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AFL tinkering flags questions that needn’t have been asked

The cup they’re fighting for. But will the AFL’s controversial pre-finals bye be seen to have given them a helping hand? Photo: GETTY IMAGES

AFL tinkering flags questions that needn’t have been asked

Rohan Connolly    

There’s an obvious consequence when you incessantly tinker with something. It’s that you never really know whether the fiddling was actually needed. A bit like the AFL has been in recent times.

We see it continually with the rules of the game. We’ve seen it with the Match Review Panel. Now we’re seeing it with even higher stakes, the integrity of the AFL premiership. And for a second year, even the club that emerges with the spoils may end up wearing some of the consequences.

Perhaps no premiership side has had the amount of goodwill directed their way as the Western Bulldogs in 2016, the success-starved club finally breaking a 62-year flag drought in a magnificent finals campaign.

Yet the suggestion that the Bulldogs had a more-than-handy leg-up on their way via the week off granted all eight finalists and which enabled them to regain four key injured players for their difficult elimination final against West Coast in Perth remains an annoying thorn in the side of one of the game’s greatest accomplishments.

The Dogs played a level of football better than anyone else last September. They might have been unstoppable even had they not had a week’s spell between the home and away games and finals, and even without those stars in their first knockout game.

But the impact not only of that extra rest for the Dogs, but a resultant lack of football for two better-qualified top-four teams in Geelong and GWS effectively penalised for winning their first finals are questions which simply can’t be avoided.

And now, on the eve of the 2017 finals campaign, it’s Sydney staring squarely at a similar no-win situation.

Since the current final eight system began in 2000, never has there been a team as well-qualified to win a flag from the bottom half of the eight as the Swans. They’re the form side of the competition with 14 wins from 16 games since that horrendous 0-6 start. They’ve got the requisite experience on the big stage. And they’ve clearly got the cattle.

Had the pre-finals break never been instituted, had the Bulldogs’ fairytale never happened, Sydney this year would still be at the shortest odds we’ve seen for a bottom-half-of-the-eight side to create history. Yet if they do so under these revised conditions, there’s going to be a question asked that needn’t have been.

The fact is the week off has completely compromised the advantage the top four teams have worked to gain over their rivals across 22 home and away rounds.

Due to the pre-finals break last year, Geelong and GWS both went into their respective preliminary finals having played one match over a four-week period. The Giants nearly won anyway. The Cats were jumped by Sydney in a seven-goals-to-nothing first term and never looked likely.

Perhaps both might have lost whatever the circumstances. Sydney had already accounted for Geelong during the regular season. But for the first time in 17 seasons under the current final eight system, both qualifying final winners bowed out at the preliminary final stage.

That should have been enough of a red flag of its own for some serious reconsideration. And some of us have been banging this drum since the AFL first announced the week’s break when it released the 2016 fixture.

But it’s only been since Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson recently joined the debate, free to speak his mind on the issue and not be accused of sour grapes with his team for once out of contention, that it has publicly emerged again.

Not that Clarkson is by any means on his own. In fact, when the AFL’s own website surveyed the 18 senior coaches on the pre-finals bye last year, every single one opposed the idea. This season, it was 15-3 against.

When the game’s most respected coach is unequivocal about finishing top four actually being a disadvantage, you at the very least have a problem of perception.

And when he’s this blunt: “If a team wins from outside the top four this year, I’ll tell you where everyone will be targeting their finishing position next year, it’ll be fifth to eighth, they won’t worry about top four,” you have a bigger problem still.

It’s worth remembering the AFL’s stated intent with the pre-finals break. It was to avoid a repeat of Fremantle and North Melbourne between 2013-15 resting up to half their senior sides in their final home and away games with their finals positions already set, players in need of a spell, and nothing to be gained from going flat-out.

So we addressed the integrity of a couple of meaningless home and away games out of the 198 played each season, and at the same time completely changed the playing field upon which the most important nine of each season are played.

The AFL also insisted that the week off would help focus more attention on important end-of-season honours such as the All-Australian team and Rising Star awards.

It hasn’t. Both those occasions over the last week played very much second fiddle to matters such as Nathan Buckley and Brad Scott’s coaching contract extensions and the soap opera that has been Dustin Martin’s playing future.

Essentially, if the issue of coaches like Ross Lyon resting players in final rounds was a walnut, the AFL sought to crack it not just with a sledgehammer, but a nuclear bomb. Is it any wonder that even the premiership side each now risks copping a dose of the resultant radiation?

