Prelims are a referendum on the AFL’s post Round 23 bye

Michael DiFabrizio Columnist

By Michael DiFabrizio, Michael DiFabrizio is a Roar Expert

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    Prior to this year, three teams in the AFL era have had multiple weeks off during their finals campaign. It ended badly for all of them.

    Back in 1990, the finals system of the day meant minor premiers Essendon rested during the opening week of finals. After the qualifying final between Collingwood and West Coast was a draw, there was a replay – extending the Bombers’ stint on the sidelines another week.

    This led to the bizarre scenario of the Bombers running out for their first final on September 23.

    On that day the Bombers were flogged by a Collingwood side who had just played consecutive finals matches – and the same Magpies would go on to beat them again in the grand final. Kevin Sheedy still talks about his side’s lost momentum that year.

    The other two teams to rest twice obviously did so last year, after the AFL introduced the pre-finals bye weekend.

    We know what happened. Qualifying final winners Geelong and the GWS Giants had played just one game of footy in the three weeks leading up to their preliminary finals. A sluggish Cats were beaten by the Swans.

    The Giants, though more competitive, fell to a history-making Western Bulldogs side which won the flag from seventh.

    Ahead of this week’s preliminary finals, the impact of the bye is sure to again be a talking point. There will be arguments for and against. Clubs will publicly play down its impact and insist it can’t be used as an excuse.

    But know this – if a repeat of 2016 occurs and both Adelaide and Richmond fail to advance to the grand final, the post-Round 23 bye cannot stand.

    Joel Selwood Geelong Cats AFL 2017

    (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

    Having a single week off is almost always an advantage. In finals during the AFL era, teams after a week off playing against a team who did play the week before have a 73 per cent win record.

    Modern training methods may have made the benefit even more pronounced – between 2007 and 2014, every home preliminary finalist won through to the grand final.

    But resting twice in the space of three weeks is a different equation.

    You can’t replicate a game of finals football on the training track. Even if you could get close, the intensity of finals football is on another level. The stakes are higher. If you’re not on from the first bounce, you will be exposed.

    Asking a team to play a side that’s had two consecutive weeks of such football as preparation and dressing it up as a reward seems highly disingenuous.

    At best, the bye waters down the advantage of winning the qualifying final. At worst, it actually hands the advantage to the other side.

    The record of teams who have been in that situation to date backs up the latter.

    AFL boss Gillon McLachlan is a fan of keeping the bye. He says it allows teams finishing fifth through eighth to give it a decent crack rather than just make up the numbers.

    “I actually think before the bye, statistically, nobody really ever came from outside the top four,” he told 3AW. “We were almost running a default top-four. So if you can now win from five to eight, I’m okay with that, as long as the higher you go up the ladder, the more advantage in the top eight.”

    Gillon McLachlan fronts the media

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    That’s all noble, however this isn’t about getting the exact perfect balance between giving players rest before finals and distributing advantage with absolute fairness. If it were, you’d keep the bye and then go straight to a 1v8, 2v7 style knockout format (commercially, with fewer games, this is a non-starter).

    What it’s really about is having the least problematic, commercially attractive finals series – and the fear at this point should be the post-Round 23 bye interferes with that.

    Fremantle coach Ross Lyon, in a commentary role last season, said it was “indisputable” the Cats’ slow preliminary final start against the Swans was linked to their lack of playing time in the lead-up.

    “It’s now a potential negative that if you have the week off, win the first final, it’s one game in 27 days. It’s a concern,” Lyon said.

    Hawthorn’s Alastair Clarkson is also off it.

    This year, it’s the turn of Adelaide and Richmond. The Crows will play just their second match in 26 days on Friday. The Tigers will play their second in 27 days on Saturday.

    Both will start as favourites, both are hosting interstate teams.

    If both don’t get through, the bye has got to go.

    Michael DiFabrizio
    Michael DiFabrizio

    Michael DiFabrizio is based in Mildura, Victoria. He has been an expert columnist at The Roar since 2009, leading to appearances on ABC News 24 and in the Age. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelDiFab.

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    The Crowd Says (78)

    • Roar Guru

      September 18th 2017 @ 7:43am
      Cat said | September 18th 2017 @ 7:43am | ! Report

      If both don’t get through, the bye has got to go.

      While I agree with two byes in three weeks not being right, I disagree with this last line. Adelaide and Richmond don’t need to win, they just need to not look slow and sluggish. If one or both are ‘up and about’ from the opening bounce but just get beaten by the better side on the day then that will also mean the double bye didn’t hinder them.

      I’m in the minority. I’d like to keep the pre-finals bye for all teams but eliminate the in-finals bye. I despise the pseudo double chance but only for a week just so we have more games to make money from nonsense. Yes, I know my teams season would be done right now if not for the pseudo second chance. I’m okay with that. Finals should be FINAL; lose and you are done.

