21 insights into the 2018 AFL fixture

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    It’s Christmas in October. The beginning of the end this football year gets underway with the release of the 2018 AFL fixture, and there is much to discuss.

    As ever, the league’s most potent policy tool – its power to determine who plays who, where and when – has stirred plenty of instant reaction and debate. Winners, losers, the facile stuff has been sorted out already. This tradition, in its third year, is a little different.

    We will sort through the entrails and the titbits that may be missed on a first glance. We will work out how it all fits into the macro state of the league following the changed state of play post-trade period. Above all else, we will find the interesting stuff and chop out the rest: all killer, no filler. Fingers crossed.

    Releasing next year’s fixture in late October is ostensibly the league’s way of softly launching into the new football year. While that technically comes on 1 December, all we have left to come is the three delisted free agency periods – which promise to be busier than ever – and the draft. Final 2018 lists are lodged on 30 November, and then that is that.

    So, with an eye to the year ahead, here’s 21 insights into the 2018 AFL fixture, gleaned from an evening with little more than spreadsheets on the screen and a cold beverage in hand.

    The Essendon redemption arc continues, but hold fire on the perception they’ve got it easy
    Essendon get another hand up from the league. That seems to be one of the many consensuses reached following the release of the fixture.

    The Bombers play two opponents from their bracket of six (under the league’s weighted rule, which… look, Google it) and two from the bottom tier, with their lone top-six double up coming against the premiers Richmond. The Tigers happen to be the lone finalist the Bombers face twice, a fact which has been spun into a web that stretches all the way to Essendon making a run at the top four.

    That’s possible. But anything is possible right now. Did you not learn anything about randomness and unpredictability over the past two seasons of football? We aren’t living in a Hawthorn fever dream anymore! And besides, the season is four months and three weeks away.

    Josh Begley Essendon Bombers AFL 2017

    (Photo by Jason O’Brien/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    Anyway, things are not as rosy as they perhaps seem on the glossy veneer of the AFL’s fixture handbook.

    Essendon has what appears to be the toughest run of opponents in home games in the league. The Bombers’ average home opponent had a Pythagorean win total (adjusted for schedule strength) of 12.3 wins in 2017 – more than a win above the league average (11.2 wins). Only two other teams have a total above 12 for their home opponents (Hawthorn and West Coast).

    Now, you can spin that one of two ways. On one hand, having a tougher slate at home is beneficial because it means you get the benefit of any home ground advantage that exists. That should lean against the difficulty of the opposition. On the other hand, anything that makes holding your ground at home more difficult can make accumulating the 12 or 13 wins required to make it into the final eight more difficult.

    In the case of West Coast, a tough home slate is probably fine. Everyone bar Fremantle has to travel to play the Eagles at home, and the Eagles can avoid playing the better sides away from their comfortable – new in 2018 – surrounds. For Essendon, there’s a wrinkle.

    One of their home opponents is MCG tenant Richmond, a second is Geelong (effectively a neutral game), and a third is the Etihad Stadium specialist St Kilda. The Bombers also host the Adelaide Crows (in the second game of the season), who have made the undercover oval their home away from home in recent years. That complicates matters.

    The second cause for pause is Essendon’s fixture leading up to and immediately following this year’s Anzac Day game. The important day is a Wednesday this year, and with the league’s insistence on a mid-season bye means the end of April and beginning of May is mighty awkward for the Bombers.

    Essendon plays on 25 April, 29 April and 5 May – three games in just ten days. Collingwood gets an extra day’s rest at the back end for some reason, playing a Sunday in Round 8 rather than a Saturday as the Bombers. It’s a brutal stretch.

    Finally, Essendon have been scheduled to travel to Perth twice, and Sydney, Adelaide, the Gold Coast and Brisbane once each. Along with Melbourne, they are the only two Victorian teams that travel to two states twice to play away games. None of the journeys are on a six-day break, however.

    Essendon might have escaped the wrath of multiple match-ups against last year’s finalists, but there are plenty of gremlins lurking in their slate. With a sizeable turnover of their best 22 from this season to the next, let’s hold fire on calling the Bombers anything more than a finals contender for now.

