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Home ground advantage means more for, and to, some AFL teams than others

Trent Cotchin of the Tigers looks dejected after a loss. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Expert
20th May, 2018
154
3268 Reads

I’m not saying Richmond are no good outside of their home state. But it is clear the Tigers enjoy a home-ground advantage at the MCG that rivals any other team’s.

We know this because in their past 34 games, stretching from Round 1 2017 to yesterday’s loss to West Coast, Richmond have won 18 of their 20 games at the MCG. They have won three from five at Etihad Stadium, and four from nine at all other venues (including one game at Kardinia Park).

Over that stretch, Richmond have scored 97 and conceded 65.1 points per game at the MCG. This compares to 88.2 for and 87.4 against at Etihad Stadium, and 90.9 points for and 88 against at all other venues.

Before any Richmond fan wants to throw down, one may do this very basic arithmetic for most any team in the AFL and get more or less the same result. For instance, West Coast over that stretch: 14-4, 98 points for and 77 against at both Subiaco Oval and Perth Stadium; 7-8, 84.2 points for and 89.6 against away from there.

Who’s the flat-track bully? Everyone prefers conditions they are used to; I don’t much care for working interstate when I have to either.

Separating home ground advantage from underlying team performance is like untangling Christmas lights with chopsticks. An upcoming book, Footballistics: How the data analytics revolution is uncovering footy’s hidden truths (which I was fortunate enough to have been involved in), has a crack at it. Yesterday’s top-of-the-table match between West Coast and Richmond – played, for the record, at the former’s home ground – loomed as an opportunity to test the skill-over-advantage hypothesis.

Fortunate enough to be at the game (with my four-year-old Tigers-supporting daughter, that’s another story for another time), I saw aspects of both. That was, I saw glimpses when I wasn’t blinded by the mid-afternoon sun (despite paying what I’d consider a tidy sum for the privilege, also another story for another time).

West Coast were irrepressible in attack, controlling the ball with both deft and daring kicks and a hard edge when it mattered through the middle. Their zig-zag, kick-heavy ball movement did to Richmond as it has done to their previous seven opponents: it kept the ball away from suffocating zones and made the Tigers play the game on West Coast’s terms.

Jack Darling celebrates a goal

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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Richmond laid just 42 tackles, an extraordinarily low number (their lowest in 2018) made even more extraordinary by the fact West Coast had the ball for 49 per cent of the game. Adjusting for that, Richmond laid 35.3 tackles per 50 minutes of possession, 46 per cent below their season-long mark.

The Eagles, by contrast, laid 62.5 tackles per 50 minutes of possession. One more: 17 of Richmond’s 42 tackles came inside their forward 50, meaning just 25 were laid in the middle of the ground or behind centre. Again, extraordinary.

The final margin would imply it was all one-way traffic. However, the second quarter was played in stark contrast to the other three. Richmond were able to win more than their share of stoppages, and got their renowned forward press tuned up perfectly for the narrower wings of Perth Stadium.

Watching Alex Rance, Nick Vlaustin, David Astbury and Dylan Grimes go to work behind the ball was something to behold. Rance in particular was a delight to watch, influencing the play with his turn of pace and atomic clock timing, even though West Coast avoided kicking to his man more often than not.

Richmond had 23 inside 50s to four that quarter and touched the ball the same number of times. A stoic defence from the Eagles meant the Tigers only managed seven scores, while the home team countered effectively enough to score twice from its meagre four entries.

That was perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the game for West Coast fans. Slashing and dashing their way to 130 points was nice, but mash that together with the team’s ability to resist Richmond’s press and the whole package was on display. The cherry on top had to have been the ten-scoring-shot-to-six last quarter, the time in the game when Richmond have been running up points for fun against opponents in 2018.

Jack Darling

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

West Coast have been crunched into second favourite for the premiership on this weekend’s games. Round 9 included mostly troubleless wins by Adelaide, Sydney and Port Adelaide. They find themselves in the top six in both actual ladder terms and premiership market terms, behind Richmond and West Coast.

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The sixth team, Geelong, was taken down by a suddenly-inspired Essendon – seriously, is it going to take a coach being removed to motivate this group of professional athletes every week? – but that has been this team’s way for the entire Patrick Dangerfield era. None of these teams call the MCG home for most of the year. Richmond, deservedly sitting as market favourite, are the lone side which fits that description.

How much of one is to do with the other? Are Richmond that much better than the remainder of the competition that they should be favourites for the flag? Or is the fact so many of this year’s contenders are based outside of Melbourne boosting the Tigers’ chances exogenously? Here we are with those Christmas lights again.

There is one salient fact here: Richmond plays 14 of their 22 games at the MCG this season. West Coast, Sydney, Adelaide, Geelong and Port Adelaide play 15 combined.

No matter your stripes, that has to play out in an advantage to Richmond. So it is that home ground advantage means more for some teams than others. And, perhaps, it means more to those teams than others.

West Coast’s Round 9 win over Richmond wasn’t meaningless by any stretch. Beating the reigning premier by eight goals, wrestling the game onto their terms, is a great achievement. But with the MCG situation being what it is, there is no doubt it could have meant much more.