Are all teams flat-track bullies now?

Alex Roar Rookie

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    Home grounds have always provided an advantage in the AFL. Unique dimensions, crowd imbalance and the travel (or lack of) required to get to a ground create a significant advantage for home teams and an extra challenge for away teams.

    The home-ground advantage is now more evident than ever. In such an even competition it is an advantage that swings games and often impacts results.

    This was amplified in the 2017 finals series. After 23 rounds and four weeks of finals, can anyone definitively prove or even confidently say that one team was clearly better than all others? None of the top four teams on the ladder after Round 23 – Adelaide, Geelong, Richmond and GWS, the eventual preliminary finalists – had defeated a fellow top four team on the road at any point in the regular season, and this would continue in finals.

    The team that got closest for the entire year was Geelong, taking two premiership points in a draw against the Giants in Sydney in Round 15. Apart from that encounter, every game, including finals, between any two of the preliminary finalists resulted in a win for the home team, assuming we are being realistic and counting the second qualifying final and the grand final as Richmond home games.

    Additionally, of the nine finals played, eight were won by the team with the home ground advantage. What is most remarkable about this is that of these eight games, the narrowest margin was 36 points. Six finals – two-thirds of the series – were all decided by eight goals or more in favour of the home team. The only team to win a final away from its home ground in 2017 was West Coast, and it took the Eagles until after the siren in extra time to do so.

    Although we should expect the home team to win the majority of games, particularly during the finals as the home team usually finished higher on the ladder, the extent to which home teams dominated in the last and most important four weeks of the year was extreme.

    In every final, with the exception of West Coast’s thrilling win over Port Adelaide, the home team appeared particularly on the ball while the away team mostly looked flat and uninspiring.

    (Image: AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    In the first week of finals Richmond turned around a disappointing loss to a depleted Cats side in Geelong just four weeks earlier to defeat them comfortably at the MCG. In the third week the Cats recorded their second loss to the Crows at Adelaide Oval for the year despite dismantling them at Kardinia Park in Round 11.

    Similarly the Giants registered their second loss to the Tigers at the MCG for the year, although they had beaten them on their home turf in Sydney. The most emphatic swing, though, was seen in the Tigers’ 48-point win over Adelaide in the grand final at the MCG, contrasting with the Crows’ whopping 76-point victory over Richmond at the Adelaide Oval in Round 6.

    Geelong defied expectations twice, going in as favourites for what turned out to be a 51-point loss in what was effectively a Richmond home game before turning that around the next week against the Swans, who travelled interstate for a 59-point drubbing at the hands of the underdog Cats.

    So often the venue made all the difference.

    It is fair to suggest that any of the top four teams – Adelaide, Geelong, Richmond and GWS – would have held the premiership cup aloft if they had played all three finals at home. This could even be extended to the Swans, who won 14 of their last 16 games of the home-and-away season to finish sixth on the ladder. That the venue will likely determine the result of a final and ultimately the premiership is a testament to how even the top end of the competition really is.

    A quick glance at the last handful of seasons will tell you that the five most recent grand finals were won by Melbourne-based clubs against interstate teams. On four of these five occasions the interstate team had finished higher on the ladder than the Melbourne-based club. With the exception of the Bulldogs in 2016, all of the winning Victorian teams in this time were MCG tenants and had significantly more experience there than their interstate opposition.

    With home grounds evidently more influential than ever, it is time, if it wasn’t already, to seriously consider allowing the grand final to move away from the MCG if the higher-ranked team plays its home games elsewhere, and it’s certainly time to grant proper home finals to Geelong so that all clubs can compete in finals on a level playing field.

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