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The winners, the losers and other insights into the 2019 AFL fixtures

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1st November, 2018
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Christmas comes but once a year, and in my very particular case, a day later than usual. It’s time to unwrap the 2019 AFL fixture, and see who got lumped with this year’s coal.

If you believe Hawthorn’s president Jeff Kennett, it was the Hawks. Since I started doing this as a little more than a hobby, I’ve been on the AFL’s national media distribution list.

It’s mostly unhelpful, if only because clubs and the league tend to use social media to push out their stuff instantly, and the emails take much longer. Every year, all 18 clubs issue a media release after the AFL drops the fixture, and to be blunt most of them follow this basic structure.

“Club welcomes its 2019 fixture.”

“Today Club CEO X welcomed the release of Club’s 2019 AFL season fixture. Club is happy with its home opponents, faces some tough opponents on the road, got some of what it wanted but not everything, and looks forward to the new football year.”

Not Hawthorn in 2019. Here’s a snippet:

“We understand the fixture process is a challenging one for the league, however it is disappointing we did not receive any of the priority fixture requests we submitted to the AFL and that we have again been fixtured a home game at Marvel Stadium.”

[note: this came after the standard Club welcomes its 2019 fixture line]

Kennett didn’t hold back, either on social media or in a letter to Hawthorn’s members.

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Is it really that bad? Let’s find out, as we dig into a few of the tasty AFL fixture morsels to wrap up this column’s 2018 AFL season.

Overpromise, underdeliver
2018 has not been the best year for the AFL’s administrative wing.

There have been issues all season, from the match review process to the farce that was the league’s rule change process, to the breaking of a solemn promise to the clubs that any rule changes would be announced prior to the trade period. There’s probably more, but even one of those things is not good enough for a billion dollar enterprise.

Gillon McLachlan

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The circus continued this week when the league announced it had to delay the release of the fixture by more than a day after some clubs raised concerns about “the bones” of their respective fixtures. Said concerns have not been made public, and the folk within the league I reached out to all said it was above their station – suggesting it was perhaps a commercial issue.

No matter, the fixture was delayed. We do however know the change was fairly significant, because of a fairly official-looking leak of the Round Two slate that was doing the digital rounds earlier this week. Here’s what Round Two looked like on Monday evening.

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And here’s the reality.

Day Fixture Venue Time
Thursday Richmond v Collingwood MCG 7:20 PM
Friday Sydney Swans v Adelaide Crows SCG 7:50 PM
Saturday Essendon v St Kilda Marvel Stadium 4:35 PM
Port Adelaide v Carlton Adelaide Oval 5:10 PM
Geelong Cats v Melbourne GMHBA Stadium 7:25 PM
WCE v GWS Giants Optus Stadium 8:10 PM
Sunday North Melbourne v Brisbane Lions Marvel Stadium 1:10 PM
Hawthorn v Western Bulldogs MCG 3:20 PM
Gold Coast Suns v Fremantle Metricon Stadium 4:40 PM

Eight of the nine games changed from whatever version of the fixture that was, with only the Thursday night Richmond against Collingwood emerging unscathed (Hawthorn is still playing the Western Bulldogs, but that moved both day and venue).

Hopefully, something emerges over the next week or so. Perhaps once the clubs who were initially happy work out they have been duded because a couple with pull complained and league office lacked the spine to tell them to suck it up.

Broadly speaking, the fixture does what it needs to do, and delivers on a couple of key matters of policy – who plays who, where, and when is the league’s sharpest policy instrument remember. Most every Friday night would seem to have finals implications, even if we do get an extraordinarily large serving of Collingwood, Essendon and Richmond (15 of the 42 slots).

There are just 11 consecutive six-day breaks across the league, and only those clubs playing plenty of football on Thursdays and Fridays (the three above plus Hawthorn) have more than one.

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Non-Victorian derbies have been moved out of their perennial twilight zone and into Saturday night prime time, though unfortunately remain away from free to air eyes. That’s where most of last year’s stragglers will ply their trade too, with the bottom six appearing just twice Thursday or Friday night combined over the 21 scheduled rounds (Carlton in Round 1 and Brisbane in Round 5).

We’ve gone from no Good Friday football to our first Friday night doubleheader (West Coast will host Port Adelaide with an 8:10PM AEST bounce) and the re-introduction of a Good Friday eve game (Collingwood travelling to Brisbane).