      • September 18th 2017 @ 8:34am
        Dier-ba-zor said | September 18th 2017 @ 8:34am | ! Report

        That’s ridiculous, then finishing 8th would be just as good as finishing 1st.

      • Roar Guru

        September 18th 2017 @ 9:55am
        Mango Jack said | September 18th 2017 @ 9:55am | ! Report

        What system are you proposing to introduce? The old 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7 still guaranteed 1 and 2 a second chance.

        • September 18th 2017 @ 11:42am
          guttsy said | September 18th 2017 @ 11:42am | ! Report

          I don’t mind the teams in the top 4 getting a second chance, as I think they have earn’t it but under the old McIntyre finals system teams finishing 5th (and even 6th) have had a second chance after losing in the first week of finals. Also in 1998 a team that finished 5th after the home and away season, lost in the first week of finals and then went on to win the Grand Final. Without taking anything away from the team that won in that year I think the final systems that allows these types of outcomes isn’t right and a second chance should only be available to those teams finishing in the top 4.

      • Roar Guru

        September 18th 2017 @ 2:17pm
        JamesH said | September 18th 2017 @ 2:17pm | ! Report

        How about having the second bye BEFORE the end of the season? It could even be spread across three weeks like the first bye (which itself could just become a single week off featuring the EJ Whitten and AFLW games) – e.g. through rounds 19-21 (or 18-20 if there are only 22 rounds), which still leaves every team with at least two regular season games left to play.

    • September 18th 2017 @ 8:01am
      marfu said | September 18th 2017 @ 8:01am | ! Report

      Even if they do both get through, the bye has to go !

      • September 18th 2017 @ 8:37am
        Leonard said | September 18th 2017 @ 8:37am | ! Report

        Wouldn’t “keep the pre-finals bye for all teams but eliminate the in-finals bye” result in a restoration of the McIntyre Final Eight / Week 1? Look:

        Opening Wk: 1v8, 2v7, 3v6 and 4v5, a tennis-style seeded Rd 1; if results = ladder position, outgo 8, 7, 6 and 5; but, look at the effect of big upsets –

        Opening Wk: 1v8, 2v7, 3v6 and 4v5, if results don’t = ladder position, out go possibly 1, 2, 3 and 4.

        A Finals arrangement which has the possibility of losing 1 and 2 in the opening week: – how many of us “would like to see that”? Isn’t this the worst possible combination of [post-H&A bye + no Finals byes]?

        Hell, losing 1 or 2 in the first week is bad enough.

        Solution far worse than the problem.

        • Roar Guru

          September 18th 2017 @ 9:56am
          Mango Jack said | September 18th 2017 @ 9:56am | ! Report

          As I recall it, the rule is the 2 lowest placed losers get eliminated. So if 5 to 8 all won, then 3 and 4 would be gone, and 1 and 2 get a second chance.

          • September 18th 2017 @ 9:58am
            Milo said | September 18th 2017 @ 9:58am | ! Report

            That’s not whats being proposed here though.

            • Roar Guru

              September 18th 2017 @ 10:34am
              Mango Jack said | September 18th 2017 @ 10:34am | ! Report

              I took it as a proposal to return to the old McIntyre system. What Leonard describes above is different and would reduce the number of games and the finals period by a week. The AFL would never support this.

              • September 18th 2017 @ 12:10pm
                Leonard said | September 18th 2017 @ 12:10pm | ! Report

                “What Leonard describes above” is a response to no byes for finalist within the Finals Weeks. Eliminating half of them each week is the only way to do this. Which is what my scheme does, plus highlighting possible silly effects, including where teams 1 and 2 can get eliminated.

                However, in the McIntyre Final Eight 1 and 2 were safe even if they both lost, because only the two lowest losers got the chop after Week 1. Which could range from 7 & 8 up to 3 & 4.

                Remember the post-H&A bye came in to stop sure finalists from playing their 2nd XIIIs in R23. There are only four other ways to deal with this: (i) do nothing, and hope that it will be a fad, copping the outrage when a ‘rested’ team wallops one which had a do-or-die R23 battle; (ii) trust clubs when they say ‘What? Us do that? No way!’; (iii) make suspect clubs’ presidents, CEOs and coaches sign stat decs (= future criminal charges for duds) asserting ‘No, our club would never did that!’; (iv) hand out heavy penalties – which brings that annoying matter of ‘proof’ into the picture.

                As for this season’s effect, it’s like what Zhou Enlai said when asked about the effect of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to tell”.

              • September 18th 2017 @ 2:39pm
                GoSwans said | September 18th 2017 @ 2:39pm | ! Report

                I have no problem with clubs playing their 2nd XXIIs in round 23. If your team is from or travelling to Perth it is fair strategy to reduce travel for their best players. Most top 4 teams won’t risk it because they will want to have continuity in the team and 5 – 8 will probably lose in week 2 of finals anyway.

