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A dozen insights into the 2016 AFL fixture

Four-time premiership Hawk Luke Hodge in action. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Expert
29th October, 2015
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2794 Reads

There are no winners and losers when it comes to the 2016 AFL fixture. Well, there probably are, but we have no way of knowing until the season gets underway. Do not be fooled into thinking otherwise.

So instead of coming up with some bogus methodology, based on less-than-ideal data and theories that can never be reliably tested, my take on the fixture will come in the form of a series of observations.

They aren’t exhaustive, because there’s so much information to process on a day light this.

Consider this a list of insights gleaned after an evening with spreadsheet in one hand, cold beverage in another.

Hawthorn play three teams that are coming off six-day breaks
I’m not a massive subscriber to the extra day’s rest theory. But most of the people that get paid to work on these things do. And so in that respect, that Hawthorn’s fixture gives them three games against teams coming off of consecutive six-day breaks should give them a leg up.

Offsetting this effect to some degree is who they’re playing, and where: Richmond (Friday night, Round 7), Sydney (Thursday night, Round 17) and West Coast (Friday night, Round 22). All three games are technically away games, although the Richmond match up is at the ‘G.

It may mean nothing – Round 22 is far too far away to say this gives the Hawks an advantage over the Eagles – but all things being equal Hawthorn would be pleased to be playing fellow 2015 top six finishers off consecutive short weeks.

Adelaide’s year might be over in Round 8
North Melbourne (A)
Port Adelaide (H)
Richmond (A)
Sydney (H)
Hawthorn (A)
Fremantle (H)
Western Bulldogs (A)
Geelong (H)

Sorry, Crows fans, but I have some bad news. These are your first eight games of 2016.

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What’s the best way to start off a new era, with a new coach and sans your best player? Probably the opposite of that slate of games.

Come out of this with three wins – which is quite possible – and the draw opens up the rest of the way. Although you play five of those teams again before the end of the year.

There’s some good news, though. You will finally get to tell Kurt Tippett what you think about AFL contract law, in Round 4, and you get a chance to pretend you’re not even mad at all in Round 8. And over the course of the season, you’re playing 12 games under lights including seven at the doubtlessly brilliant Adelaide Oval. Swings and, errr, roundabouts.

Friday nights are going to be fun again
When I started my Friday Night Forecast column in Round 2 last year, I talked about the anticipation and excitement of football under lights at the end of the working week.

The Blues proceeded to lose by 69 points against West Coast at Subiaco. It was the first of six Friday night fixtures for Carlton in 2015; it was the first of six losses by Carlton; and it was the first of six losses by 10 goals or more.

It always looked a bit rich too. On one hand, call the Friday night time slot a reward for good performance, but then give games to the likes of the Blues, who projected as mediocre at best. Fortunately, AFL has righted its wrongs, and served up what looks from a distance like a tasty slate of Friday night fixtures for 2016.

The only team that looks a bit undeserving of Friday night lights is Essendon, who’ve been granted two of the 42 available slots. Otherwise, we’re set to watch a whole heap of top eight football, including a penultimate round showdown between West Coast and Hawthorn. Hawthorn and Richmond get half a dozen games each, including a Round 7 match-up between themselves.

Will Friday nights once again become must watch? I may have a vested interest, but I’d like to say yes.

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The expansion drought continues
One Friday night fixture I was looking for was Greater Western Sydney spending some money in the bank earned in the first half of 2015, and being the first new wave expansion team to be given a Friday night fixture. Fremantle played two of their first four games on Friday night, just out of interest.

The Giants are going to be really, really good next year. They were on track to make it into the top six until they lost Shane Mumford among many other top-shelf players, to injury in June, after which they proceeded to win just four of their last 11 games.

Perhaps if Carlton hadn’t stunk up the slot so badly, AFL would have seen fit to take a bit of a gamble on a GWS-Collingwood (Round 16) or GWS-Richmond (Round 19) on a Friday night? It’s only a matter of time.

What’s the deal with time slots?
There are 16 different start times listed in the 2016 fixture, which seems high to me.

We have games starting (AEST) at 1.40pm, and 1.45pm. There are five times that begin with seven (7.10pm, 7.20pm, 7.25pm, 7.40pm and 7.50pm). There is one game, a Saturday night game in Round 7 between Fremantle and GWS, that won’t hit east coast screens until 8.40pm.

