Two months ago, I had a decent rant here on The Roar, lamenting the repetitive nature of the competition, and moaning about the prospect of another Geelong premiership.
Since then, the Cats have fallen in a hole. Chris Scott’s mid-season whining about where Geelong’s home final would be played seemed premature at the time, but looks positively unprofessional now.
Perhaps coaches should stick to the old ‘one week at a time’ mantra.
West Coast and Richmond have hit form, but it is the Brisbane Lions who have burst out of the pack to lay claim to the feel-good story of the season. The Lions’ rise from likely finalist to likely premiers is a surprise to many, although they seemed to have all the building blocks of an outstanding team.
I commented here earlier in the season that the Lions would be a juggernaut by 2021, but I should have typed 2019 instead.
While the AFL administration is no doubt happy to have a good team in Queensland again, Brisbane’s meteoric rise does lay bare some of the structural defects of the competition.
The two teams I mentioned as possible threats to Geelong – Collingwood and Greater Western Sydney – have performed poorly in the second half of the season. Injuries have hit Collingwood like a steam train, while the Giants in recent weeks have lost Stephen Coniglio and Josh Kelly.
On the other hand, the Lions have been nearly at full strength. The improved form of Richmond and West Coast has also coincided with a healthier list.
The fortunes of these teams is highly attuned to available personnel. It’s obvious that losing quality players will hurt a team’s prospects, but why this makes football unsatisfying needs some explanation.
This is not a whinge about the state of the game, or about any particular team. In fact, the AFL is replete with good teams who play good football. But for a sporting purist, good is not necessarily good enough. Sometimes, you need to feel the presence of greatness.
This thought occurred to me during the first match of the Ashes. Steve Smith’s herculean effort in the first innings to keep his team in the match, and then wrest control away from England in the second, was one of the all-time great moments in Australian sport. While cricket is also a team sport, it was the mental strength of one man that won the day.
How often do we see a single player turn the tide in an AFL match these days? Yes, the typical AFL player is better today than those of 20 years ago, but do you ever go to a match to see just one player? We see glimpses of individual brilliance, but players in 2019 who kick a superb goal are likely to be rewarded with stint on the bench.
The pervasive goodness of AFL play – and following that, the absence of greatness – is exacerbated by the thinning of talent across 18 teams. The creation of two new teams was a serious error of judgement. If the league wanted new teams in Queensland and New South Wales, then Victorian clubs should have been cut, or relocated north.
The concentration of talent at the Giants seems unlikely now to have created a premiership-winning team. As much as it pains me to say this, those players would have been better going to other clubs.
The elite talent left at the club is going to be picked off by the richer clubs. The long-term future of both the Giants and the Suns is as player development academies for Victorian clubs.
Elite sport needs greatness. The spread of excellence among modern AFL clubs, aided by equalization measures and the dilution of talent created by the unwise addition of two new teams, means that results are hypersensitive to what happens in the medical room.
The evenness of the competition is good for revenue, but leaves the fan who wants something more than a close game bereft.
In a few weeks, the Brisbane Lions will probably have another premiership trophy. They are a good team who got lucky.
The AFL will be happy, as will their fans. For those wishing to see a great team lift the cup, they will have to wait until next year.