With only one round remaining in the AFL we can now have a look at the draw to see the utter stupidity involved in having a competition wherein each side does not play each other twice.
It is one of the most incomprehensible aspects of sport in this country that we have uneven competitions. No football league in Europe or anywhere else would even get official sanction if each side didn’t play each other twice. Could you imagine a scenario in the English Premier League where a side didn’t have to play Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea twice? You think some of the teams that did have to play them twice might complain somewhat? You’d be right. And yet year in year out we continue with the furphy that the AFL draw after 22 rounds is an honest and true recorder of the relative ability of each team. It is not.
The simplest way to compare each team’s draw is to examine the teams they did not have to play twice. Each team missed out on hosting four teams that it played an away game against, and similarly there are four teams that each team hosted, but didn’t have to play away against. By using the current premiership table as a weighting measure we can assess the average toughness of those game not played – the harder those “non-played” games are, the easier that team’s draw has been.
So by giving the teams a value based on their ladder position we can get an average ladder position of the teams a side has not had to play. For example, if a team had not had to play Saints, Collingwood, Carlton, Brisbane, Port, North, Richmond and Melbourne, that teams score would be 1+3+5+7+10+13+15+16=70 for an average of 8.75. In theory each side should end up with an average non-opponent score of 8.5 – ie if you miss out on playing the Saints and Melbourne, that would give you an average of 8.5, and would be fair (because you missed out on playing the toughest and the easiest opponent)
Now admittedly there is an inherent bias in this, given the premiership table itself is biased – a team’s position may be due to the fact it has played the Saints twice, whereas the team above it on the ladder may have only played them once. But that bias aside, this formula gives us a rough guide for the relative ease and toughness of each side’s draws.
First let’s start with the home games – ie these are the teams the respective sides didn’t get to play at home (remember the higher the average number, the lower on average the opponents are on the ladder) (Top 8 sides in bold)
Adelaide – Brisbane, Essendon, Melbourne, Richmond = 46 (11.5)
Essendon – North, Port, Sydney, West Coast = 46 (11.5)
Collingwood – Geelong, North, Richmond, West Coast = 43 (10.75)
Sydney – Adelaide, Fremantle, Melbourne, Bulldogs = 40 (10)
Brisbane – Fremantle, Hawks, Richmond, Saints = 39 (9.75)
Bulldogs – Adelaide, Brisbane, Essendon, Melbourne = 37 (9.25)
Carlton – Hawks, North , Port, Bulldogs = 36 (9)
Hawks – Collingwood, Fremantle, Richmond, Bulldogs = 36 (9)
Fremantle –Collingwood, Melbourne, North, Saints = 33 (8.25)
Melbourne – Brisbane, Carlton, Essendon, Hawks = 29 (7.25)
West Coast – Adelaide, Brisbane, Carlton, Sydney = 29 (7.25)
Richmond – Fremantle, Geelong, Port, Saints = 27 (6.75)
Saints – Carlton, Collingwood, Hawks, Port = 27 (6.75)
Geelong – Carlton, Essendon, Saints, West Coast = 26 (6.5)
North – Adelaide , Geelong, Sydney, West Coast = 23 (5.75)
Port – Collingwood, Geelong, Sydney, Bulldogs = 20 (5)
So what does this tell us? Well for one thing, Port fans can’t complain too loudly; Crows fans might wonder at the luck of being the only team not to play both Melbourne and Richmond at home (and they may wonder how that would have helped their percentage); and interestingly both Geelong and the Saints on average had pretty soft home games.
