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MCG form matters in the AFL, just not how you think

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Expert
22nd May, 2019
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Nine rounds into the season and the competition is separating in the usual way.

We can start to look ahead knowing the likely finalists and the path they will have to take to win the flag.

Since 2000, on average 6.4 of the final eight have been in place after Round 9, a figure that doesn’t really budge too much higher for around about the next ten weeks of the season.

After an initial surge out of the gate – on average just over five of the final eight are known after Round 1 alone, which moves to six by Round 4 and about 6.5 over the next four weeks – not much changes for the rest of the season.

It serves as another reminder to trust your eyes when you see a team you fancied stumble out of the gate. More often than not the first four weeks of the season reveal a ton about how the rest of it will unfold.

Looking at you, Melbourne.

Simon Goodwin

Demons head coach Simon Goodwin (Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Round 9, 2019, and we know with reasonable confidence the three best teams right now are Geelong, Collingwood and the GWS Giants. Sitting below them are a few teams presented here in order of my confidence in them: Richmond, West Coast, Adelaide, Brisbane, Port Adelaide, Essendon and Fremantle.

If one were a better, I would look at somehow constructing a bet that let me compose any top eight involving those ten teams. This is the group that will make up this year’s finals series.

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The Bulldogs have the talent but still look a year away from putting it together sustainably. They took it right up to the Cats over the weekend, punishing mistakes through the middle of the ground and not taking a backwards step as a midfield group.

Their form inside the forward and defensive arcs is a little too patchy to put them into that finals contention tier. The Hawks will surely begin to be in the tank soon.

So then we turn to what comes after what comes next: who is the premiership favourite? If you look at the markets, it’s Geelong. Pundits seem to think it’s Collingwood. GWS has to be mentioned if only because the club’s best play has been the best football anyone has played in 2019. Before too long the annual talk around the MCG factor will emerge.

Jeremy Cameron

Greater Western Sydney’s Jeremy Cameron (Michael Willson/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

It has in some circles, though, centred more on Geelong’s ability to host a final in the first week of proceedings if circumstances allow it. Such is the hold of the MCG for finals that a club that looks almost certain to finish on top of the ladder – if you review the various projections systems out there – treats an ask to play at its own ground as some sort of extraordinary request.

Not that the mystical MCG Factor (capital F, it’s a thing) mattered so much last year: West Coast triumphantly raised their flag on the MCG against an MCG tenant after going undefeated at the MCG throughout the year.

It got this column thinking: does the MCG Factor matter as much as we might think? And what does that mean for this year’s non-MCG claimants to the throne?

Remarkably, nine of the past 11 seasons have seen an MCG tenant club face a non-MCG tenant club in the last game of the season. The MCG tenants were on a hot streak, winning four in a row (which included Hawthorn’s threepeat and Richmond’s win in 2017). Were it not for The Right Honourable Dom Sheed’s drop punt from the MCG pocket in the last two minutes of last year’s grand final, the MCG tenants would have won the previous five finals where a tenant and a non-tenant faced off.

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Dom Sheed

West Coast’s Dom Sheed (Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

It was such a meme that even Mark Robinson from the Herald Sun felt empowered enough to dive in. He doesn’t cop enough grief over his ‘Victorians have a stranglehold on the premiership cup’ piece from the start of last year. Maybe it’s because no-one reads his column anymore.

West Coast changed the narrative a little with its win last year, but still, there will come a day before long that the records of Geelong and GWS (and perhaps West Coast and Adelaide and Port Adelaide) at the ‘G – and the meme that interstate sides can’t play the ‘G for reasons – will be used to discount their premiership chances. The data says hold the phone.

For those who have a life and can’t recite these off by heart, the grand final match-ups in question are (MCG tenant listed first, winner in bold):

  • Hawthorn vs Geelong (2008)
  • Collingwood vs St Kilda (2010)
  • Collingwood vs Geelong (2011)
  • Hawthorn vs Sydney (2012)
  • Hawthorn vs Fremantle (2013)
  • Hawthorn vs Sydney (2014)
  • Hawthorn vs West Coast (2015)
  • Richmond vs Adelaide (2017)
  • Collingwood vs West Coast (2018)

Over those 11 seasons, interstate teams that made the grand final have performed better than admirably on the MCG in their runs. Those teams are a combined 27-11-1 in both home and away and finals series at the MCG with a winning percentage of 68 per cent. If we take grand finals (winning and losing) out of the equation, that percentage rises to 77 per cent.

There is a lot going on there. Survivorship bias is one – we’re looking at teams who are successful teams generally, so it should follow that they are good at the MCG too. Some of those teams played one or two games at the ‘G in the lead up to their grand final: Sydney (2012), Fremantle (2013) and West Coast (2015) were victims of that.

Some teams played against weak opponents through the home-and-away season, potentially suggesting the ground wasn’t a factor as much as the quality of the opponent.

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However, there is a very limited relationship between full-season performance at the MCG and grand final performance. A great team might make a great MCG team and a great team probably makes a great grand final team, but a great MCG team doesn’t necessarily make a great grand final team.

No matter, the numbers do what the numbers always do: paint an interesting picture of history versus sentiment. An interstate team might be good enough that the venue impact doesn’t matter, and it can win anywhere.

That was certainly the case for Geelong in 2011, when it won all nine of its MCG games, including three finals (two of which were against tenant clubs).

And so it is for Geelong thus far in 2019. The Cats have played three of their five scheduled games at the MCG, winning all three games (including an early candidate for game of the year against presumptive second in charge Collingwood). Geelong has two more home-and-away season games to come at the MCG, against Richmond in Round 12 and Hawthorn in Round 18. They are good enough and healthy enough to win both.

The other presumptive premiership favourite has had a more torrid time at the MCG of late. GWS were beaten by an otherwise hapless Hawthorn a fortnight ago and play two more games at the grand final venue before the end of the year (Melbourne this weekend and Hawthorn in Round 17).

Patrick Dangerfield

Geelong’s Patrick Dangerfield (Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The Giants are well placed to handle the Dees, even if there is some sort of mystical power holding them back at the MCG. The club’s injury list is remarkably pristine, particularly if you consider Jonathon Patton has about as much a chance of breaking into the Giants team in 2019 as I do.

Their launching pad for a premiership assault is as solid as it has been since their surprise surge into ninth in 2015 on the back of a powerful second half of the season.

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A positive ledger at the grand final venue isn’t the be-all and end-all. But history does suggest the best teams can win regardless of the ground they are playing at. Being able to ‘play the ‘G’ matters, but perhaps not in the way that you think.