How often in the past couple of decades has a team gone into the final round of an AFL season sixth on the ladder but premiership favourite? How often has a reigning premier not even got to defend its title the following September?
Never and hardly ever are the answers to those two questions, and further proof, as though we needed it, that 2017 really is one out of the box.
If Sydney doesn’t start the week flag favourite with the various betting agencies, it should, given the size of the statement made against Adelaide on Friday night. And the Western Bulldogs? Well, it’s going to take little short of a miracle for the Doggies even to get a crack at September this time.
Luke Beveridge’s team is set to become only the second team since Adelaide in 1999 to win a flag then miss out on finals. And like Hawthorn in 2009, the common denominator appears to be the psychological bogey of backing up after achieving the ultimate unexpectedly early.
In 2017, heading into the final round, there’s potentially stark contrast even in the most obvious similarity to last year, that is, the possibility of a team winning the flag from the lower half of the eight.
Last year, the Doggies did it from the seventh. This time, the Swans are superbly placed to do it from sixth. That’s about where the analogy ends, given Sydney’s big-time experience compared to the Dogs last year, not to mention their red-hot form, 13 wins from the past 15 games now after that massive win over the Crows.
Given no team has ever even reached finals after a 0-6 start to the season, a Sydney premiership would be one of the most amazing the game has seen. Yet there’s plenty of other remarkable finals stories waiting to be written, too.
An Adelaide flag, for example, less than two years after an entire club was shaken to its foundations by the tragic death of its then-coach Phil Walsh. A first GWS premiership. And, dare we suggest it, a first Richmond premiership in 37 years.
Last week in this column, I argued that only three teams – Adelaide, GWS and Sydney – were capable of winning the premiership. That view hasn’t changed, but if there’s to be a sizeable spanner in those works, it has to be the Tigers.
As pathetic as was their Fremantle opposition after quarter-time in Perth on Sunday night, Richmond could scarcely have done any more to convince what sceptics remain of their flag legitimacy, particularly now with a double chance in their own hands.
They were quick, they were relentless, and I reckon most significantly, they were prolific on the scoreboard, 155 points easily their highest score of the season.
The Tigers’ defensive qualities have been terrific all year, ranked second for fewest points conceded. They’ve been very solid for contested ball, ranked third on the differentials. The only chink in the armour has been scoreboard pressure, and that was delivered in spades against the Dockers.
Like many, I still have my doubts about how a forward structure featuring only one bona fide key forward in Jack Riewoldt is going to stand up in finals, when there’s more pressure on the ball-carrier, spotting up targets becomes more difficult and the long bail-out kick into the 50 more of a necessity.
You can write your own ticket about someone like Jacob Townsend being allowed to repeat the six-goal haul he managed against Freo opposed to the “big boys” of September. And yet the Tigers’ profile isn’t all that different to the Bulldogs of last year.
Like Richmond now, they too ranked only 12th for points scored. But like the Tigers now they were strong defensively, had manic intensity around the ball, were consistently strong for contested possession.
It will need the requisite bit of luck that goes with any successful flag campaign for a repeat, but it’s a pretty decent starting point. And unless they screw things up royally against St Kilda next weekend, the Tiges will also have the advantage of a double chance.
Geelong fans are entitled to ask why no love for them in flag terms, especially given last week’s gutsy win with an undermanned line-up against those very same Tigers.
For me, Geelong’s labour-intensive win over Collingwood on Saturday was more of what we’ve been seeing a lot of from the Cats over the second half of the season. Decent effort, a bottom line of more wins than losses, but a concerning lack of spark about it all.
That’s been the case more often the longer this year has gone, too, Geelong comprehensively beaten by both Adelaide and Sydney in the past month. Most significantly, the Cats’ scoring power has dried up.
They somehow remain third for points scored, but that is largely off the back of some early-season scoring sprees, when they topped 100 points five games in a row. Since then, they’ve reached the same mark just three times in 16 games. I suspect this flag is going to take more firepower than that.
Port Adelaide? Solid offensively and defensively, ranked second for points scored and third for fewest points conceded. And as the likes of skipper Travis Boak, Ollie Wines and Jared Polec demonstrated against the Bulldogs in Ballarat on Saturday, their midfield is capable of a high standard.
Can the Power do it four weeks in a row against the best opposition, though? Results this season would suggest not.
The Power are 0-5 against the teams above them on the ladder. And consistency against everyone has been an issue. Saturday was the fifth time in 2017 Port had racked up back-to-back wins. On each of the previous four occasions, it has come unstuck the following week.
The rest of the eight? Not much of a case for going all the way, to be frank. Certainly according to the numbers.
Melbourne made hard enough work of getting over Brisbane on Sunday to make even victory over Collingwood in the final round far from certain, let alone wins beyond. The Demons rank mid-table for scores for and against, fare OK in the contested stakes but are mid-table again for clearances.
I’m similarly unconvinced by the “Essendon’s best can beat anyone” line. It’s been six weeks since the Bombers delivered anything approaching that in the round 17 win against St Kilda.
The Dons are leaking a lot more defensively, not scoring nearly as efficiently as earlier in the season, and are only 12th and 15th respectively in the contested ball and clearance rankings. They’re also 2-6 from eight games against the teams above them on the ladder.
They’re hardly alone there, though. There’s officially 11 teams going into round 23 who either will or still can make finals. The record of eight of them against my “big three” of Adelaide, GWS and Sydney isn’t great, 31 games for seven wins, 23 losses and a draw. Not overly encouraging.
Three of those wins, by the way, came against Sydney during that horrendous 0-6 start to the season, a period which, though it was only April, in terms of this year’s premiership race now seem like eons ago. Well, we did say it’s been a bizarre season.
This article first appeared on Footyology.