Ok, now to the away games. These are the game that each respective team played at home, but didn’t have to go through the drama of playing away:
Sydney – Essendon, North, Port, West Coast = 43 (10.75)
Fremantle – Brisbane, Hawks, Richmond, Sydney = 42 (10.5)
Geelong – Collingwood, North, Port, Richmond = 41 (10.25)
Adelaide – North, Sydney, West Coast, Bulldogs = 40 (10)
Brisbane – Adelaide, Melbourne, West Coast, Bulldogs = 38 (9.5)
Saints – Brisbane, Fremantle, Geelong, Richmond = 38 (9.5)
Melbourne – Adelaide, Fremantle, Sydney, Bulldogs = 35 (8.75)
Bulldogs – Carlton, Hawks, Port, Sydney = 35 (8.75)
Collingwood – Fremantle, Hawks, Port, Saints = 34 (8.5)
Carlton – Geelong, Melbourne, Saints, West Coast = 31 (7.75)
North – Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fremantle = 30 (7.5)
Hawks – Brisbane, Carlton, Melbourne, Saints = 29 (7.25)
Port – Carlton, Essendon, Richmond, Saints = 29 (7.25)
Essendon – Adelaide, Geelong, Melbourne, Bulldogs = 28 (7)
West Coast – Collingwood, Essendon, Geelong, North = 26 (6.5)
Richmond – Adelaide, Brisbane, Collingwood, Hawks = 25 (6.25)
What does this tell us? Well for starters, if Tigers’ fans think this year was bad, imagine how bad it would have been if they had had to travel to play Adelaide, Brisbane, Collingwood (and also play the Hawks twice). Sydney fans might also ponder if they would have made the finals had they been given the chance to play North, Port and West Coast twice. Would the Saints still be top if they had to play Brisbane at the Gabba and Geelong at Kadinia Park?
Ok, let’s add it all up and see which teams had the hardest draw by the average ladder position of the teams not played twice (in brackets is the number of sides in the bottom half of the ladder they missed out on playing):
Adelaide – 10.75 – (5)
Sydney – 10.38 – (5)
Brisbane – 9.6 – (5)
Collingwood – 9.6 – (6)
Fremantle – 9.4 – (5)
Essendon – 9.25 – (5)
Bulldogs – 9 – (4)
Carlton – 8.38 – (5)
Geelong – 8.38 – (4)
Hawks – 8.13 – (3)
Saints – 8.13 – (4)
Melbourne – 8 – (3)
West Coast – 6.88 – (2)
North – 6.63 – (3)
Richmond – 6.5 – (3)
Port – 6.13 – (2)
So first off, let’s put away any arguments that Collingwood gets given a free kick by the AFL. Yes they get given the plumb games and dates, but you can’t say they had an easy draw. Those thinking the draw is meant to reflect the previous year’s ladder positions, and give those at the top a harder draw may ponder the ease of the draw that Hawthorn has had (though to be honest it is pretty close to an average draw). But consider this – this week Carlton and Adelaide play to see who finishes 5th and gets a home final, and yet the teams Carlton has not played average over 2 positions higher on the premiership ladder than the ones Adelaide has not got to play.
Or how about Essendon versus Hawks? The winner this week plays in the finals, the loser misses out; yet Essendon didn’t get to play at home to North, Port, Sydney and West Coast and away to Melbourne. The best the Hawks could say they missed out on was home games to Fremantle and Richmond and an away game to Melbourne. Even if we only give the Bombers 4 of their 5, and the Hawks all 3 of their games, this week’s match suddenly is meaningless; Essendon are already in the finals.
So what is the solution? Either it is time to split the comp into two (more likely once the Gold Coast and Western Sydney are in), or play 30 rounds. Silly you say? What about the players? Well just because you play 30 games doesn't mean the players have to play all of them. It’s called list management. When you are playing lower ranked sides you rest some players – they do it in the football leagues all the time. It means playing some of the younger players earlier, it means really having to think about holding onto older players, it means the draft really becomes important.
I doubt it will happen, and it certainly won’t until media commentators stop being dumb, and admit that the current system is unfair.
And if you think it is fair – answer me this: Collingwood played the Saints once, and Melbourne twice: the Crows played the Saints twice and Melbourne once – which team would you rather be?