The danger of believing what you read

 

If you were to believe the comments of former St Kilda coach, Grant Thomas, the team with the worst list in the AFL just won the premiership. If you take the time to read further, across a variety of social media platforms, you can see that there is a Victorian bias in the draw and finals fixtures, particularly the use of the MCG as a permanent Grand Final venue. Former West Coast premiership veteran, Sam Butler, has stated as much.

 

Everyone is entitles to opinions, and past VFL/AFL players or coaches are in a uniquely knowledgeable position, being so close to the highest levels of the game. But it doesn’t necessarily make them right and a short look at some history and data can put things in a different perspective.

 

The AFL is constantly under fire for their efforts to even out the game. Strangely, I still remember people critical of the then VFL for not doing something about the “Silvertail” Carlton Blues when they could seemingly “buy” premierships. The poor old AFL/VFL cannot win here – they have either made it too even or not even enough. Classical “Goldilocks Syndrome” where to many it is never “just right”. From my position that view is distorted heavily by whether or not one’s own team wins a flag or languishes again outside the finals.

 

However, maybe a look at the competition since 1987 (the first year of national competition with the addition of West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Bears) and 1990 when it became the AFL – clearly delineating the move from state-based to national-based competition is in order.

 

Since 1987 there have been 32 grand finals. One was drawn (2010 – Collingwood v St Kilda), leaving 31 victories – 31 premiers. The breakup is interesting in that it still shows three clear things – firstly the spread of winners has increased which suggests the hoped for evenness. Secondly, there are still dynasties of footballing power for clubs well enough resourced, coached and managed. Thirdly, interstate teams have done very well in this era.

 

What has triggered the debate about a Victorian bias is that since 2013, five non-Victorian clubs, have been runners-up. Sydney (twice), Fremantle, West Coast and now Adelaide have fallen at the final hurdle. Though that doesn’t only imply bias. It also implies how good interstate teams are to get there. It raises questions of whether there was a bias against Geelong when they lost four flags in seven seasons from 1989 to 1995. There was no “bias” – they just lost to better teams on the day.

 

Extrapolating further, there is an argument (but a very, very weak one – except to Collingwood supporters) that the world was against Collingwood when they won no flags between 1958 and 1990 despite playing in eight losing grand finals in between.

 

If history teaches us anything it is that a season is played over 22 rounds to earn the right to challenge finals and from there the best drilled, skilled and committed team will win the flag. I have NEVER seen a club win the AFL premiership by accident.

 

There have been some that have questioned how it was that Adelaide was the undisputed best team in the AFL for season 2017, right up until 5pm on Grand Final day. The Tigers had no place upstaging the rightful premiers. Well, to those same Adelaide conspiracy theorists, maybe have a look at your own brilliant 1997 and 1998 teams. Neither was the best team all season, yet come finals time they defeated all to win both flags – after finishing the 1997 season in fourth place and fifth in 1998. Over the two years they won all but two of their finals matches interstate, and even lost a final in 1998.

 

Adelaide was on the receiving end yesterday of what they themselves achieved for their back to back flags in ’97 and ’98. Anyone game enough to ask will proudly hear that their list wasn’t the best in the league, but their preparation and momentum certainly was. That description fits Richmond exactly yesterday.

 

To the millions of list managers for AFL teams (and I’m one of them) who sit in judgement of how good a team’s list is – maybe consider this. There is no player drafted or traded to the AFL that cannot play. They are all elite, but the secret is how they are conditioned (physically and mentally), coached, prepared, nursed (through injury) and treated. This is where clubs with good coaching and off-field systems are successful.

 

The dynasties of the AFL/VFL since 1987 have seen:

Hawthorn – 7 flags, two dynasties (1987-1991 – 3 flags, 2008-1015 – 4 flags)

Geelong – 3 flags, one dynasty

Brisbane – 3 flags, one dynasty

West Coast – 3 flags, one dynasty (1991-94)

Sydney – 2 flags

Essendon – 2 flags

North Melbourne – 2 flags

 

After that the league has seen flags to Collingwood, Port Adelaide, Western Bulldogs, Richmond, Port Adelaide, Carlton. That is 13 of the 18 AFL clubs have won flags since 1987. If you remove the two newest franchises – GWS and Gold Coast – it leaves just St Kilda, Melbourne and Fremantle to have not won a flag, yet Fremantle played in the 2013 Grand Final, Melbourne in 1988 and 2000 and St Kilda in 1997, 2009 and 2010 (twice). The competition has certainly thrown open premiership opportunities for all clubs whilst retaining the ability to grow sustained success.

 

That isn’t really different to any previous VFL era – just different clubs, different reasons and different methods.

 

Taking that a step further, the period since 1987 has seen 11 interstate clubs win flags, 12 interstate clubs runner-up. Only three times were there two interstate teams competing (2004, 05, 06). This says that in a competition where roughly 45% of clubs are non-Victorian, they have won around one third of all flags and been in around two thirds of Grand Finals. A grand performance but not the once-feared interstate domination. All but one of those were achieved at the MCG, when West Coast lost to Hawthorn at VFL Park in 1991.

 

Therefore, data says that there is no AFL bias, even though it is perceived by supporters of almost all clubs. What the data does imply is that whichever clubs can put together the right personnel on and off the field, create club stability and build a healthy club culture will be successful.

 

And, like it or not, that is what Richmond did to win the 2017 AFL Premiership.

