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The first thing to be said about Saturday’s grand final is that we’re all very lucky to be following footy at a time when there are so many engrossing, even seasons.
Both of the grand finalists have been written off at times, endured tough injury runs, and will have thoroughly earned the premiership should they win.
The second thing to be said about this match-up is that it’s not entirely fair.
For the fifth Grand Final in a row a non-Victorian team will have to travel to Melbourne to play a Victorian team that finished below them in the regular season.
For the second time in four years, West Coast will have earned a home final and won it, only to have to face that same team again at the opposition’s home ground.
The obvious inequality in a permanent grand final venue never seemed all that significant until recently, as it didn’t seem to hinder teams from all parts of Australia claiming the flag.
But we’ve now had five Victorian triumphs over interstate sides in the big game consecutively since Sydney won the last non-Victorian premiership in 2012.
Whatever factors that might have limited home ground advantage in the past don’t appear to have the same significance in the present.
There are those who argue that playing Grand Finals at the MCG makes no difference at all to the outcome, but this is hard to swallow.
In all football codes – Australian Rules included – being more familiar with the ground, more accustomed to the climate, and avoiding the rigours of travel are all significant benefits.
In the biggest game of the year, there tends to be a more even spread of crowd support, and extra considerations like handling the pressure of the occasion might reduce the relative impact of home ground advantage.
So it’s reasonable to think the venue might make less of an impact than for regular home and away games. But it is surely unarguable that Collingwood having played 17 games at the MCG during the season, compared to West Coast’s two, is to the benefit of the Magpies.
It helps explain why most betting markets have Nathan Buckley’s men as slight favourites, despite finishing below the Eagles on the ladder and losing to that opponent twice this season.
In a practical sense it’s difficult to do much about this problem. The Melbourne Cricket Club has locked up the Grand Final until at least 2057, thanks to an agreement with the AFL signed earlier this year.
Even without that, there are commercial benefits to hosting the event in footy’s heartland, at Australia’s biggest stadium. And while fairness is important, it has to be balanced with practical concerns.
But even if we can’t fix it, we can certainly acknowledge that some teams have a slightly more difficult path to the premiership than others.
There’s no such thing as a truly equal competition. There are always nuances that give certain teams advantages. Some are minor, and can be tolerated in the interests of the greater good. Some are too excessive and have to be fixed.
So any fair-minded neutral fan will surely cheer for the Eagles this week, particularly those who care about a prosperous, equitable AFL.
Because if the Victorian winning run extends into a sixth consecutive Grand Final this Saturday, and who knows how much longer after that, then we’ll surely be getting closer to the point where the penalty to non-Victorian teams is too great to be accepted.