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Previewing the AFLW finals

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Roar Guru
31st March, 2021
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The final six are set, and they’re the same six we set aside as the contenders after Round 2.

The tepid trio are gone, the pretenders have disbanded, and now we’ll see which of the top-loaded teams in 2021 come out on top, pandemic willing.

Despite the COVID-saturated environment and the ever-changing regulations designed to keep it at bay while allowing us to simulate a normal life, we managed to get all 63 scheduled games in, although one suspects in the minds of the AFLW schedule makers, there wasn’t originally a plan for two western derbies to happen.

Nevertheless, we got through nine rounds for every team, more or less on time. In a revolutionary step for major league scheduling (and yes, cynics, the AFLW is a major women’s league in world sports), teams didn’t know from week to week where or who they were to play – the whims of their destinies dependent on where the pandemic was at the time.

One pivotal game in Round 7 was supposed to send Collingwood to Brisbane in a battle for first place. The Pies had played all their first six games in Melbourne, while Brisbane had been on the road the previous two weeks. Reasonably, the schedulers sent Collingwood on the road and allowed Brisbane its first home game versus a contender.

The virus had other plans, however, and with fewer than 24 hours remaining before first bounce, the game was moved to Whitten Oval, a theoretically neutral site in Melbourne, meaning that the Pies started the season with eight straight games in Melbourne and the last one in Adelaide. Brisbane won at Whitten anyway, which might be karma or something.

The sudden change in the pandemic which forced West Coast to play a much-stronger Fremantle twice in a row also forced Gold Coast into a string of five consecutive road matches in the meat of the season, graciously made up for once they were 0-6 by giving them the last three games at home in a cavernous Metricon.

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But it also allowed the AFLW to put together a whale of a finish to the season, connecting the six teams that were clearly the class of the league in an array of round-robin-like games over the final three weeks, creating games that were far more competitive than the previous rounds.

Consider: in rounds four to six, the ELO-Following Football rating system predicted only four games would be within single-digits (out of 21 games in all) – in fact, only one ended up that close (Eagle 34-33 Suns). But in rounds seven to nine, 14 of 21 games were forecast to be within single-digits, including six of seven in each of the seventh and ninth rounds! Eight of them did end up single-digit affairs, including two one-pointers and a two-pointer in the final round. Seven more came within twenty points, a big improvement over the league average.

Let’s look at the finals match-ups this coming week, and project forward as much as we can. As you know, in the AFLW, ties are broken alphabetically, so Adelaide is the top seed and Brisbane second, with Collingwood and Melbourne following in third and fourth. Check the ladder for the rest of the alphabetical ordering of tied teams.

More important than that (don’t write nasty comments; I know it’s really by percentage), consider how these six teams did against each other. As a unit, they went 27-1 against the rest of the field, and that one loss (Melbourne’s 2.12 spray against the Bulldogs in Round 4) cost them the minor premiership.

Performance against other finalists

Melbourne: 4-1, 104.9%.
Brisbane: 3-2, 110.1%
Collingwood: 2-2 (did not play Fremantle), 143.2%
Adelaide: 2-2 (did not play the Kangaroos), 76.5%
Fremantle: 1-3 (did not play Collingwood), 112.4%
Kangaroos: 1-3 (did not play Adelaide) 71.7%

Except for the 49-14 defeat by Collingwood, the Demons swept their actual competition, and yet are stuck in fourth on tiebreakers because of their loss to a substandard Bulldogs team. You could make an argument for either Brisbane or Collingwood in our number two slot; although I’d take Brisbane on actual wins over percentage superiority, I won’t die on that particular hill. The terrible percentages of the Crows and Roos startled me when calculating these – I had to do them twice to verify them.

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In contrast, the six finalists’ combined record against the rest of the so-called “competition” was 27-1 with a percentage of 275.4%. In other words, there was really no competition at all.

Be that as it may, let’s take a look at the beginning of the ‘real’ season this Saturday.

