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Opinion

Welcome to the pandemic fun house! 2021 AFL predictions

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
17th March, 2021
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Welcome to the house of mirrors, where nothing you think you see can be taken at face value, change is our friend, sacred cows are to be sacrificed, and flexibility is key to our very survival as a season and as a league.

As the league found out last season, and the AFLW has proven this year, the sport can still thrive and provide its thrill ride to all of its fans as long as nobody rests on ‘tradition’ and insists on any detail simply because “that’s how we’ve always done it”.

“The schedule is sacrosanct!”

Please. That is so 2019!

We can change locations or even the teams that play on a day’s notice.

“Rules cannot change once the season begins!” Why not?

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The COVID situation changes from week-to-week. Don’t tie our own hands behind our back in this fight for survival. Every weapon must be at our disposal to keep the sport alive.

So if in Round 13 it becomes necessary to play the game wearing three masks apiece, then the players will be wearing three masks apiece.

“Once you’ve signed that contract, you have to play out the season.” Are you kidding?

Give them the right as humans to opt-out whenever the burdens are outweighed by their needs as people or family members. Adjust contracts as you need to as circumstances dictate.

(Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Be good to each other, treat each other as colleagues instead of conspirators, and remember that the enemy is not ‘him’. The enemy is a virus – impersonal and deadly.

We do whatever we have to do to keep moving forward as a sport, including pausing in our journey when it becomes necessary.

Okay, lecture’s over. Let’s consider the landscape as we see it.

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Every season, the organisation I belong to, Following Football, uses our rating system on a wide range of sports – from footy to rugby to ‘soccer’ (as we Yanks call it), to American and Canadian football and beyond.

The system is infinitely simpler than all the ones you see online – in its most basic form for footy, each team gains a rating point for every eight points it exceeds predictions by and loses one for every eight points it falls short of forecasts.

There are details to those forecasts, but that’s it in a nutshell. Here is the opening table for the ratings of our 18 teams, followed by how we see the race playing out, COVID willing (as a guide, the average rating is always 50).

1. Richmond – 69.9
2. Geelong – 67.3
3. Port Adelaide – 64.5
4. Brisbane – 62.5
5. Western Bulldogs – 58.0
6. West Coast – 55.6
7. St Kilda – 54.6
8. Collingwood – 50.5
9. GWS Giants – 50.2
10. Carlton – 48.3
11. Fremantle – 47.9
12. Melbourne – 44.3
13. Gold Coast – 42.9
14. Sydney – 42.5
15. Hawthorn – 41.6
16. Essendon – 39.4
17. Adelaide – 32.6
18. North Melbourne – 27.4

As far as predictions for the season go, we start by grouping the teams into tiers, although we’ll provide our guess regarding the final order as well. The tiers allow you to see which groups are close together and where the gaps between those groups might be.

The final four
Our forecast puts Brisbane as the most likely to make a leap from last year’s four-pack of favourites in September – as long as they have the double chance. Specifically, though, we’ll be astounded if the champion is not one of Brisbane, Geelong, Richmond or Port Adelaide.

We have them in that order, by the way: Brisbane over Geelong in the GF, Richmond and Port falling in the prelim finals. But injuries will be the determining factor in September.

Robbie Gray of the Power and Ryan Lester of the Lions chase after a ball

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

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Too good to miss finals, not good enough to win it
No one’s predictions seem to exclude any of the Saints, Bulldogs, and Eagles from finals in 2021. But they won’t win it.

We have the Saints fifth and the Bulldogs sixth – possibly a spot higher if a team above crashes into the injury or pandemic wall – but given that in every one of the 27 seasons since the eight-team finals began, at least two finalists have dropped out of the top eight (and replaced by teams from below), we think West Coast falls to at least ninth.

One of these teams has to make finals
Or two, as we’ve explained.

The lovers of status quo keep Collingwood in the top eight, but our choices of these six candidates to escape the undercurrent below the finals falls are Gold Coast and Carlton, the two candidates that most resemble Brisbane of 2019.

Collingwood and GWS are too good to fall far (tenth and 11th, perhaps), while Melbourne and Fremantle will probably languish towards the bottom of this group.

The tepid trio
Sydney, Hawthorn, and Essendon – three storied clubs – are all in a hideous no-man’s land, where they’re not going to earn the top draft picks, but they also won’t be competitive on the field in 2021.

So where will the hope come for their fan-bases?

The wild card in all this is Lance Franklin: we put Sydney in 17th, with the caveat that for every seven games that Franklin plays this season, we move our prediction for the Swans up one spot, first past Hawthorn and then Essendon.

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Lance Franklin Swans

How many times will Buddy run out for the Bloods this season? (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

The race for the spoon
Adelaide and North bear a resemblance to burning buildings, with some people jumping out for dear life and others frantically trying to put the fire out while the structure continues to deteriorate. We think North “wins” the race, and the Crows finish no more than one or two slots above them.