    David Zaharakis Essendon Bombers AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

    The farcical Friday night rationale
    It’s Year Three of the ‘Friday night is a reward for good football’ era. Since taking over at AFL CEO, that has been Gil McLachlan’s mantra for football’s prime time, and after last year’s fixture dropped it became a reality. This year, the illusion has been shattered.

    Say what you will about Carlton, they do not deserve a single Friday night fixture as a reward for good football. That they received four of them boggles the mind.

    We have history, the Carlton Football Club and I, so I will lean on the rest of the football punditry to back me up here. Carlton’s four Friday night games have been met with universal bemusement, particularly given many other clubs – like the Showtime GWS Giants – have been left in the cold.

    It is one of the only blemishes on an otherwise solid – at face value, with plenty of reading and thinking still to be done – attempt at fitting 198 games of football into 23 rounds. New scheduling boss Travis Auld should feel proud of his first fixture.

    He should not feel proud about the rationale he offered for Carlton’s re-ascension to the Friday night throne to Melbourne radio yesterday. When pushed on the issue, Auld offered this pithy response:

    That’s fine, if it were true. Anzac Day falls in Round 5 this season. Carlton’s Friday night games are Round 3 (cross), Round 6 (tick), Round 11 (double cross) and Round 17 (quintuple cross). There is also the tacit admission that, because two other big Victorian clubs were not available, Carlton was the only team that could fill some kind of big Victorian club breach. *Blows an enormous raspberry*. The VFL died more than a quarter of a century ago.

    Just tell us the truth guys. We can take it. We understand there are competing priorities: TV ratings, gate revenue, showcasing the best teams, picking the marquee match ups. Don’t hide behind a paper thin rationale that anyone with a shred of independent thought can see straight through.

    Outside of this, the league has mostly kept to its word regarding Friday nights. Last year’s grand finalists, Adelaide and Richmond, play in the time slot five times each, as does Sydney. 2016 premiers the Western Bulldogs get four attempts, as do the fast-paced St Kilda and Essendon.

    No Queensland team gets a look in once again, and neither do the Fremantle Dockers.

    If we add in the Thursday night games, which everyone seems to love unless their team is playing, 15 of the 58 slots are taken up by the premiers and the runners-up. That’s good. Carlton in the early week slots as much as Greater Western Sydney, Melbourne and Port Adelaide combined? That’s not good.

    Marc Murphy Carlton Blues AFL 2017

    (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    The Port Adelaide push is on
    Port Adelaide’s frantic off-season gambit appears to have coincided with a reasonably kind slate of games for 2018.

    The Power have a very solid set of double-up opponents next season: Adelaide (duh), Essendon, Fremantle, West Coast and the Western Bulldogs – the latter of which is at a neutral venue.

    Port Adelaide played Essendon at Docklands last year and were beaten quite handily, but otherwise have a more-than-decent record there in recent years. Two trips out west will not phase them either, given the newness of Perth Stadium.

    Port’s schedule looks to be relatively well spaced out, too. Their toughest stretch by way of opponents is Round 12 to 14, where the Power host Richmond, the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne in consecutive weeks.

    They face 2017 finalists back to back just twice: West Coast then Adelaide in Round 7 and 8, and Adelaide then West Coast in Round 20 and 21 (both at Adelaide Oval).

    Finally, their away slate looks relatively soft from here. Their average away opponent had a Pythagorean win total of 10.3 last season, the second-lowest behind Essendon.

    Thought 2017 was a flash in the pan? It is time to reconsider that position. Port Adelaide has a fixture amenable to the maintenance of the status quo at an absolute minimum, and with the potential to power them to an extra win or two.

    Ollie Wines Port Adelaide Power AFL 2017

    (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

    West Coast’s Victoria phobia, and obscure fixture
    Port Adelaide’s elimination final conqueror has a weird quirk built into its 2018 fixture. West Coast travel to Victoria just four times next season, down from seven trips in 2017.

    Indeed, the Eagles play the fewest games in Melbourne and its surrounds of any team in the league – including Brisbane (six), Gold Coast (five) and Greater Western Sydney (five), who’ve often been asked to travel to unusual locations to play Victoria-based opponents.