        • Roar Guru

          September 18th 2017 @ 11:13am
          Cat said | September 18th 2017 @ 11:13am | ! Report

          If 1st loses to 8th – they deserve to be out. Its finals, not keep playing until the higher seed wins.

          • September 18th 2017 @ 11:39am
            Mattyb said | September 18th 2017 @ 11:39am | ! Report

            I actually think this 1 v 8 finals system is a pretty good idea,and certainly the fairest,and like Gene said if 1 gets knocked out against 8 they don’t deserve to be there. I’d keep the pre finals bye under this proposal. Can’t really see the AFL doing it though but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good system. Top two teams also gets a pretty good advantage as 7 & 8 are generally not that good.
            Knockout finals are much more exciting and these double chances in finals are a bit cheap and soft to be honest,if you lose a final you should be out.

            • September 18th 2017 @ 1:20pm
              Brayden Rise said | September 18th 2017 @ 1:20pm | ! Report

              Gee Mattyb can’t see it happening…surely 1-4 deserves a benefit from the entire 23 round season….double chance is hard earned but also deserved.

              • September 18th 2017 @ 3:12pm
                Slane said | September 18th 2017 @ 3:12pm | ! Report

                If you finish in tge top 4 you get the benefit of playing against a dud team in your first game. That seems like a pretty significant advantage to me.

          • Roar Guru

            September 18th 2017 @ 11:42am
            Mango Jack said | September 18th 2017 @ 11:42am | ! Report

            I think that’s harsh, Cat, and doesn’t reward teams for the greatest consistency in the season with a double chance.

            A good team can finish 7th or 8th because they were hammered by injuries early on, which all returned in the back half of the season and the team is really on a roll. Swans were almost in that situation, and I bet they were the least favoured opponent of all teams 5-7 this year when the finals started.

            • September 18th 2017 @ 12:16pm
              Brian said | September 18th 2017 @ 12:16pm | ! Report

              I am not a fan of straight knock-out but if required along with bye only for top 4 it should be
              5 v 12
              6 v 11
              7 v 10
              8 v 9
              then quarters start in week 2

            • September 18th 2017 @ 12:32pm
              Brian said | September 18th 2017 @ 12:32pm | ! Report

              Agreed Carlton in 1995 went 20-2 before playing the 8th placed Bears who were in red hot form. The Blues wony by about 14 but they did not deserve to go out had they lost. Same with Geelong who lost to 7th placed North in 1997. North only being 7th because Carey missed the first half of the year.

              • September 18th 2017 @ 3:06pm
                JD said | September 18th 2017 @ 3:06pm | ! Report

                I remember that game. I’m pretty sure Brisbane got closer than anyone to Carlton in that finals series event though they finised eigth. Carlton flogged everyone else.

    • September 18th 2017 @ 8:02am
      Milo said | September 18th 2017 @ 8:02am | ! Report

      Thanks Michael.

      What I find interesting is an article in today’s Australian by Greg Denham that argues the opposite – that the bye has proven itself successful by virtue of the fact that the top four remain after week two of the finals. I can see some sense in that but agree with you that the real test is this weekend. If both Richmond and Geelong were to lose there will be significant pressure to drop the bye. Yet GWS and Geelong could argue that they deserve to be there and that while they were beaten during the season against the same clubs at the same PF venues, they have also beaten their PF opponents at home during this season.

      Geelong / Adelaide especially is an interesting case in point – the winning margin in both their games was 22 and 21 points. This shows a fairly even match up. GWS & Richmond shared the spoils 3 and 19 points respectively. Nothing much to brag about either way. Regardless, all teams will argue that finals is a different ball game.

      So what will a win either way really prove? I believe there’s some merit in saying that an advantage may lie with both Geelong and the Giants in the opening quarters of both games as their opponents may be prone to start slowly. This may be offset by home ground advantage however if the tide starts turning against them and their opponents start a run on.

      The other interesting factor could be if say the Giants win and play Adelaide, in a close GF do the Crows then have a distinct advantage with the rest and a game the week prior?

      One other little snippet is that both Adelaide and Richmond lost their games against Hawthorn and Sydney respectively while playing at home, directly after the mid season bye. There’s no doubt in my mind that the early to mid season bye doesn’t help teams coming off it, and if the league wants to continue to schedule a bye round at that time of year, at least ensure that the clubs play other clubs just off the bye as well for fairness.

      Either way, as for the pre finals bye Id say let the experiment run another year to be certain, before we back flip.

