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The AFL’s feel-good finals: A sporting triumph

Richmond have won 18 straight at the 'G. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
4th September, 2018
5

An AFL finals series laden with compelling storylines, testament to a sport continuing to thrive in spite of an oftentimes clumsy administration.

The top eight is a gift from the footballing gods.

Name a club, cue a feel-good narrative.

Of course, the Demons have a mortgage on this spring’s (potential) Cinderella story.

Having last year watched their long-time culturally flawed bedmate, Richmond, bask in premiership glory, Melbourne wants in.

Their 12-year finals drought broken, it’s now just the small matter of the 50-year-and-counting premiership curse which has dogged the club since Messiah Norm Smith’s exit.

If they somehow pull it off, the Demons can only hope that their ascension will be as well received by the football world as the Tigers’.

For has there ever been a reigning premier-dominant team dripping in so much external goodwill as Richmond?

Nathan Buckley’s incredible redemption story needs no words.

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This battered and humbled Greater Western Sydney outfit is an infinitely more endearing incarnation than the brash young bull – and seemingly inevitable premiership monster – of seasons past.

In a similar vein and despite lingering resentment over their audacious one-year rebuild, these – dare I say it – less threatening Hawks are facilitating a grudging outside acceptance of the full extent of Alastair Clarkson’s greatness.

Alastair Clarkson Hawthorn Hawks AFL 2017

Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson. (Image: AAP Image/Joe Castro)

And that’s not to mention the finals match-ups themselves.

Headlined by two all-Victorian club blockbusters – including the first ever final played between the Tigers and Hawks, which stands as an all-time bizarro football fact – and a Sydney derby to boot.

Finals aside, there is also the lively underclass of clubs on the outside looking greedily in.

Aspirational fringe dwellers – the Power, Kangaroos and Bombers to name a few – intent on banging the finals door down.

A resurgent Brisbane Lions fresh off the shot in the arm that was Dayne Beams’ impassioned best and fairest commitment speech.

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Rounded out by an ‘only way is up’ Carlton and the prospect of a soundly managed traditional ‘big four’ for the first time in decades.

And the feel-good factor isn’t confined to the playing field.

The Footy Show’s apparent terminal decline is a reflection of an increasingly progressive football public.

The modern-day plethora of online and media channels has revealed a refreshingly astute and compassionate player voice.

The heartfelt reaction from the playing fraternity to Alex Johnson’s latest knee injury, in particular, was a wonderful demonstration of collegiality.

Against this backdrop of relative prosperity, one wouldn’t have blamed Gillon McLachlan’s administration for turning on virtual auto-pilot.

And yet ironically, it has been a series of missteps from an oftentimes seemingly out-of-touch AFL HQ that has threatened to rock this plain-sailing boat.

Most notable has been the dark cloud that is the AFL brain trust’s threat of changes to the fundamental rules of the game aimed at addressing a perceived aesthetic issue.

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It’s a controversial enough subject without the Waleed Aly consultation circus and the horribly ill-conceived – and subsequently binned – late-season trialling proposal which have come with it.

Needless to say, the AFL’s revamped – yet consistently inconsistent – match review system remains a huge source of frustration with no resolution in sight.

The continuing failure to introduce adequately prohibitive head-hit penalties – despite player concussions representing the single biggest threat to the long-term viability of the game – is a particular black mark on the powers that be.

Throw in the widely panned proposal to shorten the AFLW season, complete with a clumsy, McLachlan-drawn comparison to the length of the soccer World Cup.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

There was also former AFL Commissioner Mike Fitzpatrick’s inexplicable decision to needlessly pick at still-raw Essendon supplement scandal scars by declaring on Open Mike that the substances used were “almost certainly performance enhancing”.

Most recently, of course, McLachlan has been engulfed in the Peter Dutton au pair firestorm after referring a plea from his cousin to the Minister.

McLachlan’s decision is not a good look given his position of influence and when coupled with his earlier imprudent coffee date with Alastair Clarkson, speaks to a worrying degree of naivety on the part of the CEO.

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This is not to ignore AFL HQ’s contribution to the healthy state of the game, for to do so would be churlish.

McLachlan’s recent claims as to the link between the AFL’s equalisation measures and the openness of the finals race, for example, are not without merit.

But hopefully the sport’s ability to ride these self-induced bumps demonstrates to its masters that here is a game that is pretty good at looking after itself.

It’s now time for McLachlan and Co. to reconnect with an alienated football public and start handling a proud game with care.