Is The AFL Premiership Race Still A Marathon And Not A Sprint?

Things are crook at Collingwood right now, and the challenges don’t get any easier for the Magpies this week when they meet Geelong on Saturday at the MCG.

It’s also a clash which might revive a few wistful memories.

It’s 10 years since those same two teams met in one of the more under-appreciated grand finals of the modern era, a cracking contest in which the Cats got on top only late in the piece to win their third premiership in five seasons.

The 2011 season was remarkable for the quality of the top teams. The grand final was the 25th game of the season for both the Magpies and Cats. Each lost just three, all of Collingwood’s defeats at the hands of Geelong, and the Cats’ only reversals by just four, eight and 13 points. These were two seriously good sides.

How would they stack up against the best teams going around in 2021? Pretty well, one suspects. And if that was a hypothetical “playoff” conducted over a series of games, I’d be going with the Cats and Pies every time.

That’s not, however, how premierships are won, as Geelong infamously discovered to its cost in 2008, losing a grand final to Hawthorn after having won 23 of 24 games in the lead-up. 

And that harsh lesson is probably even more relevant today than when it was delivered 13 years ago.

RELATED: Check out all of Stats Insider's 2021 AFL season projections

Why? Because while reliability still counts for plenty in AFL football, it’s not necessarily the be-all and end-all. 

It will over the course of six months land you a spot in the top eight, or better still, a double chance in the top four, and greater hopes of going all the way. Ultimately, though, that will still depend on the quality of performance on one given day.

I think that’s worth remembering in an age where even the best teams are prone to the odd shocker and it seems harder to sustain a winning run.

Melbourne’s undefeated sequence came to an end (only just) on Saturday night, and in hindsight perhaps not so surprisingly, given the Demons, after dispensing with Richmond in round six, had then struggled to put away North Melbourne, Sydney and Carlton.

And what of the Tigers, now the subject of various “era coming to an end” question marks? Well, Richmond might indeed be the poster boy for these newer, perhaps lesser benchmarks of reliability.

The Tigers’ 2019 flag was won on the back of a string of 12-straight victories from mid-season, by today’s standards a phenomenal run. But it was hardly form maintained for the duration of that season.

Indeed, come round 13, Richmond was just clinging on to a spot in the top eight with a pretty average 7-6 win-loss record, and having lost three games in a row, all of them by more than five goals. An eventual 89-point grand final crushing of Greater Western Sydney seemed a very distant prospect then.

But the Tigers, right through this golden age, have had a habit of having the odd shocker. That season, it was a 67-point thumping at the hands of Geelong. 

Last year, they got cleaned up by a Hawthorn team which won only five games for the season and finished 15th. In 2017, there was a 76-point belting in Adelaide and, right in the middle of a particularly good spell of form, a 67-point reversal to St Kilda.

The Saints wouldn’t even end up making the eight that year. And Adelaide? Well, Richmond famously dispensed with the Crows in their next meeting, on grand final day.

We often talk about AFL seasons as being a marathon, not a sprint. 

Six months is a long time to sustain an optimum level of performance, and perhaps those more frequent reversals now are in effect a releasing of the pressure valve of sorts, moments which can in hindsight be dismissed as aberrations, but at the time provided a chance to regroup and re-focus.

If that hypothesis offers any team a lifeline right now – OK, let’s call it clutching at straws - it must be St Kilda.

There wasn’t a lot coach Brett Ratten could say after his team’s hideous 111-point hiding to the Western Bulldogs on Saturday night, but his remark about the game being played “above the shoulders” was certainly apt.

A team which got to the second week of last year’s finals has now suffered losses of 111, 86, 75 and 54 points in just 10 games.

And yet just the previous week, the Saints had taken it right up to a red-hot Geelong, a game they might well have won were it not for a shockingly inaccurate 5.17. And in round four, they’d overcome a five-goals-plus deficit to beat another bona fide good team in West Coast.

St Kilda is obviously up against it, and has one of the toughest runs home of any team. But performances like those two just mentioned indicate it’s not that the Saints are no longer capable enough, nor that they’ve effectively checked out on their coach.

Those “super sides” of a decade or so again might have been more consistent and less likely to produce shockers, but the premierships they won don’t count for any more than the 2021 flag will.

All it means is that, more than ever, this premiership will be won by a team which not only has fewer shockers than its rivals, but instead produces its very best at the time which matters most.

*You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at footyology.com.au

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Rohan Connolly

Rohan Connolly, managing director of the footyology media brand, is one of Australia's most experienced and respected sports journalists. With a 38-year track record of observing a range of sports, primarily AFL football, at close quarters in print, online, and on radio and TV. A multi-AFL Media Association award-winner known for his passion, knowledge and love of the game, he's renowned for his hard but fair approach to football analysis, informed by facts not hyperbole.  

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