Melbourne’s players will be having just their second game in 27 days when they run out to face the Western Bulldogs in the AFL grand final tonight.
On August 16th, the AFL decided to scrap this the pre-finals bye, instead reserving the option to insert the week off during the finals.
The bye was then scheduled for the week before the grand final, allowing the AFL an extra week to plan for the event and to comply with quarantine protocols for both teams, administrators and media.
The bye also means that Melbourne have played only the prelim in almost a month, while the Bulldogs have had three games in that time.
If Melbourne loses on Saturday, critics of bye weeks at this time of year will, no doubt, suggest the Demons’ lack of match practice as a possible reason.
The pre-finals bye was introduced in 2016 to negate finals-bound teams resting players en masse for the final home-and-away round. The idea that any team could be seen as not doing their utmost to win a game of football was not a good look for the competition.
The bye also gave teams another week to recover from injuries and prepare for the finals. It seemed a vital ingredient in Western Bulldogs winning their first flag in 62 years in the first year of its inception, from seventh on the ladder.
From 2016-20, the pre-finals bye ensured the winners of the two qualifying finals in Week 1 of the finals with one game in four weeks, give a day or two.
Critics of the bye claim playing just one game in almost a month leads to teams losing momentum. They cite the stats from those last five years where only four of the ten qualifying finals winners then won their preliminary finals, a 40 per cent success rate.
Conversely, sans a pre-finals bye, in the 16 seasons between 2000 and 2015, 28 of the 32 qualifying finals winners then won their preliminary finals and progressed to the grand final. That’s 87.5 per cent.
But the League only need look at its own history for a much larger sample size.
From 1931, when the Page-McIntyre system was adopted, to 1971, the then-VFL had a final four consisting of just four finals – the first semi-final, second semi-final, preliminary final and the grand final – played over four consecutive Saturdays.
In effect, all teams had a bye during the finals except the loser of the first semi-final.
Indeed, the second semi-final winners ran out on grand final day, having played just one final in the prior 27 days, with the exception of Essendon in 1946 who finished on top, drew the second semi, won the replay and then the flag.
How did the other winners of the second semi fare? They won 26 grand finals and lost 14.
When the final five was introduced in 1972, only the team that finished on top at the end of Round 22 had the first week of the finals off. If they won the second semi-final in Week 2, they went straight through to the grand final and, again, had only played one match in 27 days before the decider.
In the 18 seasons from 1972-1990, using the final five, there were ten instances of a team finishing on top of the ladder, winning the second semi-final, and playing just one game during a long break. (Nine of these were 27 days. In 1985, Essendon’s Round 22 game was a Sunday, so they had one game inside 26 days.)
On seven on those occasions, the team with this hiatus won the flag.
The winners were Richmond (in 1974), Carlton (’79, ’81, ’87), Essendon (’85) and Hawthorn (’88, ’89).
The losers were Hawthorn (’75), Collingwood (’77 – the draw was their second game in 29 days before losing the following week) and Richmond (’82).
Bbetween 1931 and 1990, there were 53 instances of teams having multiple weeks off during finals. second semi-final winners accounted for 51 of these, with two exceptions due to draws.
Of those 53 teams, 34 of them won the flag, a 64 per cent success rate.
So why the disparity between the records of teams that had multiple weeks off in VFL/AFL history and in the past five years?
Is there anything that today’s fully professional AFL sides can learn from those finals teams who successfully negotiated breaks decades ago?
How do the icons of the AFL view the bye?
David Parkin, is a member of the AFL Hall of Fame who played 211 games with Hawthorn between 1961 and 1974. He captain the 1971 Hawthorn premiership team and became an analytical and innovative coach, leading the Hawks to the flag in 1978, and Carlton to premierships in 1981, 1982 and 1995.
Two of his teams had multiple weeks off during finals – namely, Hawthorn in 1971 and Carlton in 1981. Both teams were ultimately successful in those years. He also played or coached against sides that had the same breaks – Geelong in 1963 (losing by 49 points) and Richmond in 1982 (winning by 18 points).
