AFL 2007 mid season wrap - the Rise of the Victorians
Wednesday, June 27 2007 @ 01:28 am ACST
Contributed by: Brett Northey
Although our focus is mainly on international development, WFN likes to take some time to occasionally reflect on the world's elite Aussie Rules competition - the AFL. Traditionally the split round is regarded as a good time to review the season so far, with time to pause after 12 rounds gone with 10 to go before finals action. Two on field stories stand out this year, and they're very much related. One has been the return of attacking footy and the other is the return to strength of many Victorian clubs. There was early season doom and gloom that Victoria's AFL clubs were mostly a long way from winning a premiership and that other teams such as West Coast, Sydney, Adelaide and Fremantle were likely to continue their domination of the top four spots. Everyone had their view on "what was wrong with Victorian footy" and an official investigation was even launched. Here we are just a few months later and the top of the ladder is dominated by Victorian clubs - why the turn around and are they the real deal?
Since 1997 when Adelaide won the first of their two flags, just two of the ten AFL premierships have gone to Victorian based clubs, including none of the last six. Essendon were the last to bring the silverware to Melbourne, back in 2000. There has been a growing unease in Victoria as what at first was regarded as an anomaly quickly became a trend. With the national draft and salary cap all 16 clubs are supposed to have an even crack at the glory, but of course other factors come in to play. No one can say for sure what the definitive answer is, but some of the likely reasons for the non-Victorians coming to dominate include better player facilities, recruiting networks and staffing, and superior performances when travelling. The relative merits of sending unselected players and rookies back to the VFL compared with say the SANFL and WAFL have also been debated.
With nine AFL clubs based in Melbourne it's well known that they are often battling amongst themselves for sponsorship dollars and to recruit more fans. Some have been incredibly successful, with Collingwood leading the way in revenue. Others have struggled and at times have looked likely to go the way of Fitzroy, despite multi-million dollar AFL additional payments. With financial restrictions comes lower football department spending, and potentially poorer rehabilitation facilities. Just a small increase in time lost to injuries can make a huge difference in an evenly balanced competition. One theory also suggests that with traditional club allegiances to past players and staff, Victorian clubs haven't always ensured they have the best people in financial, medical and other roles. In terms of travel most of the Victorian clubs only do it a few times a year. At first this would seem to be to their advantage but while the non-Victorian clubs have accepted that around 50% of their season will be on the road and so embrace it as routine, the Victorian clubs generally have appalling records when travelling. I haven't confirmed this statistic, but there was a report that St Kilda's win over West Coast last weekend was only the Eagles' second loss at home out of their last 60 matches there against Victorian opposition - a staggering ratio if true.
With all the doom and gloom you might think victory for a Victorian club was a distant dream. How quickly things change. Prior to the AFL emerging as the national competition, Victoria was known as the home of high pressure, crunching football, whereas SA and WA were seen as having a higher focus on skills, open space and running handball. The modern era sees all those attributes combined, but the dominant mode come finals time has been suffocating pressure football - and ironically it has been Sydney, West Coast and Adelaide that have mastered those styles, along with the unpopular "tempo" footy. In 2007 this kind of football still exists, but it seems to have taken a toll, particularly with high injury rates and obvious player physical and mental fatigue at Adelaide and Sydney, and those clubs have taken a tumble. Fremantle were the fourth "interstate" team widely tipped to make the grand final, but their season has lurched from one disaster to another and their chances of making the finals are slim - as are Chris Connolly's chances of retaining his coaching job. Meanwhile other clubs have improved dramatically and now look like genuine contenders.
Everyone knew Geelong had a talented side but they seemed to self-destruct last year. A new season and the Cats' biggest problem is keeping the lid on the excitement down at Kardinia Park (Skilled Stadium). The team seems to have unlocked the secret to hard running, fast ball movement, high scoring footy, without leaking too many goals in defence. Sitting one game and ample percentage clear on top of the ladder, a home final beckons.
