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2018 in review: AFL

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26th December, 2018
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For much of the 2018, the AFL season looked to be a one-horse race. But a finals series for the ages ensured football fans around the country got more than their fair share of drama and entertainment.

With a bevy of rule changes set to hit the AFL in 2019 – not to mention increased attention on AFLX – you’d be right to feel a sense of trepidation as the new year approaches.

But, for now, let’s sit back and remember the year that was.

The 2018 AFL season

It was a long time ago now, so many people have forgotten just how strangely the 2018 season started.

A VFL/AFL record Round 1 crowd of 90,151 piled into the MCG to watch the season-opener, as Carlton had five goals on the board virtually before Richmond had even finished raising the premiership flag.

Order was restored soon after, as the Tigers got the first four points of the season with a 26-point victory.

You could say ‘order’ was very much the order of the day in 2018.

There weren’t that many surprises at the bottom of the table, with Gold Coast (apart from an impressive opening fortnight) and Carlton doing just about everything experts expected them to do in 2018 – that is to say; sweet nothing.

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Marc Murphy

It was a year to forget for the Blues. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The Western Bulldogs and Fremantle operated in the purgatory of 13th-17th for the majority of the season, while Brisbane put together a reasonably strong second-half to finish the year as arguably the most lauded bottom four team in history.

But not everything followed the script.

North Melbourne made a mockery of their wooden spoon favouritism for much of the year, reaching the lofty heights of fifth as late as Round 10.

While a finals appearance ultimately wasn’t to be, Kangas fans can wear the ninth-place finish as a badge of honour all summer.

On the flip side of the coin, St Kilda – thought to be a candidate for finals – endured a truly miserable campaign to finish in 16th. It was a similarly disappointing season for Essendon who, after what was seen as an extremely productive offseason, spent all of one week in the top eight.

Nobody would be more disappointed in their season than the residents of South Australia, however.

Buoyed by a dominant minor premiership and spurned by a crushing grand final loss, many thought the Adelaide Crows to be a red-hot favourite to go one better in 2018.

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Instead, self-inflicted offseason sadism doomed them from the start. A five-game losing streak before the bye saw them kicked out of the top eight, and they simply never recovered.

Port Adelaide fans would’ve been beside themselves watching the misfortune of their older brothers, but they too missed the finals in devastating circumstances.

One win in their final seven matches saw them tumble from the top four to no man’s land in the blink of an eye.

At the other end of town, however, it’s fair to say we all lost sight of all the surprising goings on as Richmond looked to have the flag in the bag by May.

Jack Riewoldt

The Tigers were unbackable favourites for much of 2018. (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Aided by what some fans thought to be a lettuce leaf fixture, the Tigers reached the top of the ladder in Round 5 and, apart from a four-week stretch between Rounds 9 and 12, stayed there until September.

The reigning premiers seemed untouchable, swatting aside competitor after competitor at their MCG fortress, to the point where the ground’s status as permanent grand final host was brought into controversy several months ahead of schedule.

Who of the contending pack could have possibly caught them? West Coast were building a fortress of their own at Optus Stadium – but premiership deciders don’t get played in Perth.

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Collingwood’s second-half surge had them climbing the ladder with ease, but they were having a much harder time establishing themselves as contenders in the eyes of the public.

Would Alastair Clarkson and the Hawks put on another September special? Were the irrepressible young Demons on track to crack their hoodoo? Could either of the two Sydney sides put inconsistent years behind them with a clean slate? Would the ‘holy trinity’ of Joel Selwood, Patrick Dangerfield and Gary Ablett finally awaken in the finals for Geelong?

It all seemed moot, until…

The finals

2018’s finals series started inauspiciously, with Richmond seemingly wrapping one hand around the cup with a cruisy 31-point win over Hawthorn.

The Tigers’ only weakness, up to that point, was an inability to play interstate. If the Hawks couldn’t force them into playing an away preliminary final – that was supposed to be it. Damien Hardwick’s men would just cruise through home preliminary and grand finals on route to a second straight flag.

Collingwood proved they belonged in the top four with a gallant qualifying loss to West Coast, while the Giants inflicted more finals embarrassment on the Swans with a 49-point demolition.

Was Richmond’s best contender going to come from the bottom four? It sure looked that way when Melbourne dominated Geelong from start to finish in their elimination final.

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That case was further advanced in the semis, as the Dees put Hawthorn to the sword to hand Clarkson’s men their second straight-sets exit in three years.

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With the Magpies edging out the Giants to progress to the prelims as well, it looked like our grand final was set.

Richmond would brush aside the Pies, setting up a mouth-watering encounter with the surging Melbourne, who were going to repeat their late-season heroics in Perth with another win.

Instead, preliminary final weekend saw the competition turned on its head.

A Mason Cox-led aerial blitz by Collingwood saw the underdogs race to an unthinkable 64-20 half time lead, before settling for a monumental 39-point upset victory.

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Over in Perth, it didn’t even take until half time for the result to be decided. The Eagles absolutely shredded the Demons in one of the most one-sided finals in recent memory to set up a decider that nobody at the start of the season saw coming.

We all know what happened on that day, with Collingwood’s incredible burst in the first quarter slowly, but surely, being whittled down and overcome by the Eagles, who’d bring the trophy across the Nullarbor for the fourth time in their short history.

But what’s certainly been lost in the fallout from the last Saturday in September is just how unexpected that decider was.

Most experts would have had neither side in the top eight at the beginning of the year, so for us to get a genuinely thrilling grand final between two genuine pre-season underdogs is a gift many football fans still haven’t properly realised the value of.

It’s also particularly unfair to see Collingwood labelled as 2018’s chokers for that last gasp loss when, in actual fact, this season’s real chokers were the men from Punt Road.

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The old adage that nobody remembers the minor premiers is often a cruel reminder of the footballing fandom’s fickle memory. In Richmond’s case, however, it’s probably been a blessing.

2018 Results summary

AFL premiers: West Coast Eagles
AFL minor premiers: Richmond Tigers
Brownlow medal: Tom Mitchell (Hawthorn Hawks)
AFLCA player of the year: Max Gawn (Melbourne Demons)
VFL premiers: Bow Hill Hawks
SANFL premiers: North Adelaide Roosters
WAFL premiers: Subiaco Lions
TSL premiers: North Launceston Bombers
NEAFL premiers: Southport Sharks
AFLW premiers: Western Bulldogs