An era has ended for the AFL.
In the last six weeks the balance of power that held firm for the last decade has shifted. You can smell the change in the air. Football’s terrain has mutated.
It’s still early in the season but we’ve seen enough form to cast firm judgement on teams like Richmond who have held the AFL in its vice-like grip and have made winning look easy. Last Saturday night they were subdued and brushed aside at the M.C.G. by an emerging, young, skilful and ruthless Melbourne.
In that match the league’s best player Dustin Martin left the field with concussion. Injuries are starting to mount for Richmond.
On the surface it looks as though the finely tuned premiership machine is starting to break. They are not as feared as they once were.
The previous night the Eagles fell to the Cats by a whopping 97 points. So far this year West Coast have delivered some patchwork and scratchy form, a true mixed bag: losses to the Saints and Bulldogs. They beat up Port Adelaide and overcame Collingwood late.
They’re 0-3 on the road with an average losing away margin of 41. If it wasn’t for the likes of Oscar Allen, Jack Darling and Andrew Gaff, things could have been a lot worse. It’s a far cry from their stunning 2018 premiership form.
Even Geelong, one of the modern day benchmarks, looks more like a team that is trying to keep their head above water rather than a club that poses serious threat. Aside from the hulking win over the Eagles, they barely climbed over the 2-4 Hawks.
They lost to the Crows – last year’s wooden spooners. And it took a second half revival – 7.8 to 4.2 – to dismantle a hapless North Melbourne.
“Don’t think we’re in love with the way we’re going,” Chris Scott said after the Roos game. As disciplined and organised as Geelong can be, they have an ageing list and one wonders if they overshot on experience rather than opt to unearth youth.
That brings us to Collingwood: a team that has made finals seven of the last 11 years which includes a premiership (2010) and two runners up accolades (2011, 2018).
Their only win this year was against the rebuilding Blues and after the 24-point Anzac Day loss to Essendon they sit 1-5 and in 17th on the ladder. For the first time in a long time they are stuck in unusual territory. In 2021 they look uninspired and a step off the pace.
This year is more than a “anyone can win the premiership” feeling. We’ve already spent that narrative. Think: the 2016 Bulldogs Premiership. We thought that about Richmond in 2017 too but they’ve kept on winning. What we’re witnessing now is a changing of the guard.
At least, that’s one way to look at the shift in unfamiliar teams inside the top eight. This might become the distinct year when football fans look back and say 2021 was the year when some of AFL’s superclubs faded.
As they fall new teams are rising: the Bulldogs are 6-0 with solid wins over the Eagles and the Pies; the undefeated Demons brutalised last year’s grand finalists Richmond and Geelong and look more rounded and durable; Port Adelaide’s best is scintillating and they too had Richmond’s measure; and the Lions have started slowly but they’re just starting to find the form that took them to the 2020 preliminary final.
These teams are displaying maturity, steely defensive structures, and play with a daring that makes football fun. They remind us of the Tigers, Hawks, Eagles and Cats – clubs that have dominated the competition for the past 10 years.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from the premiership teams of the last decade is that the system is greater than the individual. Team cohesiveness and connectivity are hard obstacles to stop. Getting the system right takes time.
Just ask Damien Hardwick: it took him almost a decade to perfect his blueprint before the dam wall broke for Richmond.
But systems can expire. The game changes. New ideas emerge. Forward pressure is a big part of scoring goals. Now, scoring from defensive rebounds is powerful and potent.
Richmond found a mantra that proved hard to beat but teams are finding new ways to beat them with better flow, hunger and a new brand.
Last Saturday night Christian Petracca broke Richmond with 38 disposals, 720 metres gained and 26 pressure acts. His goal in the last quarter sent Demons fans into a spin as he delivered the final nail in the coffin.
As much as the Dustin Martin-like numbers and influence has helped drive Melbourne to great heights, Petracca’s form is just one piece of their puzzle. Melbourne was missing cohesion.
Now they’ve got it. They are scary good. Remember saying this about Richmond before they became the kings of the AFL?
To say Richmond or clubs like Geelong are over, that their time is up, is probably premature. It could just be they’re in a holding pattern and need an off-season to make tweaks and go again.
But one thing is for sure: they are no longer hunted. There’s been a shift. And whether we like it or not change is here.