In a couple of weeks the AFL pre-season competition begins. I thought it would be good to take a look back at how the pre-season developed into today’s NAB Cup.
The Victorian Football League pre-season competition can trace its roots back to the 1956 Night Premiership.
With the VFL running a four-team finals format at the time, the Night Premiership was a knock-out competition designed for the eight teams with nothing to do during the finals series.
All matches were played at the then home of South Melbourne, Lake Oval. The inaugural competition featured a South Melbourne vs Carlton final that attracted 32,000 people and a competition average of 20,000.
The Night Premiership under this format would be held on and off until 1971. The attendance record of 37,000 was set in 1965 between Carlton and North Melbourne.
Footscray won four, South Melbourne three, North Melbourne and Hawthorn two and St Kilda, Fitzroy, Geelong, Richmond and Melbourne won one each.
The 1976 Wills Cup
The VFL held no Night or pre-season competition again until 1977, however in 1976 the now defunct National Football League held its Wills Cup featuring teams from states outside Victoria as well as the VFL.
This was essentially an extension of the Championship of Australia matches, and was won by Hawthorn in front of 9000 at Norwood Oval and featured teams from the SANFL, VFL and WAFL.
AMCO and Escort Cup
In 1977, the VFL teams withdrew from the Wills Cup essentially leaving it dead in the water, to reform the VFL Night premiership. The new series featured all 12 VFL teams, but no SANFL or WAFL teams.
The competition was shown live on Channel 7, causing some concerns at SANFL HQ. For this, the VFL received the then substantial sum of $200,000 a season for what became known as the AMCO cup after its principal sponsor. It was later renamed the Escort Cup.
These matches were played out of VFL Park under lights.
From 1979, SANFL and WAFL teams joined the competition which pitted all 12 VFL teams against the best of the SANFL and WAFL, as well as state teams from Queensland, Tasmania, New South Wales and the ACT.
Some games were held pre-season and some games were held mid-season.
All eight WAFL teams would compete until 1981, after which it was just the top three before they ended participation in 1986. All ten SANFL teams competed until 1981, then the top four until the SANFL ended participation in 1987.
The 1987 competition would feature West Coast and Brisbane.
Non Victorian teams failed to overcome the Victorian home ground advantage during this phase of the competition (although it must be said that the NFL championships before it were entirely played in Adelaide even when the final didn’t feature an SA team).
Non Victorian sides only made the finals three times in ten years.
The 1982 season is notable for Swan Districts being banned after the coach declined to send a senior team to participate, when a scheduling conflict in Victoria meant a match involving the team had to be moved. He instead sent reserves and under 18s to compete.
The VFL banned the club for two years, but it should be noted that Swan Districts did win the 1982 WAFL premiership.
1982 was also the year that the minor states played in the Escort Shield. It’s worth noting that Tasmania were included in this group with New South Wales, ACT and Queensland.
Hawthorn won three times, Esendon twice and Melbourne, Sydney, Carlton, North Melbourne, Collingwood and Fitzroy all one once.
From Fosters to NAB Cup
The third and current phase of the pre-season competition dates to 1988, with the beginnings of VFL expansion under way.
The competition became entirely pre-season orientated for the first time. Teams were exclusively VFL-based. Games were no longer restricted to one venue, although Waverly Park was the main venue in Victoria until 1997 when many matches were shifted to the MCG.
Hawthorn were the inaugural winners of the new Fosters Cup. The Michael Tuck award for the best afield in the preseason final began to be awarded in 1992.
From 1995, the competition was known as the Ansett Cup until 2000, when it became the Wizard Home Loans Cup. Since 2006, the competition has been branded the NAB Cup.
The competition remained a knockout format until 2000, when it briefly became a round robin format, before reverting back to knockout in 2003. Since 2010, the first round of the competition has featured six round robin matches featuring three teams, before becoming the more traditional knockout from the second round.
Losing teams compete in matches all over the country in the NAB Challenge.
It became more of a trial period where new rules and new players could be blooded into a competitive environment without compromising the main season.
As such the pre-season premier has rarely gone on to win the season proper, and preseason form is almost no indicator for the main season.
The NAB Cup has featured matches played all over the world, including South Africa and New Zealand.
Its secondary component, the NAB Challenge sees matches played in areas that would never otherwise get an AFL game live, including small towns and rural districts. As such it is a highly effective promotional tool for the league and its clubs.
Essendon and Hawthorn have won the cup four times each, St Kilda and Carlton three times, with Adelaide, Geelong, Port and North winning twice each. Collingwood, the Bulldogs and Melbourne have won it once each.
Of the 50 pre-season/night competitions held, only seven times have the winners also taken out the premiership proper.
Port Adelaide were the last team to do so, winning the double in 2001 and 2002. Only three times have the winners of the main season gone on to win the next pre-season competition.
In several years, the pre-season winner has won the wooden spoon in the main season.