The first week of the AFL finals has thrown up some interesting clashes. A repeat of the epic 2011 prelim between Hawthorn and Collingwood, with both sides desperate to win to avoid a grand final qualifier away to an interstate club, i.e. the winner of the Sydney-Adelaide meeting. On the elimination side of things, although we missed out of the Western Derby that looked certain to eventuate, Freo’s trip to the MCG allows them to resume round one hostilities with Geelong, while a lukewarm West Coast play host to an improved North Melbourne outfit.
It’s very hard – and unfair – to begrudge any of these teams the success they have enjoyed. As they would argue, they can only beat what’s in front of them. But the AFL draw is inequitable, and the finals have tossed up a number of teams who had to overcome some pretty tough fixtures to reach September.
Hats off to Hawthorn and Collingwood for securing top four berths in the face of a very rocky schedule. The AFL makes no secret of their desire to maximise attendance via the draw, but unfortunately for the Pies and Hawks, that means fixtures against tougher sides. With 22 games across the season, each club plays everyone else once, leaving room for return fixtures against five clubs – this is where the inequality comes in. Hawthorn ran into Collingwood, West Coast, Geelong, Sydney and Port Adelaide twice, while the Pies twice tackled the Hawks, Carlton, Essendon, Geelong and West Coast in what was the toughest draw given to any team in the comp.
It’s also worth noting that for all the talk of Sydney’s soft draw – primarily because of their doubling up of GWS – the Swannies other dual opponents were perennial powerhouses Hawthorn, Geelong, and St Kilda, as well as the struggling Bulldogs. Overall, a harder than average draw, making the third-place finish all the more credible.
Standing between the red-and-white and a date in the third week of the finals are the Adelaide Crows, who were the beneficiaries of a very generous fixture. Although they faced Geelong and the improving Dockers twice, return match-ups with competition lightweights Gold Coast, GWS and Port Adelaide helped seal their passage to September – as well as immense improvement under impressive debutant coach Brenton Sanderson, of course.
After all, two clubs with similarly easy fixture lists – Richmond and Melbourne – missed the eight by a mile. While Melbourne had tricky ties with Freo and St Kilda to complement their Brisbane, GWS and Richmond doubles, the Tigers – in a year when they were meant to finally deliver on their undeniable potential and appear in September – squandered a dream draw with duplicate ties with the Dees, Carlton, Port, Essendon and Freo, from which only the seventh-placed Dockers made the finals.
That’s not to mention the bizarre streaks of games that present themselves throughout a year. Hawthorn opened their campaign with five games against the five other clubs that filled the top six, before a mid-year stretch that took them six weeks without meeting a 2012 finalist. Poor old GWS had to start their season against four finalists, while the Bullies run of 11 losses to end the year wasn’t entirely their own fault, considering they faced eight sides with September appearances either this season or last. Carlton were perhaps the biggest victims: after encountering finalists only twice in their first seven weeks, they went six weeks in June and July without the respite of facing a non-finals team just as the wheels were falling off their campaign.
But, like the well-worn cliche that has been trotted out innumerable times by coaches and captains this week, the fair dinkum bit of the year starts now. It’s a new season. The draw counts for little, the cream will rise to the top when there are no longer any easy games. Can’t wait.