The 2017 AFL premiership fairytale power rankings

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    As the winter chill fades, three clear premiership contenders have emerged. But 11 teams are still in the hunt, and as we learnt last year, favouritism be damned. This is the 2017 AFL premiership fairytale power rankings.

    If it wasn’t already clear, the Adelaide Crows, Sydney Swans and Greater Western Sydney Giants – perhaps in that order – have emerged from the shadows of this even season as glistening premiership favourites.

    That seems to be the broad punditry consensus after a weekend that saw the Giants eviscerate the Western Bulldogs in their second half, the Swans deliver the first real kerb stomping of the year against the Dockers, and the Crows tidily dispose of the Bombers away from home.

    Adelaide has been the leader of the pack all year, and are almost certainly going to have been in the top two for the entirety of 2017 come a fortnight’s time. Sydney somersaulted off of their death bed in Round 7 and got to work running a marathon, winning a powerlifting world title and swimming the English channel. GWS have woken up, as we discussed last week, and we should expect their form to continue to build over the final two weeks of the year.

    That’s all a bit hot take-ey, so here are some hard numbers.

    If we stratify the competition by the ‘best eight’ teams and ‘worst ten’ teams, and compare how each team has done against each of these cohorts, three teams leap out as those most likely. Any prizes for guessing who?

    Fairytale chart

    Adelaide (+35 points per game against the best eight, +33 against the worst ten), Sydney (+5, +25) and GWS (+4, +23) are the only teams with positive margins against what The Metric That Shall Not Be Named says are the eight best teams this season – which are the current top eight, except Essendon takes the place of West Coast (who, as an aside, drop to 12th).

    But you’ve read this take already. Besides, we talked in some depth about the Giants last week, and will do the same with the Crows and Swans on Friday given they are this week’s Friday night fixture.

    Instead, let’s flip the script.

    Searching for a fairytale
    Between 1999 and 2015, every grand finalist had finished inside of the top four during the requisite home-and-away season. The last team to have made it into the grand final from outside of the top four was the 1998 Adelaide team, who finished fifth (but with the best percentage). They are the only team to have done it in the AFL era.

    The Western Bulldogs created a whole new path to the premiership last year. In rising from seventh on the ladder to win it all, the Dogs have made what football history says is impossible possible.

    2016 AFL Grand Final: The Western Bulldogs win one for all

    The preconditions for another event are… well, we can’t say they are in place, because what happened last year was unprecedented in the literal sense. This time last year though there were clear premiership favourites, and they were not the Western Bulldogs.

    This year, we have three clear standouts, two of whom sit in the top four and the third, in Sydney, with a chance to break in should they win out and some results go their way.

    Five other teams will play at least once in September; with two games remaining, Hawthorn in 12th still mathematically have a chance of making it. Starting this week, a fairytale finish to the year for one club and its fans could be on. Indeed, for some teams, the fairytale began earlier in the season, or the year before, or a decade ago.

    Of the teams remaining that aren’t in the top-right quadrant, which one has the best fairytale premiership potential? In this edition of totally subjective power rankings, we will rate the teams on three separate but related fairytale aspects: the likelihood of it happening (the sweet spot between ‘nah that’s too simple’ and ‘nah that isn’t going to happen’ is where a team can score full marks on this aspect), the team’s story to date (the better the story, the better the rating) and the time between their last premiership and 2017 (the longer the time, the better the rating).

    With that in mind, we start at the most obvious place.

    Ninth place: Hawthorn Hawks
    There is almost no chance of a Hawks finals appearance coming to pass. It would require Hawthorn to win out, and any four of Melbourne, West Coast, the Western Bulldogs, Essendon, and St Kilda to lose both of their remaining games. Meanwhile, the Hawks are only 24 months removed from the third of three straight premierships.

    No matter how remarkable the redemption story, there is no chance we can call a Hawthorn 2017 premiership a fairytale. There might be riots in the streets.

    Eighth place: Essendon Bombers
    Essendon are likely to end up in this year’s finals series, given they play the cratering Gold Coast and up-and-down Fremantle at home in their final two games – by far the easiest slate of the quintent of teams on 40 or 44 premiership points. Whether they play Richmond, Sydney or Port Adelaide in Week 1 of the finals will come down to how many points of margin they can put up, and whether the Tigers and Swans swap places.

