After all of the excitement and drama of the final round, it’s all down to nine games to decide the 2022 AFL premier.
But there’s plenty we can learn from finals history to know what’ll take place this September – and most of it doesn’t bode well for the favourite.
We run the numbers on the finals series.
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THE PROBLEM WITH FIRST
Chris Scott’s comments often get a surprisingly large reaction from opposing fans, and his suggestion about finishing on top of the ladder was no different.
“I do have a view and I’ve had it for my whole career in footy, really,” he said on 3AW’s Sportsday last week.
“It’s that the AFL doesn’t do as good a job as some other competitions in recognising the minor premier.”
As you can tell from the full context, that’s not a complaint from Scott, just a statement of fact. Finishing on top of the ladder in many sports sees a team rewarded heavily – in some it means you win the comp. In the AFL, you get a trophy nobody knows the name of (sorry, Dr William C. McClelland).
But perhaps the bigger problem with finishing first is how it doesn’t seem to help you in the finals. If anything, it hurts.
Just one of the last eight minor premiers, last year’s Melbourne, went on to win the Grand Final.
We believe that’s partially down to the structure of the finals series itself, which is designed to reward the top team in week one only.
The winner of the 1st vs 4th qualifying final will typically get a higher-ranked opponent in their prelim than the 2nd vs 3rd qualifying final winner does – the most simple scenario being 1st vs 3rd and 2nd vs 4th in the prelims.
Perhaps that’s why the winner of the 1st vs 4th qualifying final has lost its home preliminary final in five of the last seven years, while the winner of the 2nd vs 3rd qualifying final is 4-3 in its home prelim over that period.
The best example of the minor premier getting a harder prelim was in 2018, when Richmond (1st) ran into Collingwood (3rd) and Mason Cox, while West Coast (2nd) demolished Melbourne (5th).
Grand Finalists (final H&A ladder position, last 10 seasons)
2021: 1st (Melbourne) def 5th (Western Bulldogs)
2020: 3rd (Richmond) def 4th (Geelong)
2019: 3rd (Richmond) def 6th (GWS)
2018: 2nd (West Coast) def 3rd (Collingwood)
2017: 3rd (Richmond) def 1st (Adelaide)
2016: 7th (Western Bulldogs) def 1st (Sydney)
2015: 3rd (Hawthorn) def 2nd (West Coast)
2014: 2nd (Hawthorn) def 1st (Sydney)
2013: 1st (Hawthorn) def 3rd (Fremantle)
2012: 3rd (Sydney) def 1st (Hawthorn)
That’s not the only way we can sum up the benefits of winning the 2nd vs 3rd QF.
Eight of the last 11 premiers finished 2nd or 3rd on the ladder and six of those premiers won their qualifying final: Richmond 2019, West Coast 2018, Richmond 2017, Hawthorn 2014, Sydney 2012 and Geelong 2011.
Perhaps in general, there are always three serious flag contenders? Because fourth hasn’t won the flag since Adelaide in 1997, and that was under a different finals format.
Premier’s H&A ladder position (since 2000 when current finals format began)
1st: 7 (Melbourne 2021, Hawthorn 2013, Collingwood 2010, Geelong 2007, West Coast 2006, Port Adelaide 2004, Essendon 2000)
2nd: 7 (West Coast 2018, Hawthorn 2014, Geelong 2011, Geelong 2009, Hawthorn 2008, Brisbane 2002, Brisbane 2001)
3rd: 7 (Richmond 2020, Richmond 2019, Richmond 2017, Hawthorn 2015, Sydney 2012, Sydney 2005, Brisbane 2003)
7th: 1 (Western Bulldogs 2016)
HOW FAR AHEAD OF THE PACK ARE THE CATS… IF AT ALL?
A 13-game winning streak means Geelong comes into the finals series with reasonable form, though nine of those wins came against the bottom ten (the others: Richmond by three points, Melbourne by 28, and the Bulldogs twice by 13 and 28).
It saw them finish two games clear on top of the ladder and holding premiership favouritism. But gapping the field like that doesn’t always equal premiership glory.
With a thanks to Reddit user Boats-N-Lowes, who pulled most of these numbers before we were going to, we can say that eight teams in the AFL era have finished two or more wins ahead of second.
Perhaps surprisingly only three of them won the flag, and the last three failed to do so – instead watching as the second-placers claimed the premiership.
The only other team to finish two games clear in the 18-team era was 2018’s Richmond, arguably the best version of that entire dynasty… who couldn’t stop a certain American in the prelim.
Two+ games clear, how did they go?
West Coast (1991) – 19 wins with Hawthorn second on 16 – lost Grand Final with Hawthorn (2nd) premiers
Carlton (1995) – 20 wins with Geelong second on 16 – won Grand Final over Geelong (2nd)
Essendon (2000) – 21 wins with Carlton second on 16 – won Grand Final over Melbourne (3rd)
Port Adelaide (2003) – 18 wins with Collingwood second on 15 – lost preliminary final with Brisbane (3rd) premiers
Geelong (2007) – 18 wins with Port Adelaide second on 15 – won Grand Final over Port Adelaide (2nd)
Geelong (2008) – 21 wins with Hawthorn second on 17 – lost Grand Final with Hawthorn (2nd) premiers
St Kilda (2009) – 20 wins with Geelong second on 18 – lost Grand Final with Geelong (2nd) premiers
Richmond (2018) – 18 wins with West Coast second on 16 – lost preliminary final with West Coast (2nd) premiers
Geelong (2022) – 18 wins with Melbourne second on 16 – ???
Total: 3 premierships, 3 runners-up, 2 preliminary final losses
All of this bodes quite well for 2nd-placed Melbourne, doesn’t it?