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The closest of seasons, but how much cream is at the top?


Patrick Dangerfield and his Geelong teammates leave the MCG after thumping Sydney by 59 points in another one-sided final. Photo: AFL MEDIA

The closest of seasons, but how much cream is at the top?

Rohan Connolly    

Serves us right, really. For six months, we’ve talked endlessly about just how tight and unpredictable this AFL season had been. Surely the finals would follow suit, right?

Well, no. If we were going to maintain that unpredictability, perhaps it only stood to reason that one of the closest home and away campaigns in memory would then be followed by a September full of one-sided blowouts.

Indeed, the contrast has been remarkable. Popular social media football statistician “Swamp” tell us no other season in 120 years of VFL/AFL football has produced as many close games as 2017.

We’ve had no fewer than 24 games, the Port Adelaide-West Coast elimination final thriller the most recent, decided by under four points. The next highest number was 18, all the way back in 1928. Which has made this September’s series of finals beltings even more remarkable.

Take out that extra-time classic, which in all honesty hadn’t reached great heights as far as the standard went until the thrilling finale, and the average winning margin of the other five games has been a whopping 55.6 points.

Why the contrast? There’s a number of possible explanations. But the one I consider the most likely is also a good example of what the football gods giveth with one hand grabbing back with the other. And it goes to the quality of the teams we’re now watching slog it out for this year’s premiership.

Few would dispute that across-the-board the AFL competition is right now closer than it has ever been.

There haven’t been many wooden spooners as capable as Brisbane in 2017, the Lions’ five wins for the season more than any bottom team since 1998. Three teams immediately above them all won half-a-dozen games.

At the other end of the ladder, the top six teams were separated only by one-and-a-half wins. Melbourne, which missed the eight altogether, nonetheless finished only two wins away from a top four spot. The difference between being a flag hope and an also-ran now isn’t necessarily much at all.

It’s just how good those flag hopes are that is the question. And increasingly, you can’t help but feel that even the best teams right now might well be eaten alive by most of their predecessors.

The competition has compacted, but rather than the cellar dwellers improving their standards, it’s the top dogs who’ve come back to the field.

That’s reflected most obviously in win-loss terms. Adelaide’s 15-and-a-half wins was enough to have the Crows topping the ladder this season. Just last season, even 16 wins wasn’t enough to have West Coast finish any higher than sixth.

Adelaide has played some fantastic football this season yet even the ladder leader has at stages looked pretty vulnerable, thumped by North Melbourne, and Melbourne at home. Richmond has been as consistent as any team, but the Tigers, too, had a couple of shockers thrown in, smashed by 76 points against the Crows and 67 points against St Kilda.

We spent much of this season, rightly, discussing Geelong’s premiership credentials, yet the Cats were still good enough to finish equal top on points.

There’s an interesting exercise to be had comparing Geelong this year with the Cats of, say, 2009, who also finished second, two games behind the ladder leader despite losing only four games all season.

That version, which would go on to beat St Kilda in a classic grand final, was chock-full of household names like Ablett, Scarlett, Selwood, Johnson, Chapman, Bartel, Ling, Enright and Corey.

But the lesser lights were pretty handy, too. In that particular premiership side, the Cats had a bottom six comprising the likes of Mark Blake, Travis Varcoe, Tom Hawkins, David Wojcinski, Max Rooke and Shannon Byrnes, the latter pair of whom ended up played pivotal roles on grand final day.

Contrast that with, no disrespect intended, Zac Guthrie, Brandan Parfitt, James Parsons, Darcy Lang, Rhys Stanley and Jake Kolodjashnij. Not too hard to see the difference, really, is it? And you could probably perform a similar exercise with most of the better teams from seven or eight years ago.

What’s the link to the finals blowouts? Fragility, inexperience, perhaps sometimes just plain ability. The really good teams can find a way back when things start going wrong with the stakes at their highest. West Coast did it to a point against Port Adelaide. But the Eagles never looked like engineering a revival two weeks in a row.

In finals, there’s no further damage to be done via percentage when the scoreboard starts stacking up against you. Just the sad realisation that the cause is lost, accompanied by a longing to be put out of one’s misery. Perhaps that might change with officially the best four teams of the season the last four left standing. But it might not.

It’s AFL football’s latter-day trade-off. And if you’re to use car racing as an analogy, it means that while there’s more vehicles going neck and neck for the chequered flag, this season at least, they look a little more like Commodores than Ferraris.

1 Comment
  1. Really good commentary Roco. Just don’t see the core qualities of the super sides of the past in any of this year’s lot. Think Eagles early 90s, North mid-late 90s, Brisbane early 00s, and Cats and Hawks more recently. Big bodies, good/great skills, mature and mentally and physically hardened players, disciplined, never-say-die attitude. Even the bottom players on those teams played their role consistently.
    Perhaps unfair to hold every year’s teams to those lofty standards – but this year I wouldn’t say any team even comes close. Well, perhaps Adelaide, which is why I wouldn’t mind seeing them win it.

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