While we’re at it, an interesting little tidbit: Saturday nights now bounce down at 7.25pm, rather than 7.20pm.

That looks like micromanagement to me. But I don’t have TV advertising to sell.

Non-Victorian double-ups are becoming a problem
Okay, controversial opinion time.

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The eight non-Victorian teams play a total of 42 times in Victoria in 2016, with Adelaide and Brisbane playing seven each, and the remainder of the teams playing five or four. In an ideal world, that would be a higher number, but that is the reality of having more than half of your teams call the same state home.

Despite the popular view, the MCG gets a reasonable workout: 20 of those 42 games are to be played at Etihad Stadium, 16 at the ‘G and six at Simmonds Stadium down the road at Geelong.

The Victorian teams play a total of 158 times in their home state, 72 at Etihad, 76 at the ‘G and 10 at Simmonds. It’s not great, and every team would rather play more games at the ‘G than less (except maybe the Doggies, who like to hunt at the kennel).

All but two of the Victorian teams play double-ups against at least two non-Victorian opponents, guaranteeing both a trip into and out of the respective states. Where things could be improved is reducing the number of non-Victorian/non-Victorian double-ups, which by my count number 22 out of a possible 40 non-Victorian double-ups.

Fremantle double-up against just one Victorian side – the Dogs – and this is a key reason why they’re set to play just one game at the home of football in 2016. Speaking of which…

This could be Fremantle’s best shot at a flag
The virtue of having West Coast and Fremantle in the top four is that the need to have two derbies every year also counts towards a top six double-up. This, plus what I can only imagine was a direct submission to the AFL to not play in Tasmania for a change, and a solid assist from AFL House, has meant the Dockers double-up against the Crows as their lone 2015 top six bracket foe next season.

Fremantle have been handed the expansion double, too, and as above play their other double-up against the Western Bulldogs.

Now, it’s very early. But if the Dogs catch a case of the second year blues, and the Crows take some time to adjust to a post-Patrick Dangerfield world, well, this becomes a very amenable draw for Big Purple.

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If the Dockers’ midfield is as good as it was at the start of 2015, and they manage to find those illusive two goals that coach Ross Lyon must have sitting at the bottom of his kit bag, it is eminently possible that Fremantle start the season 6-1 or 7-0.

The Dockers also play four of their last five games in Western Australia, with their Round 22 trip to Western Sydney a prime candidate for Restapalooza III from Ross the Boss.

It could also be Geelong’s best shot at a flag since 2012
We don’t know what’s going to happen at Geelong. When I wrote about the Cats in the lead up to the trade period, I sort of half expected that it would all fall apart for them: Adelaide would match their offer for Patrick Dangerfield and rip their guts out at the trade table, West Coast would match Geelong’s offer for Scott Selwood and pick up the scraps, and the Lachie Henderson deal just wouldn’t be done as a result.

In case you missed it, the precise opposite happened. Dangerfield was traded, Selwood moved without incident, Henderson came for a future first round pick, and Zac Smith – who could be great, but could also be the latest in a long line of perennially injured big men at the Cattery – joined for a half-eaten sandwich.

The sentiment towards Geelong is at terms of trade boom levels. And then they received a remarkable slate of games for 2016, highlighted by double-ups against Adelaide (?), Brisbane (who may struggle again), Essendon (who are publicly outed as a rebuilder), GWS (with the away leg played at a neutral venue) and the Western Bulldogs (?).

When the 2016 premiership betting market opened, the Cats were a distant $26 for the flag. Bringing in their new recruits took them to sub-$20. They were crunched into $10 at some agencies, making them fourth favourite for the flag. There is an ocean worth of water to travel under the bridge between now and September 9.

But with this fixture, Geelong should consider themselves a likely finalist. What a turn of events.

Has the AFL punted Sundays?
I don’t want to seem to disparaging – particularly after last Thursday’s events – but Sunday looks to have been cemented as the day the AFL looks to bury the teams not deemed worthy of broader promotion.

