Ignorance not quite bliss, the NAB Cup is a good guide

We can all argue over the merits and negatives of an organised pre-season competition until we are blue in the face. Many are all for the concept, others are very much against it. Many use this time of year to revive traumatophobia (a term to describe fear of injury), others use it to see what youngsters may be able to hack the cut and thrust of legitimate premiership season football, and a few like Clarkson, Malthouse and Neeld use their press conferences to whinge about rules that WILL come into effect meaning that they actually may need to start thinking like a coach should rather than push everything to an assistant or a sports scientist.

Whilst we know that certain teams (Sydney) pay as much attention to this competition as a mug punter takes to South African races on a Saturday Night, it has proven to be at least a reliable guide over the years regarding probable contenders at least when the whips are cracking in September. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the double will be achieved (only the 1991 Hawks, 1993 and 2000 Bombers and 2009 Cats have done this since the metamorphosis of the old VFL into the AFL), but most occasions at least one of the finalists will have made the last 8 after the final round. Here then is a historical run down of how finalists have fared in the main season since 1995, when the 16th club entered the competition.

The Crows would struggle under new coach Robert Shaw for much of the season, but losing star ruckman Shaun Rehn early in the season before handing Fitzroy their second last ever win in the AFL never helps this. North Melbourne would win 2 finals matches (Richmond in a Friday Night encounter, West Coast on a Sunday Afternoon) before running into the red hot Carlton team in a bruising prelim. Their pre-season cup scalps included 2 other finalists (Brisbane Rd 1, Essendon 1/4 Finals), the Crows would beat finals bound West Coast in the 1/4 finals.

1996: ST.KILDA defeated CARLTON
The premiership defence for the Blues would run out of steam in September, losing in straight sets on the road (Perth, then Brisbane by 16 goals). St.Kilda were talked about as a contender on the strength of that win in mid March, but any hope realistically was finished by the time Gary Ablett re-arranged Kristian Bardsley’s nose at Kardinia Park in Round 2. On the road to the final, the Saints would record wins over finals participants Hawthorn (R1) and West Coast (Semis), while Carlton beat other finals teams Essendon and North Melbourne at the same stage.

Additionally in the Centenary season was the Lightning Carnival held before the pre-season competition. Both Essendon (who remain defending champion until such time a revival is performed by the AFL) and Brisbane would feature in the final 4, a fortnight after what other sites have labelled the Meaningless Classic. The Bears held on for a 2 point win on opening night of the finals after Gavin Wanganeen’s wobbly poster from 15m, but thanks to Geelong and Hawthorn losing the Bombers got a second life which ended thanks to Plugger’s booming point after the siren.

1997: CARLTON defeated GEELONG
Geelong would actually finish second on the home and away ladder, but would get screwed over in the finals thanks to a Princess who died in a Paris tunnel (the match would probably have been played Friday Night, but I believe was moved to Sunday night. Please correct if I’m wrong), and umpire Grant Vernon (disallowed Colbert mark changing the momentum of the semi in Adelaide). Carlton’s charge was ruined by crippled bodies, and ended thanks to Richmond on the last Saturday of the regular season. Carlton’s only future finals scalp was their semi final win over St.Kilda, while Geelong defeated finalists in every stage (West Coast R1, Adelaide quarters, North Melbourne semis)

Arguably one of the better Pre-Season cup deciders which North won thanks to Carey taking over in the last term, both sides would feature in September. The Saints would go out in straight sets having seen a fightback in Sydney fall short and getting rolled by the cinderella story of 1998 in Melbourne a week later. North as we all know finished top by a goal (a game I have in the DVD collection, still blame James Cook for the loss after his attempt to send Robert Scott back to Geelong earned him 3 weeks and gave North a vital last quarter goal), proved that you don’t just sing when you’re winning but also you also toss marshmallows at Sheedy too a week later, and then beating the Dees in the Prelim. North fans then generally stop the tape of their season after quarter time of the GF thanks to kicking a ridiculous 2.18 to the City End. For future reference, both sides would beat a pair of finals teams in earlier rounds (Essendon quarters, Brisbane semis for North, West Coast quarters, Melbourne semis for St.Kilda)

A year where the Pre Season form didn’t translate well into the main season, the Hawks missed the finals by half a game after winning 5 in a row to end the season. Port made the finals for the first time, but were belted by North in sloppy conditions. It seemed like a year where taking the cup seriously was not for future finalists, with the only finals team making the semi finals being the Bulldogs who were beaten by Hawthorn.

