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

Trent Cotchin of the Tigers looks dejected after a loss during the 2017 AFL round 21 match between the Geelong Cats and the Richmond Tigers at Simonds Stadium on August 12, 2017 in Geelong, Australia. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Expert
17th September, 2017
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2123 Reads

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.