everyone in Geelong is behind you,” Duncan said.
“I met a girl who is now my wife and the mother of my kids, so everything leads to staying there, but it’s a proud club and I’m very privileged to be a part of it.”
Despite the grand final being 1500km away in Brisbane this season, rather than an hour up the road at the MCG, Geelong has been abuzz since a run of four consecutive defeats in preliminary finals ended with victory over the Lions last week.
Dangerfield tipped a triumph over Richmond on Saturday night – to seal the Cat’s 10th AFL-VFL premiership – would be a boost the region needs after a tough year affected by COVID-19 restrictions.
“In what’s been a really trying time for all Victorians, it’s something that everyone’s really looking forward to and something that really unites the city and the Surf Coast,” Dangerfield said.
“We’d love nothing more than to bring that cup back down the highway where it should be.”