    Instead, the Eagles will head to New South Wales and South Australia twice, and Queensland and Tasmania once, to complete their road trips for 2018. The great irony in all of this, of course, is the Eagles performed so patchily in Victoria last season you wonder whether they’d tried – in vain – to smuggle some fruit across the border or something.

    The Eagles have also been condemned to the Sunday graveyard shifts a dozen times – another ignominious outcome. No other team plays more than ten games in the relative obscurity of the week’s end. Just three of these games are on national TV too. Meanwhile, a delay in the construction of the pedestrian bridge (that no one will use, but that’s another story) from the East Perth foreshore to the New Perth Stadium means the Eagles have been all but scrubbed from the Thursday-Friday rotation for 2018.

    It’s the kind of fixture you would expect one of the league’s also-rans to have been afforded. Gulp. I hope perception does not match reality.

    The New South Wales gauntlet
    Both Greater Western Sydney and the Sydney Swans have once again been given a tough run to the last week of the year. The pair are the only two teams to have been scheduled twice against three of last year’s top six, although that’s really two because of the constitutional requirement to play two derbies a year.

    GWS get a double up against the West Coast Eagles and Adelaide Crows in addition to the Swans. The Giants also have the Saints twice, a team which can and has certainly matched them for pace in recent times, and round out their double ups against the double barrel Brisbane Lions. The Giants are also once more pinging their way across ten different playing fields, including Geelong, Launceston, the Adelaide Oval, New Perth Stadium and Gabba.

    Sydney, by contrast, get whacked by the double-edged sword of prime-time football. The Swans have eight six-day breaks, required to facilitate their seven Thursday and Friday night games spread throughout the year.

    Unlike Adelaide and Richmond, who have theirs in clumps that reduce the incidence of short weeks, Sydney have a tougher slate of double-up opponents than the Giants too: Geelong (at Kardinia Park), Hawthorn, North Melbourne and West Coast, in addition to the Giants match-up.

    Neither team has made an addition to their playing list to this point in the off-season, content to hit up the draft (in the case of Sydney) and delisted free agency pool (I suspect in the case of GWS) over the coming month. They didn’t need to do anything. The league knows the two teams north of the border (not really far north of the border) are both primed for a tilt at the premiership, and have seemingly acted accordingly.

    Phil Davis GWS Giants Lance Franklin Sydney Swans AFL 2016

    (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

    Show me the money
    Richmond won last year’s premiership, and when annual report season kicks off in the coming months, we will see just how lucrative a big four premiership is in the hyper-commercial world of the AFL in 2017. The Tigers’ commercial success looks set to stretch into the first two months of 2018.

    How’s this for a dream start for the bean counters?

    Carlton (home)
    Adelaide (away)
    Hawthorn (home)
    Brisbane (home)
    Melbourne (home)
    Collingwood (home)
    Fremantle (home)
    North Melbourne (away)

    Six of Richmond’s first eight 2018 games are at the MCG, including home games against the big-drawing Carlton, Hawthorn and Collingwood. Given the hype, each will draw more than 70,000, if not more.

    Beyond the dollars and cents, that’s as kind a start to a season as a reigning premier could hope for. The Tigers will start their preparations a month later than the rest of the competition, but outside of the trip to Adelaide Oval in Round 2, Richmond, as we know them to exist, should start as favourites across the board.

    An eight-week stretch from Round 9 through Round 17 is when we will get a real indication of where the Tigers fit into the 2018 hierarchy. They may hit this point at 7-1, but then have to face – in succession – West Coast (away), St Kilda (home), Essendon (away, but at the MCG), Port Adelaide (away), Geelong (away, but at the MCG), Sydney (home, but at Etihad), Adelaide (home) and Greater Western Sydney (away). It is as brutal as the first eight are kind.

    The Tigers then play five of their last six in Victoria, including four at the MCG. All things considered, if Damien Hardwick and his crew sat around a table, smoking cigars and drinking expensive scotch, and their minds fleetingly turned to a premiership defence, the fixture they’ve been handed is about as favourable as they could have imagined.