As for the games themselves, let’s look at Round 1 as it’s currently constituted, keeping in mind all season that the AFL has the right and duty to change the situation at a moment’s notice for the health and safety of all concerned.

Let’s just continue to be happy we have games to watch!

Carlton vs Richmond – MCG
Welcome to what’s become the traditional season-opening victory for the Tigers. While Carlton’s certainly improving, this is still going to be a comfortable win for the defending champs.

The ELO-Following Football ratings peg this as a 23.5-point Richmond victory; like almost every game this weekend, the professional point spreads are moving towards our numbers, up to 21.5 as of Wednesday morning.

Collingwood vs Western Bulldogs – MCG
This should be a one-goal win for the Bulldogs; bettors have moved the professional number from a Magpie edge to three points the other direction. We’re pushing it farther, up to six in Footscray’s favour.

Melbourne vs Fremantle – MCG
It amazes me that Melbourne gets so much more love than the Dockers in this game; even Michael Walters’ absence shouldn’t give the Demons more than a two-goal advantage. Right now, however, it’s a 13.5-point Melbourne edge.

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We have this almost as a pick’m game; travel issues giving Melbourne a two-point edge.

Adelaide vs Geelong – Adelaide Oval
The first game of the season outside the cathedral of the sport won’t be much of a game: Geelong will get a chance to ease their new parts into place against last year’s spoon-holders and are favoured by ELO-FF to win by five goals.

The professionals are slowly coming around to our way of thinking on this, but we’ll still take the Cats and the points at 25.

Hawthorn vs Essendon – Marvel Stadium
We have both clubs in the tepid trio, two teams destined for the bottom third of the ladder. But one of them should start the year 1-0; which one is up for grabs, as we see this as a virtual pick’m game.

Hawthorn has a two-tenths of a point edge in the mathematics; fans of the Hawks apparently nudged the oddsmakers up nearly a goal in Hawthorn’s favour, which makes Essendon the clear bet.

Brisbane vs Sydney – Gabba
Like Geelong, the Lions get to ease Daniher into the line-up with a tepid opponent, against whom they’re favoured in our books and the oddsmakers’ boards by four goals.

Given the pandemic issues in Queensland at the moment of writing, it’s conceivable that this game gets moved to Sydney or Melbourne, in which case we’d move that number down as much as a goal or two; nevertheless, they could play this game on Mars and Brisbane would still be the clear favourite to win.

North Melbourne vs Port Adelaide – Marvel Stadium
This doesn’t look like a difficult opener for last season’s minor premiers; the professional number has been steadily rising towards our predicted point spread of 33 in Port’s favour all week. If it’s not there yet wherever you punt, take the Power and the points.

Karl Amon of the Power celebrates a goal

(Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

GWS vs St Kilda – Giants Stadium
This is an interesting game to pick, as all Giants games are, because they have always had the ability to run up a score on opponents, they are a favourite of pundits and punters alike.

But against a superior team – and it’s still hard to wrap our minds around the Saints being a superior team to GWS, but that is not in question in 2021 – they won’t be running any score up Sunday.

We have St Kilda as a half-point favourite; the spread has been as high as 14 for the Giants, but as of this morning it was down to 7.5 points in GWS’ favour. Take the Saints and the margin.

West Coast vs Gold Coast – Optus Stadium
While the Eagles are the superior team, and the Suns will probably have travel or quarantine issues to deal with, we believe the point spread has been way too high.
Gold Coast will be one of the surprise teams in 2021, and in fact I placed them above West Coast in my ladder prediction (although I do have the Eagles in the second tier while the Suns sit in the third).

We have this as just a three-goal game in West Coast’s favour, while oddsmakers had it over 30 points earlier (it’s currently 27.5 in the Eagles’ direction). Because of the external issues the Suns will be facing, though, we’re just going to stick with West Coast to win, to be safe.

Bets we recommend at press time
Richmond to win (we have it as a 23.6-point spread, too close to today’s odds); Bulldogs +3.5 (we have it at a full goal, enough to bet the spread); Fremantle –13.5 (they should only be a two-point underdog); Geelong+25.5 (it’s 30+ on our chart); Essendon – 4.5 (it should be pick’m); Brisbane simply to win (for the same reason as Richmond); Port +30.5 (careful, though: our margin is only 33. If it creeps any higher, don’t risk the points); St Kilda -7.5 (or to win straight up if you’re brave enough); West Coast to win.

We’ll be placing figurative two-dollar bets on every game this season as listed, using the payoffs listed as of press time (Wednesday morning, this week).

We’re assuming a $3.80 payback on any $2 ‘even money’ bet, like picking a side on a point spread. If something substantial changes before game time, such as location or team, bets are off; if it’s just the usual injury issues, tough break for us.

By the way, if we were really confident in our ability to pick these games, we would use real money – don’t let this influence you into taking inappropriate risks. Got it?

2021 record
None so far, of course! We do usually come out slightly above zero; however, “past performance does not guarantee future success”!

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