  1. The irony that after being possibly the team that lost the most last year to the Dogs leg up, Sydney are positiones to do that same this year. The difference between the two emd there unlike the dogs of last year, there are no questions about Sudney’s form, and unlike the dogs Sydney are not totally relying on the bye to get players back from injury. If sydney could have got through last years finals series without being hit by the injury hammer to parker, mills, mcveigh, franklin and aliir the dogs may still be chasing that drought breaking flag

  2. Sorry for the poor grammar… my phone doesn’t display this page properly and its difficult to find the errors and fix them

  3. Absolute rubbish Josh, last time I looked all teams had the bye week. Can’t believe anyone can say the bye only helped us. No body in the world can say the dogs got a leg up. How do you know we wouldn’t have won the premiership anyhow?

    Throughout the season, we covered all our injuries and played almost the whole list, so even without the bye, I am confident we could have achieved the same.

    The Dogs had a great season last year winning 15 games and losing 6 games by 4 goals or less. Compare that to the Swans this year winning only 14.

  4. Is the argument that the bye may affect teams that make the top four or just those that reach the preliminary final? In the Bulldog’s case they still had to defeat third-placed Hawthorn in the second round of the finals as their seventh-placed opponents. So they went into that game on the very same terms of having played one match. Was Hawthorn impacted? No. So the case is merely against the preliminary finalists and not the top four. While it can be argued the preliminary finalists may be disadvantaged by having a week off, the draw itself is heavily compromised throughout the season and effects where teams finish as a whole. Take this year for instance and the rise of Sydney. Port Adelaide, Collingwood and West Coast all played the Swans once – in the first six weeks when they lost every game. Had they played them twice and the top eight and even the end of season ladder (think draft picks) would be affected. So while there’s a case to say the week-off disadvantages the preliminary finalists, it does not disadvantage the top four as whole and given the draw is compromised, it’s merely another anomaly and should not be viewed in isolation. There are many aspects that compromise a season and one is week-off. So be it.

  5. Fact is, the regular home-and-away season is two games too short. Make it 24 (so each team plays 7 teams twice, 10 team once), then straight into finals. May the best side win. Make it so for the Melbourne clubs, at least 4 of the teams they play twice be non-Melbourne teams. Sides should be exhausted by September, just hanging on. You get better footy from desperate, tired teams.

  6. Hi Rohan,
    Generally agree with the substantive meat of your argument but on a minor point, I think you could pull back on exaggerating the “played one match over a four-week period” line you (and others) use in this argument. My pedantic side finds it a little irksome, sorry. It’s just not factual and the unwritten “almost” or “roughly” preceding “four-week” illustrates that it’s a (minor, yes) bit of sensationalism.

    You’re cherry-picking time-frames and lopping off a day or two to make the (more powerful) claim stand. In the same way, you could say of most of the H&A season that a given team has played only one game in a given two week period. Conversely, if we take an actual four-week period from Saturday 27th Aug 2016 to Friday 23rd Sept, then we see that Geelong played THREE games. And of course, this is cherry-picking start/end dates too, but at least is a proper four weeks.

    All the best and congrats on the new site – enjoying the content.

  7. Well said Roh. Players being rested in Round 23 is much less of an issue than the integrity of the finals. If your team has been good enough to secure a top 8 spot before Round 23 then well done, you’ve earned the right to manage players. Mick Malthouse would say doing so is a risk in itself!

  8. Rohan, I disagree on one point. You play down the significance of teams resting players in the last round of the season, as North did in 2015, and Freo in 2013 and 2015.

    You suggest it just affects the integrity of that one home and away game. As you state:

    “So we addressed the integrity of a couple of meaningless home and away games…”

    If that was the case, the AFL wouldn’t have introduced the pre-finals bye.

    Ask Richmond and Sydney 2015 what they thought of their finals opponent resting many players in the final round, a luxury they themselves couldn’t afford.

    Ask Geelong. 2013, what they thought of Freo resting players en masse in that final round. It certainly could be reasoned it cost the Cats at least a spot in the grand final, if not the flag.

    Just as you put an asterisk against the 2016 finals, there were also asterisks against the 2013 and 2015 finals.

    Those two series were more compromised than 2016.

    The AFL had to do something. But time will likely show it did the wrong thing, simply robbing Peter to pay Paul – a very common mistake the AFL makes over and over because it doesn’t have the requisite intestinal fortitude to crack down properly on clubs that deliberately jeopardise the integrity of the competition.

    A possibly better solution would have been to introduce stricter rules on resting players in that final round, and harsher penalties. Or simply tell North and Freo at the time, it’s not on.

    Too often, the AFL is afraid to police its own rules, and when it does, its punishments often are not much more than a slap with a soggy lettuce leaf.

  9. The reasoning behind bringing the bye week in (stop players being rested last round) was silly but I think it’s a good thing for the game. Before that it was stacked too heavily in favour of top 4 teams. Any finals which didn’t involve them were a waste of time. It is still a big advantage to be top 4 with the second chance and especially home ground advantage. But now at least the other teams have a chance so every final, as it should be, feels like an important game. Also, it’s only been one year. Let’s at least see how this year plays out before making any massive conclusions.