2000: ESSENDON defeated NORTH MELBOURNE (Kangaroos)The story of the 2000 Bombers is almost too well documented, losing just once all season in all competitions (I watch that game regularly with fondness at home), and during September they blew North well and truly out of the MCG and almost back to Sydney (where the Roos played a couple of home games that season in front of 10 men, 3 cleaners, 2 pie sellers and the pig released in a Sydney vs St.Kilda game in the mid 1990’s). To North’s credit they managed to recover the next week to beat Hawthorn before Jeff Farmer’s heroics on Preliminary Final night finished their title defence. Both teams would also meet other September combatants during the course of the pre-season. In the first year of the pool format, Essendon shared a group with Hawthorn and beat Carlton in a semi, while North shared a group with the Hawks and played Melbourne in their semi final.

Form from this game held true a week later despite a closer margin between the sides. But when the major silverware was being decided, the Power were just one of many teams that the Lions ruthlessly brushed aside on their way to the glory on the last Saturday in September. Port for their part crashed out a week later, probably wishing the Ansett debacle had meant Hawthorn were still on a bus to the ground rather than being on a charter to plot their demise in a major finals upset. Brisbane’s road to the final was littered with those who made September action later that year, the only team they played that failed to meet the criteria were the Bulldogs who outlasted the Lions in the middle of a Cairns monsoon during Pool play. For their part the Power would also meet September qualifiers Essendon and Sydney in their pool stage.

Sadly the Tigers not only fail to please their own supporters by making a return trip to September (they’re still waiting), they failed to please neutrals by finishing 14th instead of their customary 9th. Like the North Melbourne class of 1998, Port also finished on top by a goal in a Round 22 epic, but once again their opponents Brisbane would have the last laugh repeating the dose almost 1 year and 2 weeks to the day of their 2001 finals clash. Of course, it could all have been different had Peter Burgoyne not played on in the goal square during the last quarter of the week 1 finals clash with Collingwood, although whether this was an inspiration for Steve Johnson to do this on an almost weekly basis is debatable. To make the final, Port would meet a fellow finalist in Essendon in the pool stage, whilst the Tigers would do battle with finals bound West Coast and Adelaide.

Both sides would be mere roadkill for the Lions as Brisbane completed the rare “three-peat”. The Crows would see their season end in Brisbane on Semi-Final weekend, after Michael Voss impersonated an Australian male at the Ironman World Championships with one knee. Collingwood for their part actually believed they could go all the way after their upset week 1 triumph under the MCG lights, but it seemed they left their performances at their Victoria Park home that they were using for the last time when it mattered most. With a welcome return to a knockout format, the Magpies did not beat any team that made the finals during the tournament, whilst the Crows had to overcome cross town rival Port and West Coast whom would also feature during September.

2004: ST.KILDA defeated GEELONG
A combined margin of 15 points denied a return bout on the last Saturday in September, which hasn’t happened since the second last year of the midweek competition in 1986 (Hawthorn defeated Carlton at a boggy Waverley). Indeed both teams managed to get slaughtered by the Grand Finalists to open up the September action, then both recovered to advance from the semi finals (St.Kilda pounded Sydney, Geelong held off Essendon). Their respective semi final opponents would eventually play each other in an elimination final (Melbourne falling victim to the Cats, Essendon the losers to St.Kilda), with the Cats also beating eventual premier Port Adelaide in the opening round.