Willie Rioli of the Eagles celebrates a goal

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

But let’s not get too excited. The AFL has all-but confirmed its affection for the big Victorian clubs.

Say what you will about these being the big-drawing clubs and the need for the AFL to maximise its revenue (I love it when folk who rip the AFL mercilessly at every opportunity are suddenly keen to vouch for them on this basis), this stinks in a national competition.

And where are all the Thursday night games? The media made a big song and dance about the AFL Players Association re-writing the Collective Bargaining Agreement to permit one five day break for every club across the competition as a means of facilitating more Thursday night games. We were going to have 12. As it turns out, we’ve had one extra on last season, and that’s simply because of the introduction of a Good Friday Eve game.

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The Essendon gamble
We will be seeing plenty of the Bombers in 2019. The Dons will be on free to air TV eight times in the first 11 rounds of the season, with most of the games being in prime time Thursday or Friday night slots.

After their Round 12 bye Essendon is then on Channel 7 for the following three weeks, vanishing thereafter. It’s pretty staggering when you think about it: between Round 1 and Round 15 Essendon will be playing a nationally televised game 11 times.

The pressure will be on the Bombers to perform. They should do fine, mind. After their 1-6 start, Essendon finished 2018 10-4 with victories over Geelong, GWS, Sydney and West Coast. Adding Dylan Shiel affords the Bombers a very potent and increasingly deep midfield. The return of Joe Daniher will no doubt strengthen Essendon’s ball movement, and we know the club has a very attacking back six.

Still, Kennett is right. The AFL is gambling that Essendon will be one of the better performing teams in the competition in 2019. If it comes off – more likely than not, but it’s only November – then we will give league office a pat on the back next year. If it doesn’t, and the Dons stumble out of the gate as they did in 2018, this could turn out to be another Carlton 2015 situation.

Okay, no it won’t be that bad but you get the idea.

Cale Hooker of the Bombers (R) celebrates a goal with Kyle Langford of the Bombers during the 2018 AFL round 22 match between the Richmond Tigers and the Essendon Bombers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on August 17, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia.

(Photo: Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The naughty corner
I’ve had a theory for a few years now the AFL doesn’t really like Sundays.

It would appear from this year’s fixture that might be correct. Last year’s bottom six play an average of nine of their 21 scheduled games on Sundays, compared to five for the rest of the league. Carlton plays half of its games on a Sunday, and only five of them are to be broadcast in Melbourne (the remainder being Foxtel’s early or twilight fixtures).

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Why is this the case? It’s hard to say. The requirement to have a limited number of six day breaks likely plays a role, because it’s tricky to shift a team to a Thursday or Friday if they’ve played on a Sunday within the previous fortnight.

Often, the algorithm that is used to prepare fixture options may say it’s more straightforward to keep teams programmed in to Friday night games on Saturdays.

There’s always a risk in taking this approach. Most of the league had no idea the GWS Giants were coming in 2016, because in 2015 they were pretty much out of sight and mind as far as mainstream football consumers go.

Melbourne’s frisky young side of two or three seasons ago was a footy wonk special only. Brisbane played plenty of entertaining games on Sundays in 2018, and fortunately find themselves playing plenty more Saturday games this season.

For most of the clubs in this position – being shunted off Broadway to make way for the likes of Essendon, Collingwood and Richmond – the lack of quality time slots should feel like a slap in the face.

Brisbane, Fremantle, St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs will be projecting an improvement in 2019 on account of off field moves or natural improvement. Carlton will be better too, though it’s difficult to predict from here what better looks like in terms of additional wins.

The Gold Coast Suns, who have just three Saturday night games in their schedule, will not be on free to air TV outside of Queensland and a handful of non-Victorian games in 2019. The Suns will not shine in Victoria – which is a pretty remarkable development.

A resurgence by any one of those teams is certainly possible. But it’ll happen where far fewer will be watching.

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The ups and downs
Predicting who looks set to receive a boost from their fixture versus who’ll get clamped is an impossible exercise.

This time last year, we thought West Coast’s fixture was challenging as there were plenty of interstate trips to face quality opponents. Port Adelaide’s fixture looked like a powderpuff, and Geelong’s looked nightmarish.

While those things may not have been technically incorrect, reality turned out to be a little more grey than the black and white of those statements.

What can we glean from a first pass at this year’s slate at a team level?

