I’m 38 and my vanity has convinced me I can recognise patterns over the years of watching footy.
Like the ignored Cassandra of Troy, it drives me nuts that other people sometimes don’t see this stuff. Cassandra would have definitely blown a gasket reading mid-season articles suggesting Port Adelaide’s flag favouritism.
Anyway, these are my rules to work out which teams are ‘legit’ each season.
1. Win your head-to-heads against other top teams of the season
This is the golden rule: if you’re great, you win your title fights, even if they are only home-and-away matches. You are tough enough to deal with other tough teams. To be the man, you beat the man.
It’s the reason people are not yet on Port, who so far have won a series of mundane matches against Carlton but lost easily to Brisbane and Geelong. Their stirring Richmond victory gives them hope.
Meanwhile, Geelong have swept aside Brisbane and Port, establishing top credentials, but still haven’t found a way to deal with Richmond’s collective strength, leaving us nodding in recognition.
2. Stand up in hard interstate situations (but you don’t have to win them all)
Back in those weird days when the AFL actually was a national competition and not just Geelong and Hawthorn passing the parcel, we had a minor premiership showdown in 2002 between Port Adelaide and Brisbane. The Lions lost on a late Roger James goal, losing top spot and potentially a home preliminary final.
Coach Leigh Matthews just shrugged.
I understood then that if you can get close on your rival’s home ground, even without winning the match, it means you’re better than them on a neutral ground.
Still, when supposed all-time great team Richmond (I’m paraphrasing 2018 commentary) couldn’t stand up and win a single big interstate match in 2018, I smelled something fishy and was proven correct. Beating Brisbane away in their first 2019 final redressed this concern the next year.
3. Good teams are not thrashed for any reason
I don’t care if your club has the flu sweeping through it and has to send out a team of debutants: if you’re real, you just don’t get thrashed for any reason.
Western Bulldogs played two seriously WTF matches to start the year. I knew after only one match that there were deep structural issues and that there was no way they were top-four material in 2020.
Richmond were crunched by West Coast in early 2018. The media brushed it off as just one of those Perth days but, again, a little too WTF for me.
This one is not foolproof but is a pretty good general guide – a classic exception is West Coast’s first final against Hawthorn in 2015. Richmond also lost big to Geelong last year, for all the good that did come September.
4. Thrashings against low teams are meaningless
With respect, any big wins against Adelaide and North Melbourne are meaningless in 2020. Anyone can look good against weak teams when there is more time and space on the ball.
5. It’s a myth that ‘great teams find a way to win even when they’re not playing well’
Great teams simply play well almost every week. If you’re a great team with a well-honed playing method, you only produce maybe one or two clunky matches a year. If you’re winning despite regular average displays, in the long run you’re just not that good.
Collingwood were the kings of this in 2019. I sat through two months of mediocre Magpie wins thinking surely the emperor has no clothes at some point.
Eventually, a month of losses arrived.
I can’t say I expected the preliminary final loss to the Giants, but the cream just floated to the top that rainy afternoon, or whatever the opposite of that saying is.
6. A good finals series is no guarantee to the future
In 2019, when everyone had Melbourne in their top four (don’t lie, just admit it), I wrote a pre-season article here saying the Demons were no guarantee to do anything in 2019, and again it’s time to toot my own horn.
Two, three, or even a magical four finals wins in a season is only a guarantee of one month of form. Home and away tallies, as boring as this sounds, is a better indicator of who is a good team long-term.
Greater Western Sydney I immediately knew were pretenders, they ticked all my boxes: declining home-and-away records over the last four years, a finals campaign that avoided all the tough teams in 2019 (Collingwood were not it, see rule five), and a 90-point loss when they finally did play a good’un.
7. You need a practice finals series before you win the flag
Geelong had Nick Davis. Richmond had the debilitating hat-trick of losses against what in hindsight wasn’t imposing opposition. Even the miracle Dogs had a ‘practice’ final against the Crows in 2015. By this token, Brisbane’s 2019 finals series is not the end of the world.
Port would be busting a big pattern to win it dry this year.
8. You should be able to attack coherently and score
Premiership-calibre teams don’t struggle to find avenues to goals. If you can’t score well, you are not unlucky to lose close matches. It’s a structural defect in your team.
Look, the Carlton vs Freo decisions were umpiring duds, but you can’t seriously cop three-quarters of pure opposition attacks and say it was all the umpires’ fault. Goals from free kicks are just a consequence of territory sometimes, like it or lump it.
9). Sometimes if you win by scoring 12.3 vs 10.13 you just got lucky
This one is a judgement call, case-by-case.
However, sometimes a lot of behinds is more about a defence holding up than automatically terrible shooting for goal.
10. You can’t win from below fourth, no matter how in-form you are