Whether as a player or coach, Parkin always looked favourably on the breaks.
“Having a week’s rest, i.e., winning the second semi and missing the prelim’, e.g., Hawks in 1971, was a huge psychological and physical advantage,” Parkin says.
“The opposite being for 1963, after a very tough second semi and prelim, we were smashed by the Cats in the grand final. In 1981, the week off was extremely helpful.”
After beating Geelong in the second semi-final by 40 points, Carlton waited while Collingwood won a thriller over the Cats in the prelim’ by seven points.
With the benefit of another week’s rest, Parkin was surprised when grand final day arrived.
“I went to the pre-match address, and there were five players in the room. I went to check the rest out. There were seven in the medical room. The other eight were in with the psych on the floor, all holding hands.
“You had five ready to play, seven who were physically incapable and another eight who were psychologically dispirited!”
He rates the Carlton premiership in 1982 even higher, considering the team played every week of the finals.
“The most difficult flag to win was off the back of a bruising prelim’ versus the Hawks in 1982,” he said.
“Doing it in 1982 with injuries, loss of form and starting non-favourites was the most difficult finals series and premiership win I have ever been associated with.
“Before the game, I was horrified to walk in and find seven of my players having local anaesthetic into joints and parts of their body, all of whom had been passed fit by the medical staff and had looked me in the eye and said they wereokay to play.
“Players are so keen to get out there and be a part of it that they tell terrible lies so that they won’t be out.
“It’s the hardest game in the world to play, bar none. There’s no other game that demands more of its participants.”
As to whether the multiple breaks come finals time are beneficial to today’s teams, Parkin believes it depends on the individual circumstances.
“You would need to have some type of objective evidence re the injury status of individuals and the team.
“There are too many uncontrolled variables to come up with a sound theory, unless some empirical research is carried out by genuinely qualified sport scientists.”
Daniel Robson-Petch is founder of Resistance Sports Science, a Brisbane-based team of university-qualified exercise scientists and exercise physiologists providing training and rehab for amateur and professional athletes.
He works primarily in AFL and believes Melbourne, by virtue of winning their qualifying final and having a week’s break, are the team disadvantaged by the pre-grand final bye.
“We can make our training intensity maximal (but) it’s the pressure of winning or losing a game that drives them.
“In training, it’s that mental drive which we struggle to find. They can feel super fresh, but I do imagine after a game a month, they’re actually at a disadvantage because of the mental component of it. There’s no intensity like playing a game of football.
“These players are so elite at the moment that it’s almost impossible to keep up if you take the foot off the pedal.
“If I look at the likes of NBA where they’re playing two or three games a week in comparison to footballers who have dropped down to one a month, it’s almost unfathomable.”
Robson-Petch believes it would be a fairer system to have no bye the week before or during the finals, giving only the winners of the qualifying finals the benefit of one week’s break.
“Currently, I believe one week is the perfect amount for players to refresh and get themselves physically and mentally ready to perform.”
Kevin Sheedy is an AFL legend whose 251-game playing career at Richmond from 1967-1979 included three premierships. He went on to an even bigger career as Essendon coach for 27 years, winning four flags, and was the inaugural coach of Greater Western Sydney.
When Peter Sumich’s errant shot for goal ensured the draw between Collingwood and West Coast in the 1990 qualifying final, it meant Sheedy’s Essendon played no game in 21 days, the longest period of no games in finals history.
It proved a bridge too far for the Bombers, and Collingwood went on to win their first premiership since 1958 in emphatic style.
Despite this, ‘Sheeds’ remains ambivalent about weeks off in finals.
“Every club and every team and every situation is totally different,” he says. “Sometimes the finals series are advantages and disadvantages for different teams for different reasons. And this year more so than any because of the travel and the living away.
“In 1990, all those boys went to work for 40 hours a week and then went to training, so it’s totally different.”
How did the 1990 Essendon players maintain momentum? Was a practice match during those three weeks off a possibility?