    However, the Dons are not hugely removed from their last premiership (17 seasons) compared to many of the other teams in contention. Where they fall away is their story to date. Such a fairytale would be rapturous for Essendon and its fans, and just plain no good for everybody else. We can’t reward the Bombers’ marketing department and their unsavoury ‘Comeback Story’ campaign with a premiership. It cannot happen.

    Joe Daniher Brendon Goddard AFL Essendon Bombers 2016 tall

    (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

    Seventh place: Geelong Cats
    It’s Geelong.

    Seriously though, the Cats won their last premiership in 2011, and have been contending for a flag every year since, bar 2015 – when they finished ninth.

    They’re all-but locked into the top four (they will be if they win one of their last two games), meaning they are well positioned for a flag tilt. However their story is about as fantastical as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

    Sixth place: West Coast Eagles
    Should they fail again this year – and let’s be real, they’ve failed – West Coast will start the 2018 season staring at the longest gap between their last and next premiership. The Eagles won it all in 2006, which was 12 years after their second premiership (in 1994), which was two years after their first (1992), which was only their sixth year in the league. It is uncharted waters. No wonder the fanbase is growing restless.

    West Coast have a very tough run home, given they will likely need to win out to keep themselves in the eight: they travel to GWS and host Adelaide. In their favour is that the last time they travelled to Sydney’s west they won (albeit on the last play of the game), and the Crows will possibly have nothing to play for in Round 23.

    The Eagles don’t have a particularly compelling story to tell, either. We could call it the Flat Track Revenge Tour, given West Coast would be on the road for every game in September, and Nic Naitanui’s triumphant return from an ACL tear adds some extra spice. But there’s plenty of better material to mine.

    Fifth place: The Western Bulldogs
    The Dogs are last year’s premiers, and are up against it in their fight for a spot in the bottom half of the eight. They face Port Adelaide at Ballarat this weekend – who knows how that one is going to go – and play their final game of the year as the away team at their home ground in a game that will act as the retirement party for at least 1000 games of AFL experience.

    Should the Dogs win and win well against the Power, and other results fall in favourable fashion, then the eighth seed could be on the line.

    Should that arise, the Dogs would have a pretty great fairytale to tell; it would help prove the hypothesis that sequels are never better than the originals. The Dogs would have a tougher path through to the grand final on account of having to travel every week, and having less favourable match ups in the first two weeks of finals.

    Layer on top of this the retirements of at least two of their three veterans, including captain Robert Murphy – who, of course, missed out on last year’s premiership. The movie would be commissioned before the premiership party wrapped up.

    Fourth place: Port Adelaide Power
    The Power’s story is one of suicide and redemption. After rising ahead of their time in the first two years of Ken Hinkley’s tenure as coach, Port fell by the wayside as they stood still and kept doing what got them to a semi-final and then a preliminary final in 2013 and 2014.

    Then, all of a sudden, their fixture broke right, Robbie Gray went nuclear, Matthew Lobbe was removed from ruck duties for Paddy Ryder, and the rest is history.

    Having last tasted premiership success in 2004 – 13 years ago – it’s not as though Port Adelaide are starving. But still, it is a reasonable gap, particularly given the club was ripped to pieces in the 2007 grand final, and had experienced on and off field challenges in the period between then and now.

    The Power also lose some marks because of their position: they could win against the Dogs, smash the Suns in Round 23, and slide into fourth spot should the Tigers stumble at their final hurdle.

    Absent that, it’s tough to see a team who has an average margin of -27 points against the best eight teams – which is worse than all but Fremantle, Brisbane and Gold Coast for the record – making much noise when only best eight teams are left in the running.

    Chad Wingard Port Adelaide Power AFL 2017 tall

    AAP Image/David Mariuz

    Third place: St Kilda Saints
    Port Adelaide and St Kilda represent the dividing line between notional and real sporting fairytales. There’s no need to justify why the remaining three teams’ stories would qualify as fairytale finishes to the year; we only need three numbers: 36, 50 and 52.

    These are the years since Richmond, St Kilda and Melbourne last won premierships – all of them in the pre-professional VFL days of the league.