2005: CARLTON defeated WEST COAST
Thanks to Brendan Fevola, and in a way thanks to Nick Stevens attending a mate’s wedding instead of playing, the Blues would go half way to the double…..unfortunately the Wooden Spoon isn’t exactly the second leg that anyone wants. The Eagles, having made the final for the first time, went within 8 points of top spot (Adelaide round 22), then as everyone knows were a Leo Barry mark away from a premiership. In earlier rounds, the finalists would each overcome a single finalist for that season (West Coast beating North in a semi final, Carlton beating Melbourne in the quarters, the same round where I made a handy profit on the Bulldogs beating St.Kilda)

2006: GEELONG defeated ADELAIDE
Round 21 of this season would be costly for both sides. For the cats, it would be a drawn match on their home deck against Melbourne that slammed the door on their finals aspirations and they would finish one week later a half game behind the team that “Finished 9th Again”. For the Crows, the Round 21 showdown loss ultimately cost them top spot, and despite them still getting a home preliminary final after maintaining Fremantle’s losing record in September, they were mown down by the McClelland Trophy winning Eagles at home. Geelong’s sole finals opponent in earlier rounds was Fremantle in the semis, with the Crows beating fellow finalists Melbourne at the same stage to represent their only fellow finals participant.

2007: CARLTON defeated BRISBANE
Since the Night competition became inclusive of all clubs in 1977, this is only one of two instances of both finalists in the competition failing to make the finals in the premiership season (the other being 1994 between the 10th placed Bombers beat the 11th placed Crows) and . The Blues however almost repeated their party trick of 2005 by finishing a game ahead of the wooden spoon, although as we all know their last round match with Melbourne was one of a few subjected to suspicious on-field activity which the governing body of the code rejects ever occurring in the history of the game at the elite level. At least the Blues could say they beat 2 teams who met each other in a main semi final on successive weekends during their title run (North Melbourne and Hawthorn), although the Lions could counter by saying we knocked off the eventual premiers in the semi final.

2008: ST.KILDA defeated ADELAIDE
Despite both sides featuring in September, neither side were realistically in the contest on the occasion of their elimination. Adelaide on home soil were despatched by a fired up Collingwood combination, firing their last shot before the Saints eased past them a week later. The Saints themselves launched their final salvo that night, for they were comfortably handled by Hawthorn’s team of destiny precisely 168 hours later. To reach the final, the Saints had to beat a preliminary finalist in the Bulldogs in the quarters, while the Crows opened their campaign in Dubai by beating the Magpies would also outlast eventual premier Hawthorn in the semis.

Still stinging from the pain of a near perfect season being wasted from the previous September, this win would launch Geelong into a 13 game winning streak which was 30 seconds from being 14 (shame I went the previous night, although as a Doggies fan it was just as entertaining seeing us belt Hawthorn as it was watching the top of the table clash live on the Grandmother’s couch, which was during the last 24 hours that I spent in her company). Their paths would cross again on Preliminary Final weekend, but unlike the epic of 2007 or the stunner of 2010, Geelong were clinical in disposing of Collingwood, then would eventually prevail in the 2009 arm wrestle to get revenge for Round 14. Both sides would clash with a future finalist in earlier rounds, Geelong beating Adelaide in Round 1 with Collingwood holding off Essendon in a semi final.

As a Bulldog fan this would be one of those nights that affirmed that my faith in the club would eventually be rewarded. Some bloke called Hall stole all the headlines, although his biggest impact on this night would be to squash Mitch Hahn into the Docklands turf and concrete. These sides would also meet in September, a night where I would spend upwards of $450 for the privilege of viewing. Written off by all and sundry, especially by the Triple M team who gave us absolutely zero respect in pre-match, we managed to cling to a half time lead before the creaking bodies eventually gave in. Four Bulldog players (Johnson, Hahn, Eagleton and Harbrow) wouldn’t appear for the club again, or except in Harbrow’s case, ever on an AFL field (should have come earlier to ask Harbrow why he left, for he spent a day at our club whilst injured last year…..missed opportunity!). Of course the Saints were basically spent after that weekend, and basically got a second opportunity at that year’s cup thanks to Hayes and Goddard. It was a chance they never looked like taking. Not even a round 1 pre-season cup win would have been consolation for Saint fans, as that victory (as well as the quarter final win against beaten semi finalist Sydney) would have been long forgotten. For their part the Dogs did beat a finals team in Hawthorn in the quarters.