“It was always going to be difficult because the other teams in Melbourne had gone on holidays. They were all on their trip away, so it was hard to say, ‘Can you help us out and play a practice match?’ because no-one could.”
If critics warn of the deconditioning effect one game in 27 days might bring, how would they feel about 34 days?
The 1962 preliminary final draw between Carlton and Geelong meant minor premier Essendon played just one match in 34 days.
Ken Fraser, played in two premierships and 198 games for Essendon, including the 1962 win.
The second semi-final saw the Bombers comfortably account for the Cats by 46 points to lock in a grand final berth, scheduled for two weeks later on September 22nd.
The resultant preliminary final between Geelong and Carlton was a draw, replayed the following Saturday, the Blues getting home by five points in another thriller.
So, finally, Carlton met Essendon on September 29th.
When Essendon ran out on grand final day, it was just their second game in five weeks.
“It’s quite different nowadays, because in those days we all had jobs, five days a week,” Fraser says.
“Our captain, Jack Clarke, was an architect. We had a lawyer. Three of us were teachers. A farmer, bricklayer, accountant, salesmen.
“We all had jobs, so there wasn’t the mental pressure that there is nowadays on the players. So the lay-off, while it was obviously strange, or different anyway, at least it wouldn’t be as bad as it would be with the players of today.”
Leigh Matthews was a key protagonist in eight premierships as a player and coach and was, in 1999, named the greatest player of the 20th century.
His first premiership win was in 1971 as a 19-year-old. That year he also won the first of his eight best and fairest awards and earned the nickname ‘Lethal’.
“Back in those days, with the top four, the idea was you’d hope that you’d actually win the second semi-final, and you would have one game in 27 days,” Matthews said.
Rarely misty-eyed about the past, Matthews no longer sees that as ideal preparation for a final.
“The game’s now played at a much higher tempo. What happened a generation ago has no relevance, in a way, to what’s happening in the current generation. I think one weekend off in a series is helpful; two weekends off are probably not.”
But what of injury rates like Parkin’s Carlton in 1982?
“Well, that’s always a different factor. Anything you do is on the basis that you get through unscathed. Every game you play, you may well get an injury or two. That’s the downside.
“Everyone still wants to win the qualifying final because the fact is you’re there; you’re now, at least, playing for a grand final berth.
“It’s just sort of a general view that the team that loses the qualifying final, wins the semi-final, and then plays the team who hasn’t played is slightly advantaged in the preparation.
“But, again, you’re working on the basis of no injuries and no suspensions. Each individual situation can clearly be different.”
Whilst recognising the pre-finals bye was brought in to counter teams resting players, Matthews doesn’t believe that it should stay.
“It seems unnecessary. If you want to rest your team in the last round, that’s your choice. I don’t know whether having a complete weekend off is sufficient justification.”
Matthews even suggests an overhaul of the current finals model is in order. Under the present system, a team can win every game of the year, lose the preliminary final by a point, and be eliminated.
“The system doesn’t reward the team that finishes on top after six months,” he says.
“I believe that finishing first after a six-month campaign is a greater achievement than playing well for the last couple of games of the year and winning the premiership.
“In our current finals system, clearly, first gets no more advantage than fourth unless it (the qualifying final) happens to be teams from different states. If it’s four Melbourne teams finish one-two-three-four, well, the first team and the fourth team are starting exactly the same.”
This brings Matthews back to the bye.
“A complete weekend off is a significant thing in a way because there’s not that many weekends you can play footy. You might be able to find a better finals system if you had five weeks of finals. It wouldn’t worry me if ten teams started off the finals, and the finals were over five weeks.”
Kevin Bartlett, the first player to reach the 400-game milestone before becoming an entertaining voice on the game, would also do away with the pre-finals bye.
“We don’t need it,” he says. “That only came in because, in 2015, North Melbourne and Fremantle, who couldn’t change their spot on the ladder and knew where they were playing in the finals, decided to rest about nine or ten players out of their best side.
“But the AFL doesn’t tell sides who to pick during the course of the year. We have sides now, all the time, resting players and managing players, and, you think, Gee, why did they do that? Playing a pretty important game this week and, all of a sudden, they’ve decided to manage players or rest players.