    St Kilda rank third because, like the Dogs before them, they have an incredibly difficult job ahead of them to qualify for finals. Given their weak percentage – the weakest of the teams on 40 or 44 premiership points – the Saints need to win out to get to 48 premiership points and hope that only one other team gets to 12 wins. It is almost certainly too much to ask.

    If they did somehow manage to sneak into eighth spot, it would give heir to the ‘Best Player Never to Win a Premiership’ throne, Nick Riewoldt, one last opportunity to abdicate. The Saints are in a similar spot to last year’s Dogs from a demographic perspective, and a rise to a premiership would be well ahead of what conventional wisdom would say is time.

    When they have played their best football this year, the Saints have been insatiable, and for a time it looked like they were one of the eight best teams. Alas, their quest ends.

    That’s not so bad for the Saints though. While their initial five-year plan, released in 2014, had them contending for finals in 2017 and pushing for the top four in 2018, I’m not sure it was written with the view that the competition would be so competitive as it is now.

    St Kilda’s list build has been long, deliberate and productive, and this off season looms as the most important yet given it could yield the capstone piece the club has been chasing for the past two years.

    Second place: Richmond Tigers
    The Tigers haven’t had the same length of time as the Saints between premierships – 36 years versus 50 – but just pip them into second place due to the degree of difficulty and the whimsical nature of their fairytale.

    Just think about it. This time last year, there were genuine, and perhaps justified, calls for Richmond to part ways with their head coach Damien Hardwick and to start a multi-year rebuild. The Tigers had fallen into a deep funk of indecision and sloppy skills – the deadliest combination of happenings – and sat in the bottom six with an 8-12 record.

    Now they are riding high in the top four, and are some bad luck in close games away from being entrenched in the top two. They lost the player consistently touted as their missing piece, and look a better side without him.

    We can layer on the club’s abject failure to progress beyond the first week of finals since their last September win in 2001 too. There is plenty to consider, which we will do in a few weeks when it is time to roll out the annual finals preview mega column.

    Richmond’s run to the finish line is conducive to them maintaining their spot in the top four: a twilight game against the Dockers and a final-round match against the (likely) lame duck Saints.

    They should win out, and make it into the top four for the first time since that series in 2001.

    Josh Caddy Richmond Tigers 2017 AFL tall

    AAP Image/Julian Smith

    First place: Melbourne Demons
    Melbourne’s story has been writing itself all year; the injuries, the suspensions, the personal tragedies, the periods of scintillating football, the challenges, the periods out of the eight, the periods when a top-four finished looked odds on. Theirs has been a uniquely up and down season, which is reminiscent of the Dogs’ 2016 campaign in many ways.

    Now owning the longest premiership drought in the league, and the longest period without playing a part in September, just making it into the top eight after a series of failed rebuilds is cause for celebration. The Dees are still some way from their apex, but have shown this year that when everything comes together, they can play the best football in the competition.

    When I wrote about the Dees in May, I was still confident a finals berth would follow the club through its topsy-turvy season.

    The shoulda, coulda, woulda Demons loom as the big ‘what if’ of 2017

    Many of the issues we talked through then – the volatile forward line, the tendency to be destructively aggressive with ball in hand, the patches where the youngsters can’t keep up – have proven too great to overcome. This all helps build the narrative: the shackles of a young, rising team cast off in a four-game stretch in September.

    Melbourne has to get there first. With games against Brisbane and Collingwood that shouldn’t be a problem, but inconsistency has been a hallmark of the Dees’ season, and a slip up now could prove terminal.

    If they do make it, Melbourne will have little to fear travelling for the full finals series: they’ve been a better team away from the MCG than at it this year, according to a simple home-ground advantage calculation (which pegs them as a 4.4 point better team when travelling across town or to other states and territories). The last game of the year will be on their home deck, too.

    So who knows? If we judge a worth of a team on the basis of their story, the Dees could be the team to beat. The real world is far more complicated than that of course. As we enter the stadium in our 23-week-long marathon run, the answers to all our questions come into view.

    Adelaide looks the team to beat, with the Giants and Swans not too far behind them. While with two rounds remaining that looks to be that, we know that is not always the case.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.