It might seem obvious, but often the early season ladder can be misleading. Not so in 2018: the best teams of the year to date are currently in the finals seedings.
History shows we can expect at least five of our eventual finalists to be sitting comfortably inside the top eight after eight weeks of football. Since the turn, an average of 6.5 teams that played finals have been in the eight at the roughly one-third mark of the season – in 2006, 2013 and 2015 we could’ve stopped the season there and then.
If we did that in 2018, right now, would there be too many complaints? Not complaints about missing two-thirds of a season of football, because of course. But complaints about teams missing out on finals action that ‘should’ve’ made it in? I suspect not.
From top to bottom, the current top eight have played the best football of 2018, and would be deserved finalists if they manage to keep their spots for the rest of the season. However, we can make the case for some teams on the outside looking in.
Greater Western Sydney’s biggest struggle has been converting its ground ball game into scoring opportunities. And that’s because it has been forced to turn to a patchwork forward line and attacking outside midfield group, without any continuity.
The ninth-placed Giants are 12th in scoring, and even worse when adjusting for time in possession (14th). That’ll – presumably – correct itself at least a bit as the likes of Toby Greene, Brett Deledio, Josh Kelly, Tom Scully come back from injury, and Jeremy Cameron gets a decent run at things.
North Melbourne rose to eighth on my fancy shmancy expected wins formula this week, after playing Richmond closer than anyone not named the Adelaide Crows yesterday. They’re the subject of this week’s Thursday column so let’s keep our powder dry now.
The Collingwood bubble was let down just a little after yesterday’s stifling affair with Geelong. I didn’t watch the game in full but the bits I saw suggested a team without an answer to the Cats’ defensive zoning, not helped by a poor day in front of goal. They’re certainly a rung or two above the dregs, but still look that far or more behind the best in the league.
And Fremantle remains as confounding as ever, doing all they needed to do and nothing more against St Kilda. One does wonder how the team would go without the singular presence of presumptive Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe between the arcs. We’ll learn plenty about them over the next four weeks with a couple of tricky away trips and two tough home opponents in the ‘Roos and Crows.
We draw the line here. The Western Bulldogs are playing for 2021. Gold Coast were never going to be able to do much this season on account of the Commonwealth Games, and so it looks. Essendon might go into voluntary administration before the month is out. St Kilda couldn’t score a snowboarding contest. Carlton are playing for 2021. Brisbane are cursed to lose every close game.
Those four teams still gunning for the eight with realistic ambition all come with a but. The biggest of those is needing to displace a team above them.
Fortunately, the season being as it is means Fremantle could jump into eighth spot with an (admittedly very large) win over Sydney. The Giants, with their draw, could surge to third if results broke their way. North has a better percentage than the three teams immediately above them. Collingwood has a fortnight of football that affords them a chance to build on their 50:50 platform.
Port Adelaide look the most vulnerable of the current finalists, almost by default. The Power hasn’t been the offensive force many expected them to be, and aren’t as glued to their high press as they have been in recent years. Instead, Port is a stoppage machine, as we saw in that stellar second half against the Adelaide Crows.
Sydney’s win over Hawthorn was full of merit, even if the conditions suited their style better than the Hawks. Winning the way they did – coming from behind, kicking five straight in the last – was all about effort and application.
You’ve seen the stat but it bears repeating: Sydney is 4-0 away from home, and 1-3 at the SCG (with two of those close losses). Those four away wins are crucial, because once Sydney’s home ground advantage regresses to the mean they will afford an enormous leg up.
Melbourne’s drubbing of the Gold Coast Suns – 85 inside 50s, a stunning 46 shots on goal, +94 in uncontested possessions – corrected the club’s underlying metrics to the point where their record is who they are. Three weeks into a calk walk patch in their fixture, the Dees look much more like the team I expected them to be coming into the year.
Hawthorn shouldn’t feel too poorly about their loss to the Swans. Their football identity is clear, and they have the personnel to execute it. Whether they’re a top four team was always an open question, despite what the week-behind mainstream writers told you last week, although they’ve got the game to get there.
Adelaide got their heart ripped out against Port Adelaide. But down most of their starting core midfield from last season – friends, Paul Seedsman, Rory Atkins, Cam Ellis-Yolmen and Hugh Greenwood are fine players but should not be your fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh highest disposal getters – still has plenty of upside. Perhaps the only concern is the Crows have played a fairly meek slate of opponents to date, which will circle back in the second half of the season.
Geelong have crept all the way up to third, playing their own way as tends to be coach Chris Scott’s method. Content to play in their back half, the Cats are anything but quick, and long to play keepy off. That could be to help an undermanned back six, which was a little less undermanned this week following the return of Harry Taylor (who had two intercept marks and three score launches among his 20 possessions). And the tough part of the Cats’ draw is over.
That leaves us with the teams in the top two seeds, who happen to face each other in the last game of Round 9. Richmond and West Coast have been the two standouts in a year where there has been fewer standouts than we’re used to. They play with the same ethos – speed with the ball, intensity without it – have the two best defensive sets, and contrasting looks forward of the ball. On paper it looks like the game of the season to date and it should play out as such on the lightning Perth Stadium deck.
Of all the teams sitting pretty inside the eight, the Eagles and Tigers are the two sitting prettiest. After Sunday that won’t change, but we will know for sure whether we’re all chasing Richmond, or whether West Coast deserve to sit alongside them.