“I think most football fans would like to see the season continue.Every year, when it’s been on in the last five years, people have said it’s pretty boring. The footy comes to an end, and you’ve got to wait again for next week”.
Unlike ‘Lethal’, ‘KB’ doesn’t agree the bye has disadvantaged teams winning the qualifying final during the last five years. He attributes the 40 per cent success rate in recent years to the closeness of the competition.
“If you look at the ladder, there were about four sides all within a game or so of each other, and then the fifth and sixth sides are another game away. Now, if you drew those sides to play each other every week, you might get a different winner every week. If you go back in time, it was seen as a bonus to have the one game in 27 days.”
Three times, Bartlett played in teams that had such a break during finals series: 1967, 1974 and 1982.
Richmond won the flag on the first two occasions when the legendary Tom Hafey was coach. Even into his senior years, Hafey’s own gruelling, daily fitness regimen would make players half his age squirm. It was a given that any Hafey-coached team would be fit.
Bartlett believes Richmond trained no differently during finals than during the home-and-away season.
“It was seen as a bonus that you weren’t going to be playing a game. Therefore, the general feeling was less chance of getting an injury, particularly to two or three important players. But Tommy trained us exactly the same as if we doing home-and-away games. There was no let-off.”
‘KB’ cannot recall any practice games ever under Hafey.
“But there was always contesting. There was always a lot of hard gut-busting running in that week leading up to the grand final.”
After four premierships in ten years, Richmond failed to make the finals in 1976. Hafey read the tea leaves at Richmond and took over coaching Collingwood in 1977, lifting the 1976 wooden spooners to a drawn grand final in his first season.
Bartlett defends Hafey’s training methods at the mention that some Collingwood players suggested they trained ‘too hard’ in the week prior to the 1977 grand final replay.
“Tommy used to say to me, ‘Hard training never worried the Richmond Football Club. I don’t know why it worried the Collingwood Football Club’. Because we trained like that ourselves, through Tommy, and used that as one of our strengths – that we’d be fitter than any other side in the competition. Tommy had a saying that no-one would be able to withstand 100 minutes of Richmond pressure. ‘At some stage, we’ll make ‘em crack’.
“The general feeling was that hard training was the thing that was going to win us the game, not lose us the game. So we trained through, as per normal, and we had great success.”
Regardless of the paths the competing teams this Saturday have taken, Bartlett remains steadfast.
“It doesn’t matter how many byes you have or what you bring in. The best side will win.”
The following is a list of results using the final four from 1931-1971.
Premiers in bold were sides that had multiple weeks off during finals series.
|Year||Second semi-final winners||Premiers|
|1933||South Melbourne||South Melbourne|
* In 1946, the second semi-final between Essendon and Collingwood was a draw. Essendon won the replay and progressed to the grand final. By grand final day, they’d played two games in the previous 34 days. Consequently, Melbourne, winner of the first semi-final, had a break of 20 days prior to the preliminary final which they won but subsequently lost the grand final.
** In 1948, the grand final between Essendon and Melbourne was a draw. By the following week, Essendon had played two games in the previous 34 days. Melbourne won the replay.
*** In 1962, the preliminary final between Geelong and Carlton was a draw. Carlton won the replay. Consequently, Essendon, the winner of the second semi-final, had played one game in 34 days prior to the grand final. They won.
The following is a list of results using the final five from 1972-1990.
Again, premiers in bold were sides that had multiple weeks off during finals series.
|Year||Minor premiers||Second semi-final winners||Premiers|
+ signifies all teams that had multiple weeks off during the finals.
* In 1977, the grand final between Collingwood and North Melbourne was a draw. By the following week, Collingwood had played two games in the previous 34 days. North Melbourne won the replay.
** In 1990, the qualifying final between Collingwood and West Coast was a draw. Collingwood won the replay and faced Essendon in the second semi-final. As a consequence of the draw, Essendon, the minor premier, had a break of 21 days prior to the second semi-final – which they lost.