 

So when reading all of the articles and comments in the wash-up from yesterday’s big day (including this one), maybe it is wise to put emotion aside and look back through history for clarification.

 

Be careful what you believe.

 

More 2017 Grand Final coverage here.

About Wesley Hull

Passionate lover of Australian Rules football. Have played and coached the game and now spend my time writing about the game I love and introducing young people to the game through school coaching. Will try and give back to the game what it has given me for more that 40 years.

Comments

  1. Grant said it was the worst group of players to win a flag, not the worst list in the AFL.

    I’m inclined to agree, or at least acknowledge where he’s coming from.

    The Tigers were 13th in 2016 and could easily drop to 13th in 2018.

    The Tigers in 2017? It’s hard to find a flag winner which had more go right.

  2. Oh, and the competition was not spectacular, even though it was seemingly even. Tigers ended up the best of an average competition.
    The flag was eminently pinchable, and the Tiggers had the lightest fingers at the right time.

  3. Len Rodwell says:

    Harsh on the Tigers me thinks. They had played finals in the years previous to 13th place finish so it is 2016 that might be the exception. However, one might also question whether they can maintain the level of intensity they showed for much of this year in 2018. That was a problem for my Bulldogs in 2017.

  4. John Butler says:

    Wesley, thanks for providing some facts and balance, rather than the regurgitated old prejudices that seem to be getting some currency recently.

    It comes down to how well clubs run their own affairs. Everything else is secondary.

    In the modern era, there have been no accidental flags.

    Cheers

  5. Wesley Hull says:

    Thanks Tony…yep, my opening paragraph was deliberately exaggerated – I do know what he actually said. But my issue was really with criticism of lists that get so far into finals. The list HAS to be better than some believe or they couldn’t sustain the season they did. What amounted to 18 wins for the season, four losses by under 10 points, one loss by 16 points and two blowouts suggests a pretty decent and consistent effort across the year – worst lists in finals couldn’t sustain that.

    I believe the word Thomas should have been looking for was underrated list – that would be easier to apply to a team that finished up being premiers. I go back to the idea that despite what frustrated fans or media might feel after games, there is no-one on an AFL list that cannot play. It comes down to how the club and coaching department gets the best out of their players and Hardwick has done an amazing job with a vastly underrated list.

    To use an Essendon analogy, they have rightly or wrongly been torn apart in recent years at all levels. The end results, despite the hype of returning stars, are an ordinary list that fell into the finals. But was it just dumb luck or do you credit the work of Worsfold for getting so much out of a very fractured team? I think, like Hardwick, he has harnessed the talent at his disposal. Same story with Bulldogs last year and the work Beveridge put into a promising but not “great” list.

    I can see many more examples of big rises and big falls in coming seasons as coaches learn more and more how to harness the players and their abilities. As a current local assistant coach myself, I also see that the science of having the right blend of assistants is getting better and better – coaches who can harness that aspect will be better and better…no conincidence that Clarkson has seen such success when you see the team of coaches who have worked under him…and now enjoy success elsewhere…Beveridge, Hardwick.

    I certainly take your point…and lookout for Collingwood next year after finishing 13th this year…if Buckley can surround himself with a strong coaching group, they too have the cattle to reach finals…and then, who knows (and that’s coming from an Essendon supporter..!!).

  6. Stainless says:

    Wesley
    If we accept that the AFL’s equalisation agenda is a good thing (and I think it is), and we accept that being the best team for a whole season can be undone in one game, then we have to expect some Premiers will not be teams chock full of champions. Richmond in 2017 is certainly one of those.
    That said, I think your key point is that no Premiership is won by accident, and none are undeserving. What this means in practice is:
    1. Every Premier team has at least a couple of genuine superstars who can transform a game. Daicos was the Magpies’ talisman in 1990. “Bont” and JJ last year. Martin and Rance were Richmond’s in 2017.
    2. Reputations are forged in Grand Finals. An assessment of a GF team will change dramatically between 2.30 and 5.00pm on GF day. I reckon a few Richmond “unknowns” are now very highly rated and a few Adelaide “stars” are now being seriously questioned. At what point in time do we assess list quality?
    3. Premierships are rarely won by poorly-functioning clubs. Richmond as an organisation used to be a basket case but is now a well-oiled machine. I did not predict a Flag in 2017 but I was confident that we had the building blocks in place to be a very strong and successful club in the years ahead. The Richmond team would not have got near the GF were the Richmond club not stable and strong.
    4. Any Premiership side, no matter how strong, needs a slice of luck. List quality aside, so many factors need to go right for Premiership success. Injuries, form, MRP decisions, off-field harmony, personal issues (think Nicky Winmar 1997), close results can all kick-start or derail a Premiership campaign. Richmond rode its luck this year, no question, but this doesn’t diminish its achievement or make it any less deserving.
    5. The irony in all this is that I expect that Richmond, with a lot of young, inexperienced players, few ageing stars and some obvious areas for improvement, will have a stronger list in 2018. But that in no way guarantees improved performance.

  7. Wesley Hull says:

    Well said, Stainless. Agree with all you say. Thank you.

  8. Good research Wesley. Interesting comparison of 2 different 23 year periods. 1967 -1989 just 5 clubs won Premierships. 1995 – 2017 13 different winners including 6 different in a row 2003-2008, first time since 1963-68. Also 4 of the longest 10 Premiership droughts ever in VFL/AFL history broken (Sydney 72, Bulldogs 62, Geelong 44, Richmond 37).

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