      • Roar Guru

        September 18th 2017 @ 11:08am
        Cat said | September 18th 2017 @ 11:08am | ! Report

        Whats even more interesting is that last Game between Geelong and Adelaide, in Adelaide, the Cats started slow, giving up a 22 point lead to the Crows in the first quarter, and ended up only losing by 21. *If* the bye causes the Crows to come out slow …

    • Roar Guru

      September 18th 2017 @ 8:03am
      mds1970 said | September 18th 2017 @ 8:03am | ! Report

      Last year was a freak set of results. The minor premiers bouncing back from a shock loss in the first final, and the stars aligning for a once in a generation dream run.
      On a rational level, the week off and the home Prelim should be an advantage. I’ve always thought, and have posted on here during this season, that last year was rogue data.
      But as a supporter of a team that didn’t have the week off and is travelling to a Prelim next weekend, I’m hoping for another rogue result.

      • Roar Guru

        September 18th 2017 @ 8:09am
        Dalgety Carrington said | September 18th 2017 @ 8:09am | ! Report

        Data shows that the bye impacts results. Last year made perfect sense within that data set. If things happen differently this year, that would more likely be a “rogue result”.

    • Roar Guru

      September 18th 2017 @ 8:05am
      Dalgety Carrington said | September 18th 2017 @ 8:05am | ! Report

      What they could do is move the by to follow round 21 or round 22. That’ll both remove the need for resting en masse and allow greater continuity and advantage for QF winners.

      Of course, if the AFL enjoys the wide-open style of finals series, they may just keep it.

      • Roar Guru

        September 18th 2017 @ 11:13am
        Rick Disnick said | September 18th 2017 @ 11:13am | ! Report

        I think the midyear bye is something the PA demanded, not so much the AFL.

        Saying that: having a bye after round 8 and 16 would work.

        They also need to get rid of the midyear bye spread over 3 rounds @#@$!

        • September 18th 2017 @ 11:54am
          guttsy said | September 18th 2017 @ 11:54am | ! Report

          I agree that the home and away season should have two byes and the prefinals bye after rd 23 should go. Both byes should be split round (say rounds 8/9 and rounds 16/17) as it keeps the continuity of season going for the footy following public and it also gives the afl more opportunity to schedule Thursday night games, which I think are good for viewers and good for the code.

          • Roar Guru

            September 18th 2017 @ 2:58pm
            Dalgety Carrington said | September 18th 2017 @ 2:58pm | ! Report

            Most of the reason for the pre-finals bye is to eliminate any need for coaches to prepare for the finals by resting players en masse. So, to meet that objective, the second bye would best be place within the last few rounds.

            Certainly agree that having it across just one round is a lot less messy and fairer in general.

    • September 18th 2017 @ 8:10am
      I ate pies said | September 18th 2017 @ 8:10am | ! Report

      “I actually think before the bye, statistically, nobody really ever came from outside the top four,” he told 3AW. “We were almost running a default top-four. So if you can now win from five to eight, I’m okay with that, as long as the higher you go up the ladder, the more advantage in the top eight.”…only in the AFL would the boss readily admit that they’re manipulating the fixtures to help out certain teams, and no-one bats an eyelid.
      The AFL is the most compromised league on earth.

      • September 18th 2017 @ 10:20am
        spruce moose said | September 18th 2017 @ 10:20am | ! Report

        “The AFL is the most compromised league on earth.”

        Really? Try Super Rugby in the first instance. Follow it up with (in no particular order) the NFL, NHL and NBA.

        • September 18th 2017 @ 10:23am
          I ate pies said | September 18th 2017 @ 10:23am | ! Report

          I disagree.

          • September 18th 2017 @ 12:16pm
            spruce moose said | September 18th 2017 @ 12:16pm | ! Report

            Really?

            Super rugby is a draw designed entirely to maximise derbies. It’s also a draw where some teams will have to travel overwhelming distances (re: jaguares and sunwolves) while others (NZ conference) very little.

            18 teams and you don’t play every team.

            It’s easily the most flawed and contrived draw in the codes in Australia.

            • Roar Guru

              September 18th 2017 @ 1:34pm
              Mango Jack said | September 18th 2017 @ 1:34pm | ! Report

              You’re right, spruce, the super rugby fixture is quite ridiculous, far worse than AFL or NRL. Apart from the points you make above, the Aus conference was the weakest but, according to rules, the “winner” makes the semi-finals. So we ended up with the situation where the Brumbies played semis on only 34 points, less than the Blues who missed out altogether.

              • September 18th 2017 @ 2:36pm
                spruce moose said | September 18th 2017 @ 2:36pm | ! Report

                Yes, I can’t believe I overlooked it’s most obvious flaw.

                Add to that not only do the Brumbies make the semi’s, but they are ludicrously given a home final as well.

              • September 18th 2017 @ 7:02pm
                TC123 said | September 18th 2017 @ 7:02pm | ! Report

                And the Lions who made the final didn’t play a single NZ side until the semi final which happened to be played in South Africa. The worst competition format in world sport in my opinion

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