The James Hird era at Windy Hill/Tullamarine began with a real bang as they rode the momentum of their final appearance to a September appearance, although they would be halted by a blue wall in the opening week. For Collingwood, they earned a chance at both the rare double and defending the real title thanks to a late goal from a stoppage against Hawthorn in the Prelim. Unfortunately it all went pear shaped after three quarter time thanks to a combination of Steve Johnson (on one leg), Tom Hawkins and Meatloaf’s singing. They probably felt as cold as the weather was once Geelong completed their 3rd flag in 5 seasons, but I wasn’t wearing a jumper of any sort so it couldn’t have been that bad (it wasn’t 2 out of 3 either)! The competition used a different format from this season, with the Pies playing finals teams in each of the earlier weeks (Carlton in the triangular, then Sydney in the quarters and West Coast in the semis). The Bombers had a unique situation where their only finals opponent was St.Kilda, whom they played in both the Triangular (drawn with probably the only kick in a bomber jumper by Mark Williams) and Semis.

2012: ADELAIDE defeated WEST COASTIt was a dream debut for Brenton Sanderson as Crow coach, but few would have imagined the on field success and off field drama that would rival the storylines of Neighbours, Home and Away, Days of Our Lives and Eastenders put together that followed. Almost nobody tipped them to finish second at the end of the season, just as many thought they would lose to Sydney in the first week of finals, and certainly not many would have picked a losing margin of 5 points to Hawthorn in the Preliminary Final. On face value, the Eagles would have been slightly disappointed with 5th spot and losing a semi-final thanks to a second half fadeout against Collingwood. The Magpies would also provide the only opponent for Adelaide who made the finals in week 3, with the Eagles only opponent who would make finals was Fremantle during the Triangular.


SUMMARY 1995-2012 (excluding 1996 Lightning)

FINALISTS:  27 out of 36 teams
PREMIERS: 2 out of 18 seasons (2000 Bombers, 2009 Cats)
LOSING GRAND FINALISTS: 5 out of 18 seasons (2011 Magpies, 1998 Roos PSC Winners, 2010 Saints, 2005 Eagles, 2003 Magpies PSC runners-up)
PRELIMINARY (or better) FINALISTS: 18 out of 36 teams, 14 out of 18 seasons
FINALISTS MEETING AGAIN IN FINALS: 4 out of 18 seasons (2000, 2001, 2009, 2010, none of which were Grand Finals)
MINOR PREMIERS: 4 from 18 seasons (1998, 2000, 2002, 2011. Only 2000 Bombers were premiers)
BOTH FINALISTS MISSING FINALS: 1 out of 18 seasons (2007, this has only happened twice since the night competition was all inclusive)
WOODEN SPOON: 1 from 36 teams

I guess the findings to answer a couple of questions. The NAB Cup does at least provide some sort of comfort to teams that progress to the latter stages that they are on the right track to at least having the opportunity to challenge for a premiership, although it is as hard to complete the mission as it is if a side didn’t perform near their best in March. It is almost safe to assume that the of the finalists in the NAB Cup that it would take something dramatic to see neither side in the top 8, and something even more dramatic to see a side fall into the territory of tanking. There’s also a chance that even though the form from a particular pre-season game may not mean so much, there could be a repeat encounter with much higher stakes on the line six months down the track. It is OK to assume that premiers may not be found from the competition, but for those at home still formulating tips and ladder predictions for the season that teams that do well early can also do well late. Just how well the four teams still in contention for this year’s final (Magpies, Blues, Roos, Lions) parlay the form into the real competition is a mystery to be answered.

About Mick Jeffrey

39 Year Old, 16 year Bulldogs. over 280 combined senior/reserves appearances for Brothers AFC in AFL Capricornia. 26 time Marathon finisher, three time Ultra Marathon finisher and three time Comrades Marathon competitor (though not finisher yet).

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