Collingwood (3rd, 7-2, 190.5%) vs Kangaroos (5th, 6-3, 142.5%) at Victoria Park
Our ELO-Following Football rating system gives the Magpies a half-goal advantage on a neutral field, and this isn’t that far from being one. Whatever advantage they may have, the extra day of rest for the Kangaroos might nullify it for the most part. We also need to consider the 28-8 victory by Collingwood in Marvel Stadium back in Round 4.

The Kangaroos are coming off a powerful motivational victory over Fremantle that clinched their spot in finals (with Carlton’s struggles against the Giants, they might have made it in even with a narrow loss, but perhaps the Blues would have played differently with a chance to reach sixth place).

Meanwhile, Collingwood’s lost two of the last three, including a deflating loss on Sunday to Adelaide that cost them not only the minor premiership but a first-round bye. In studying the men’s fifth place (the first slot without a built-in safety net), the sudden fall into that slot often creates a first-round loss (see West Coast last season as an example), and for those reasons, I’m suggesting North Melbourne will upset the Magpies at Victoria Park in the late game Saturday.

Melbourne (4th, 7-2, 130%) hosts Fremantle (5th, 6-3, 185%) at Casey Fields
Fremantle lost this game on the west coast two weeks ago, 37-32. Melbourne’s home field advantage nullifies the Dockers’ three-point edge in our rating system. Add to that the true advantage suggested by our round-robin evaluation above, as well as the three straight games the Demons have won against double-digit point spreads the last three weeks just to make it here, and this game will feel like week four of the finals forever series for Melbourne. Even without Daisy Pearce, we’ll expect Melbourne to overcome Kiara Bowers et al en route to the preliminary finals.

Next week, second-placed Brisbane hosts the winner in the second prelim final, either Collingwood or the Kangaroos. The Lions defeated both within the past month, will be favoured in the ratings evaluation of the game thanks to both home field and the week off and, despite their 0-3 record all-time in the finals, has not lost to either of these teams in a final. We’re going to take Brisbane in a close one over (probably) North Melbourne (or Collingwood if that’s who it ends up being).

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Meanwhile, minor premiers Adelaide host the winner of the fourth vs fifth game, which we’re projecting to be Melbourne. Both the Demons and the Dockers put absolute beatdowns on the Crows during the season: 43-15 and 43-13, respectively. So even with home field advantage, even with a rating advantage of about a goal on their own and another goal for the locale and perhaps another goal for the week off Adelaide gets, either for coming first alphabetically or for Melbourne’s 2.12 loss out of the contender bracket (essentially) – we would be willing to pick against Adelaide with either opponent.

Except for one thing.

Last year the AFL didn’t declare a champion, but in the three seasons that it did, the grand final winner was always the team with the best percentage during the regular season, no matter where that team placed (and they weren’t always first – for example, the Crows placed second when they won their initial title). Adelaide ended this season with the only percentage above two hundred (208.4%, to be more precise). Regardless of the traffic jam atop the standings, Adelaide’s probably the class of this trio. They’ll be motivated by their prior losses and have two weeks to analyse the difficulties they had in those match-ups.

That would make the grand final a recasting of the inaugural 2017 final, the one where Brisbane was upset by the Crows 35-29. The teams have played four times in AFLW competition: twice, the Lions won a symbolic but ultimately meaningless opening round match-up (in 2018, a 31-19 victory, and in 2020, a 34-21 win). Twice, though, the game actually meant something – that 2017 GF, plus Round 4 this season when Brisbane was 3-0 and coming off a pair of 65-point performances that made us think they were the class of the field. Adelaide upended them in Brisbane by two goals, 45-33, deflating their perfect image and leaving them looking up at the Magpies for most of the season.

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When it really matters, the Crows come out on top of Brisbane. Plus, Adelaide is 3-0 all time in the finals, winning titles both times they were in the finals.

Adelaide won the grand final in both previous odd-numbered years: 2017 and 2019. Why not 2021 as well?

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