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In today’s AFL, there’s no place like home ground advantage


West Coast’s new home has different dimensions to Subiaco, but the Eagles are exploiting an edge there in other ways. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

In today’s AFL, there’s no place like home ground advantage

Rohan Connolly    

Reminders of just how tight is the AFL competition these days present themselves virtually every week, and there was another late on Sunday in Brisbane.

The winless Lions were level with the in-form Collingwood with just over two minutes to play at the Gabba, eventually losing by only seven points, their third loss this season by that margin or less.

Brisbane might be 0-7 and already out of finals contention, but the Lions are surely one of the better bottom-of-the-ladder teams we’ve seen for some time, proof enough that no team can afford to bring anything less than its best to the table each week if it wants to be sure of a win.

It also means that any potential edge a side holds simply must be capitalised upon. And that those to do with geography and familiarity might also end up counting for a little more. Like home ground advantage.

To that end, three results out of round seven were particularly noteworthy, Geelong’s thumping of Greater Western Sydney on Friday night, West Coast’s comfortable victory over Port Adelaide, and on Saturday night, North Melbourne’s upset of Sydney at the SCG.

Geelong’s GMHBA Stadium has been the hardest venue at which to sneak a win for visiting teams for a long time now. That has plenty to do with how good the Cats have been over the past decade, of course. And that they are the only Victorian team with an exclusive home venue. But the ground’s dimensions are also a factor.

With Subiaco no longer an AFL venue, the Cattery is the longest ground in the AFL. It’s also by some distance the narrowest, around 20 metres skinnier than venues like the MCG, SCG, the Gabba and Canberra.

Geelong knows how to play it perfectly. Opponents patently struggle with those dimensions, GWS last Friday night like so many visitors before them time and again either kicking out of bounds on the full, or attempting to take the ball down the wings and finding it bundled out of bounds instead.

Teams can’t win at the Cattery unless they’re prepared to religiously take the shortest route home. And more often than not, they don’t. Except Sydney.

The Swans, who triumphed there again in round 6, have won their last three trips to Geelong. That’s interesting in itself, but especially so given the Swans’ recent struggles on their once fortress-like own home ground.

From the start of 2012 until the end of 2016, Sydney lost only eight of 46 SCG home games, a strike rate of 82 per cent. Since the start of last season, the win-loss split is only 9-7, or just 56 per cent.

That certainly wasn’t helped by a shocking 0-6 start to 2017. But it appears as the game generally becomes more congested and scrappy, an SCG home that was once a significant advantage isn’t so much of an edge anymore, and what was once a distinctive brand is now pretty much everyone’s.

Sydney was the AFL’s No.1 contested ball side for four seasons in a row between 2011-14 and five times in six years including its runner-up effort in 2016. But last year the Swans slumped to fifth, and are currently only ranked seventh.

The rest of the AFL’s best can play the pressure game just as well, average contested possession counts in the last two seasons the second and third highest on record, and it appears often better on the SCG than the Swans themselves.

Perhaps Sydney should take some lessons in adapting to changing football environments from West Coast, whose move to a new home ground this season is proving anything but a hindrance.

Subiaco was the AFL’s longest ground and behind only Geelong as the narrowest. When West Coast reached the 2015 grand final and its “Weagles Web” defence was hailed as a masterstroke, that narrowness certainly helped. Indeed, the Eagles’ struggles on the MCG have often been linked to that ground’s greater width, stretching the web to breaking point.

The new Optus Stadium would only appear to compound that issue, given it is eight metres wider than Subiaco. But West Coast has quickly discovered a way of capitalising on its new digs.

Though shorter than Subi, Optus Stadium is still the AFL’s third-longest ground. And with a star spearhead in Josh Kennedy, another tall in Jack Darling in career-best form and a new marking target in Jake Waterman, the Eagles are finding another way to cash in on the unique properties of their home base. That is, by going long and direct.

Last season, West Coast ranked only 13th in the competition for long kicks. The Eagles are now ranked fifth and reaping the benefits, their marks inside 50 ranking climbing from 11th to second.

It might be new surrounds, but for West Coast, home is still clearly where the heart is. That goes without saying for Geelong. It used to be the case for Sydney, too. But it seems everyone feels at home at the Swans’ digs these days. And in the current climate, that’s the sort of little advantage no team can feel comfortable about surrendering.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS AUSTRALIA

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