    Dustin Martin AFL Richmond Tigers Grand Final 2017

    (Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    Rapid fire round
    That is by no means an exhaustive list. We didn’t talk about Geelong much at all, despite the Cats entering 2018 with as many chips in the middle of the table as any team in the league, for example. So, let’s round off with some quick hits.

    * * *

    Geelong’s wish for more home games at Kardinia Park has been granted, but has brought with it a significant consequence. The Cats play five of last season’s bottom six at their home ground, with their lone peers the Giants and Swans in consecutive weekends.

    Like Essendon, you can spin the home ground thing both ways, but all told I would imagine the Cats were hoping to throw an extra team or two from the top of the ladder into their meat grinder.

    As a result, Geelong’s away schedule is the stuff of nightmares.

    * * *

    The Off-Broadway brigade might make the AFL look a little foolish come the middle of the year. While the wins are yet to follow, the Brisbane Lions showed patches of blistering play in 2017, and with more time into their youngsters plus some astute additions, they’ll become more consistent in 2018. Watch this space.

    Ditto Fremantle, who get some quality back from the injury list and have the planet smasher Nat Fyfe on deck for a full preseason after a 20-game 2017. Both sit atop my study list for the off-season.

    Nat Fyfe Fremantle Dockers AFL 2015

    (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

    The AFL, to its credit, has thrown the vocal segment of traditionalist Victorian football fans a bone on Saturday afternoons late in the season. In Rounds 19 through 21, the league has fixtured Richmond versus Collingwood, Hawthorn versus Essendon and Hawthorn versus Geelong in the early Saturday afternoon time slot at the MCG. All three are match-ups that would be at home on a late Sunday or Saturday night. We’ll see how they perform as crowd-drawers.

    * * *

    The AFL Players Association is cock a hoop regarding the halving of six-day breaks and consecutive six-day breaks in this year’s fixture. The players bargained their way to formal consultation regarding the fixture in this year’s collective bargaining agreement negotiations, and have won a significant concession from the league.

    They are yet to convince the league of the merits of a second in-season bye, however.

    * * *

    This year’s China game has been bumped from Channel Seven’s coverage, and is instead a Foxtel game on a Saturday afternoon. This means it will not be shown in Victoria, New South Wales or Western Australia on free-to-air TV. The motivation for this is unclear; we’ll see what happens when the 2019 fixture rolls around and it either stays put or moves back to the national broadcast.

    * * *

    Hawthorn has been given the Collingwood treatment. The Hawks travel outside of Victoria (loosely defined so as to include Hawthorn’s four Tasmania home games) just four times in 2018. Two of those trips are to Brisbane and Fremantle. The Hawks have just five six-day breaks, too. They are another team for which we should keep a close watching brief during the preseason.

    * * *

    Melbourne and North Melbourne play once next season. Given the recent history, this is excellent news for the Demons, and not so great for the ‘Roos.

    * * *

    Finally, to Collingwood. Their fixture has been analysed to death in the media, with the consensus settling on the thought the Pies have been afforded an opportunity to push for the eight. All things being equal, that would require a 2.5 win jump and a sizeable percentage boost. The fixture alone is unlikely to do that, particularly given how tightly bunched the middle of the ladder turned out to be in 2017.

    Scott Pendlebury AFL 2017 Collingwood Magpies

    (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

    All we can do right now is talk in directional terms. So much can happen in the five months between now and the opening bounce. However, last year’s fixture column was instructive on reflection. In that, we noted:

    • Melbourne needed to win three or four of their double-up games against North Melbourne and St Kilda to play finals. They won two, and missed the finals.
    • Adelaide had a kind fixture amenable to a deep finals push, based on playing their hardest opponents at home and weakest opponents away. That one hit too.
    • We thought Richmond’s double up slate looked tasty. It was.
    • We thought Hawthorn had been roasted by HQ in their 2017 fixture. It wasn’t just the fixture that conspired to end the Hawks’ premiership era, but it didn’t help.

    There were more hits and misses, suggesting this isn’t all hot air and faux analysis. I hope that’s been the case for the season at large.

    That’s a wrap for me for now. See you in December.

    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.