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Carlton, Melbourne and St Kilda each play ten games on Sundays, while Essendon play nine and Brisbane play eight. By contrast, Richmond, North Melbourne, Hawthorn and Collingwood suit up four times each.

I used to think the Saturday twilight zone – 4.40pm EST – was the graveyard shift, until I discovered that it was an excellent time of day to watch the game. That timeslot also guarantees a Fox Footy crew is broadcasting, and eliminates the temptation to watch Channel Seven’s pre-game coverage leading into Saturday night games.

But, well, based on who is playing on Sundays this season, it seems to me that the AFL may be focussed on solidifying its status as a Saturday TV staple.

St Kilda are a sneaky chance of making the eight
I love St Kilda’s list, and doubly so (maybe not that much) now that key defender Jake Carlisle has joined in. The Saints are one draft of depth building away from making a sustained run at the top four and a flag, and will become an active player in free agency in the coming three years.

But what do we make of the 2016 schedule? Are St Kilda in a position to ‘do a Port Adelaide’ or, as it is henceforth known, ‘do a Western Bulldogs’ and use a kind draw and young, energetic list to give finals a shake this season? It’s not out of the question.

The Saints double-up against Carlton, Essendon, Melbourne, North Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, which means they move out of their home state just five times for the year (that’s positively Collingwood-esque!). One of those trips is to play Hawthorn at Aurora Stadium.

We should have a good idea of whether the Saints are in with a chance after eight rounds; three of their five interstate trips fall in that time, as do first legs against North Melbourne and the Dogs. If St Kilda can manage to split the ledger, or even win just three of them, their draw opens up in such a way that a 12-win season is not out of the question.

You can get 8/1 on this right now – if I were a betting man, I’d be all over this.

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Brisbane have been given some blockbusters – make the most of it Lions fans
There’s been some great debate on a couple of other fixture-related articles from earlier this week, discussing the role that the schedule plays in helping balance the finances of the AFL.

The 2016 season is an excellent case study in this. Brisbane have been scheduled to play the big-drawing Collingwood and Hawthorn at the Gabba in Round 8 and 10 respectively, and get to host the early season Q-Clash (still the lamest name for an intrastate match-up). The Pies play up there quite often, but it will be the first time Hawthorn have journeyed north to face the Lions since 2008.

This offers the administration a chance to build a strong following, and the dollars that flow from that, early in the season. The Lions probably won’t win either of these games, but crowds in excess of 30,000 for each, and for the match against the Suns, should be the goal. It’s a stretch target for the Q-Clash, but the Hawks and Pies have both drawn those sorts of numbers in their most recent encounters.

Port Adelaide’s average 2015 will help them in 2016
The Power were premiership favourites left right and centre ahead of last season. Their season didn’t really get out of second gear, as the Paddy Ryder trade backfired due to a stubbornness to play him in his natural position. That could become a more hairy issue in 2016, following the acquisition of Charlie Dixon and the non-disposal of pure ruckman Matthew Lobbe.

That’s another story for another time.

Port Adelaide have managed to parlay their mediocrity into what looks like a very nice fixture-induced bounce in 2016. Excluding the Showdown (best intrastate match-up name), the Power double-up against Brisbane, GWS, Melbourne and Richmond – with their away games against GWS and Melbourne played in Canberra and the Northern Territory respectively.

They get to host Hawthorn and West Coast, which is a plus, but have a somewhat arduous travel schedule heading into the finals: Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide, Adelaide, Gold Coast.

It’s the recipe for a decent bump in the win total, and a prospective trip to the finals.

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Bonus insight!
This one isn’t really an insight. I started writing about the 2015 AFL season in March, and it feels like the time is right to stick the fork in.

I’ll be on a go-slow for the month of November, and, like the players and staff, begin looking ahead to 2016 starting in December. I’ll indulge in my summer love a few times, and plan on having a couple of quirky AFL things to be published over the next little bit. I dipped my toes into the eSports waters a few weeks back, too.

I don’t want to get all gushy, but given this is the end of my first season pretending to be a sportswriter, it feels appropriate. Thanks to the team at The Roar (and everyone else at head office) for giving me the time and space to do what I do.

Most of all thanks to all of you Roarers who are proving, day after day, that there is a place for smart sports writing in this country.

Until… Wednesday, I guess.