  10. Love the website and normally agree with what you say Rohan, but not this time. Everyone can calm down due to one years results.
    Those winning the first week of finals, play 2 games in 4 weeks not 1. The still earn the second chance and also get home ground advantage compared to the bottom 4 teams.
    The teams finishing 3rd and 4th, still play for straight access to prelim finals, so there is plenty of advantage to top 4 compared to bottom 4.
    This bye needs to be trialled for a couple of more years before any rushed decisions get made.

  11. This old chestnut again.
    Every team knew there was going to be a pre-finals bye going into the 2016 AFL season, maybe they should’ve ‘timed their injuries’ better.
    I mean, this is getting ridiculous. The fact this is still being talked about 12 months later in relation to the Bulldogs premiership is an absolute joke.

  12. Can’t believe a team would target 5-8 Rohan
    Too small a sample size so far

  13. Come on Michael, eagle’s momentum was curbed by the bye. Plus if you’re in the top 4 and win your final it means you play one game in 3 weeks till your 4th week. Bulldogs would of never gotten past a red hot Eagles if it wasn’t for the bye but that’s not the issue it’s more the playing once till your 4th week if you win no reward for finishing top 4 just come out stale a couple of weeks later

  14. Michael how do people know the sogs wouldnt win? The incredible evidence it has.

    In the final week of the home and away season, the dogs lost to bottom 4 team freo, they were horrible and were clearly needing a break.

    Que the week off and 5 injured playerwms returned plus other sore players healed.

    They then went back to perth this time against the better form eagles and won. And the coach admitting the bye helped them immensely leaves it all there.

    If the bye week didnt happen a bunch of sore dog players and 5 injurerd best 22 wouldnt have played week 1 in perth and id say that would have affected the result big time.

    But hey lets not let facts get in the way of emotional replies.

  15. Rohan Connolly

    Actually Lance, I was talking about it in relation to a potential Sydney premiership in the next four weeks.

  16. Afl had a precedent for this situation although a long time ago 1990 the bombers had weeks off because of the draw between eagles and pies. Not saying the bombers should have won but don’t think all the breaks helped them. I think the AFL should have just been firmer with North and Freo and not tinkered with the system.

  17. And to add to the discussion did north or free win the flag and gain a huge advantage by doing what they did. That’s what makes the bye such a farce now

  18. Paul. You mention it’s a small sample size before making any rash changes. Isn’t that exactly what the AFL did to bring it in on back of free and north resting players but not even winning the flag. Not surprisingly free suffered the exact same problem. Rested players. Won their first final. Had a rest then lost a prelim. Do the evidence is mounting that they disadvantaged themselves which is bad management. But now it’s not the choice of the two teams that go straight to a prelim. Rash decision by afl with no empirical evidence.

  19. Paul. You mention it’s a small sample size before making any rash changes. Isn’t that exactly what the AFL did to bring it in on back of freo and north resting players but not even winning the flag. Not surprisingly freo suffered the exact same problem. Rested players. Won their first final. Had a rest then lost a prelim. Do the evidence is mounting that they disadvantaged themselves which is bad management. But now it’s not the choice of the two teams that go straight to a prelim. Rash decision by afl with no empirical evidence.

  20. I do agree with the AFL over tinkering and I do hate the bye weekend, but I think there isn’t enough evidence to suggest the bye week is favouring the lower 4 teams in the final 8. You can’t judge based on a smaple size of one or two. Sure the Bulldogs got some injured players back but West Coast at home should have been able to account for the Dogs on their home soil if good enough, then you look at Hawthorn, the Dogs played them coming back from the West, there is evience to suggest how hard winning the week after a trip to WA is. GWS just weren’t good enough, they had there chance and didn’t take it. Geelong were never the best team last year and Sydney have always played well against Geelong.

    The closest example the VFL/AFL has had to the current scenario is the old Final Five system. Top team had a week off, win the 2nd semi, another week off and then into the Grand Final.

    The Final 5 was in place from 1972 to 1990 – 10 time during that period the top team played on final in 3 weeks before the grand final. Of those 10 times the team with that played only one final in 3 weeks won the flag 7 times out of 10. The other 3 lost. The other 9 times teh final 5 was used the top team either went out in straight sets or lost and then won the next week in the pre lim final.

    If Sydney were to win this year, you could hardly argue the bye is the cause. The have won 14 out of 16 and only lost to a team oustide the finals in that time, only 6 points seperates the top team from 6th, so you could argue that the draw has affected the finishing positions anyway.

    Sports science has also come a long way since the Final 5 System was in place. Surely they have system to work the players over in match like conditions without the injury risk.

    To conclude I hate the bye but lets not jump to conclusions about the top teams being at a disadvantge by having extra weeks off when we had a system for 19 years that allowed that very thing.

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