The Brisbane Lions are going to need to make the most of their away games if they are to push their way up the ladder. I’m bullish, and remain so after the Dayne Beams for Jarryd Lyons and two first round picks swap (effectively) happened over the past couple of weeks.

Lachie Neale Brisbane Lions

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

But the Lions have a really tough set of home opponents in 2019, who collectively averaged the second most Pythagorean wins in 2018. The flipside is Brisbane plays the following opponents away from the GABBA:

North Melbourne
Essendon
Gold Coast
The Western Bulldogs
Fremantle
Carlton
St Kilda
GWS
Port Adelaide
Hawthorn
Richmond

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Those last four away opponents are likely to be a significant challenge for the young Lions. What’s more, the club was a paltry three and eight (with a minus 20 point differential) away from home in 2018.

The improvement will almost certainly come, but after the fixture I’m pretty well convinced finals may still be a year away from Brisbane.

Collingwood is set to lurch from the “easiest” set of opponents in the competition to one of the hardest in 2019. And like the Bombers the Pies will be doing it all in prime time, with six of Collingwood’s first seven games to be played on either Thursday or Friday nights (and the seventh is a free to air Saturday game which happens to be the grand final rematch).

The Pies double up on Essendon, Melbourne, Richmond and West Coast (who all project as top eight teams), plus the wild card Western Bulldogs. Last year it was a steady diet of Brisbane, Carlton and Fremantle (six and zero, point differential of 26 per game) that helped boost the Pies into the top four. It looms as a more challenging task in 2018, no matter what the captain says.

St Kilda is quite well positioned on the double up front, with return matches against Carlton, Fremantle and the Gold Coast as well as Adelaide and Melbourne. The Blues, Dogs and Suns also have three of last year’s bottom six (which for them is a bottom five) as multiple opponents in 2019, affording an exit path if they’re good enough.

At the other end of the ladder, the cold reality of being a very good team will hit the Dees in 2019. They’re set to face Collingwood, Richmond, Sydney and West Coast twice (plus St Kilda), though play a dozen games at the MCG and only travel outside of their own states and territories (you can’t claim an out of state trip if you sell the game that sees you travel out of state – it’s a rule) five times.

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Melbourne has an enormous opportunity to set up its season with an early run of good form, with games against Port Adelaide, Geelong, Essendon, Sydney, St Kilda and Richmond taking them to the end of April.

Their fixture ramps up meaningfully in May: Hawthorn, Gold Coast away, backing into West Coast away and then a home game against the GWS Giants. Those first seven weeks are critical.

(AAP Image/Julian Smith) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Folks looking for a reason to doubt the Giants’ credentials can turn to its away fixture, which looks awful from here. An average opponent Pythagorean win total of 13, the Giants play West Coast, Geelong, Sydney, Hawthorn, Melbourne and Adelaide away from home prior to their bye. Things ease up at the back end, but that’s as tough a run as any club could hope to be asked to navigate.

West Coast has been rewarded for its stunning premiership run with plenty of prime time football in 2019. And there’s a blockbuster run of MCG games too, spread relatively evenly across the year. There is Round 3 against Collingwood, Round 15 against Richmond, and Round 22 against Hawthorn. The latter two are day games too, which is excellent.

Sadly, the AFL’s experiment with top eight shaping Saturday MCG day games appears to have been a one year thing. Most of this year’s MCG day games involve at least one team that projects as finishing outside the top eight.

Note to HQ: day games are awesome, the grand final is played during the day, please do more high calibre day games next year.

Richmond, no stranger to high calibre games, won’t leave the MCG in the final two months of the year. There’s four games against interstate opponents in that stretch too. They’ll be coming home with a wet sail no matter what happens in the 15 rounds beforehand.

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Remember Adelaide? The Crows fixture positions them nicely to start the year off well, with games against Hawthorn, Sydney and Geelong giving way to North, Gold Coast, St Kilda, Fremantle, Port Adelaide and Brisbane as the team approaches its bye.

No one seems to be talking about Adelaide as a premiership contender, though that’s probably because it’s November and there’s still nearly five months to go until the season starts.

And with that, I take my leave. This column will be on hiatus until the end of December where we’ll return for a couple of longer reads and some end of year material.

Season 2018 was remarkable in many ways, most of all the fact it was a West Coast premiership season.

Thanks for sharing it with me.