In our society, the number 18 represents growth, responsibility and change and should be no different for the AFL on the birth of its 18th club.
The AFL hopes that its venture into Greater Western Sydney will close the divide between AFL and NRL in NSW, but division is exactly what the AFL should be planning for.
I am not calling for war between the codes but in fact that the arrival of GWS is the perfect time for the AFL to launch division football.
The AFL’s newest side will see 18 teams competing this year, 11 more matches then last year and one more side that won’t be taking part in the finals series.
In short, we should expect an increase on last year’s nine losses by over 100 points and disappointingly, an increase in dead rubbers played towards the end of the season. To combat the increasing amount of irrelevant games, the AFL should introduce the following division system to promote equality and competiveness in the modern game.
The AFL should establish three divisions of six teams where each team plays everyone once and everyone in their division twice.
This would equate to a 22 round season and ensure the season is no longer than it already is.
A further benefit is that each team would be playing their own division in the final five rounds, increasing the amount of ‘eight point games’ that could see teams dramatically climb the division ladder.
At the completion of the regular season the top two sides from each division become the top six with their positions decided by their total points during the year.
The final two spots in the eight are decided by a wildcard round that would see the next four best ranked teams from any of the divisions (meaning in theory all four wildcard teams can come from one division) play off to decide the final two spots.
A divisional season structure would mean that teams in the same division have identical fixtures (in terms of teams played) minimising the advantage of getting to play weaker teams twice in the year. This would remove the debate in relation to who has the easier run home to the finals.
Home finals and the spots within the eight would be based upon total points throughout the season, allowing the finals series to be played in the same manner as it has since 2000.
By introducing the wildcard round it allows for more teams to still be in the running for finals towards the closing stages of the year ensuring wins are still vital.
It also ensures the integrity of the final eight isn’t diluted and nullifies the effects of playing in a stronger or weaker division.
There are two ways the AFL could go about assembling the divisions. Option one is by simply having the same sides play in the same division each year. Option two is have the divisions decided by where each team finishes the previous year.
The AFL should look more favourably upon ‘option one,’ as it allows traditional rivals, local derby’s and blockbuster games to be played twice a year as they should be.
For instance, the divisions could be as follows:
Division one: Hawthorn, Collingwood, Essendon, Carlton, Sydney and GWS
Division two: Geelong, St Kilda, Richmond, Kangaroos, Melbourne and Western Bulldogs
Division three: West Coast, Fremantle, Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Brisbane and Gold Coast
This would allow the biggest rivalries such as Collingwood v Carlton and Essendon v Carlton to be played twice as well as all local derbies, showdowns and Q-clashes to be played twice.
The biggest losers would appear to be division two, who will only play three of the big four Victorian teams once a year (or none in the case of Richmond), but would not be required to travel further than Geelong in the last five rounds.
The AFL scrapped rivalry round and rightfully so, as who can seriously name traditional rivals for the likes of the Western Bulldogs, Melbourne and St Kilda?
If the current rivalry between Hawthorn and Geelong as well West Coast and Sydney in years gone past can teach us anything, it is that agonising losses (especially when finals are involved) can create the most bitter of rivalries.
I’m sure if we see Melbourne nudge out hapless Richmond from claiming a long awaited spot in the finals for a few years running then tempers and rivalries will begin to boil.
It is understandable that a revamped format would sound like fingernails on a chalkboard to those traditionalists who want the game left alone.
The simple fact is that every change the AFL has made has been an attempt to improve the aesthetic of the game for the fans. Yet all games need context, and no matter the rule changes, the AFL must eradicate as many pointless games from the fixture as possible to maintain the quality of the product.
The best way to do this in the league’s current format is by introducing division football.