Three sides sit one game back. Hawthorn and Collingwood are two more great hopes for Victoria - which isn't to say non-Collingwood fans will be hoping for them to win! The Hawks have spent a considerable amount of time down the ladder and have reaped the rewards with a team now bursting with star youngsters with athletic forward Buddy Franklin leading the way. With wins over West Coast and Geelong already this year they must be considered a threat to the flag, and interestingly their style is now also very much about attack. Next comes West Coast. With superstar Judd currently injured and champion Ben Cousins missing indefinitely through off-field indiscretions, the Eagles have lost their way recently, but with their two guns likely to be back on the field soon expect them to play a big role in the finals. Collingwood are also looking ominous, despite blooding rookie after rookie. The Pies have shown they can handle big game pressure and continue to confound the experts who predict a slide down the ladder. Unlike many of their neighbours they have facilities and staff comparable to the non-Victorian clubs and this must surely be part of the reason they have stayed up high on the ladder for so long without going through the cycle of dropping low and getting early draft picks. Often winning against the odds and with a dream run home of no matches interstate the black and white army will be expectantly on the march to the MCG come finals.
In what is proving to be a very tight season, just a further game back are five more teams. This time last year Adelaide were unstoppable and people were saying the AFL may as well hand them the flag straight away. There were even reports that rival coaches were exchanging information on how to bring them down. Perhaps that, along with peaking too soon and a series of bad injuries, saw the Crows stumble into the finals where for the second year running West Coast knocked them out. This year Adelaide's defensive style has come under question and they've also been wracked by injuries, at times virtually having to draw on their rookie list just to field a side, and even the rookies being out injured. But they're still in the eight, have started to concentrate on attack more and some of their players are starting to return, so a shot at the title isn't out of the question.
The other four teams on 7 wins are Essendon, the Western Bulldogs, Port Adelaide and the Kangaroos. The Bullies have been threatening for a while now but again seem to be not quite the real deal. They play an open attacking game but don't seem to have the defensive action of the top sides like Geelong. The Dons, Power and Roos have all been surprisingly good this year. Essendon will be desperate to make the finals to give retiring champion James Hird a fitting send off, while Port are in a rebuilding phase and oscillating between very good and very bad. The Roos started the season terribly before going on a long winning streak and the hard nuts of the AFL could be very dangerous if they make the final eight.
Sydney sit alone on 6 wins and last year's runners up are now in serious danger of missing the finals. With this weekend's trip to take on the rampant Cats in Geelong and speculation that 12 or 13 wins may be needed to make the top eight, the Swans may be looking at needing 6 or 7 wins from their last 9 matches - an uncomfortably tight equation for a tiring side.
On 5 wins are regular under-performers St Kilda and Fremantle. The Saints seem to be undergoing some painful changes due to a new coach and yet another year of numerous injuries, whilst Freo's season started badly losing dynamite pocket Jeff Farmer for some time due to off field behaviour and things haven't improved from there. Their president has made it pretty clear that only finals can save the coach's job and that now looks almost out of the question.
For 13th and 14th on the ladder there's plenty to like about Brisbane and Carlton. The Lions have introduced a lot of young talent and started the season brightly but have gradually faded - they'll be better with a year of AFL under their belt. Carlton has been nothing short of horrible for some time now, but with their financial woes turned around, their youngsters gaining experience and Denis Pagan unleashing an attractive attacking brand of footy, the crowds are starting to return for the Blues and a jump up the ladder is on the cards for 2008.
And then there is 15th and 16th. What is worse than being bottom of the AFL ladder without a win, as were Richmond? Being second bottom and getting humiliated on Friday night football by the bottom team. Melbourne's run of two wins came to an end at the Tigers' hands but at the end of the day both clubs will be bitterly disappointed with 2007. The Dees have had some unlucky losses and bad injuries but should have done much better, while Richmond can look to their junior talent but in reality have also turned in a shocker.
So where to in the run home? It looks like two or probably three Victorian clubs will make the top four, ensuring plenty of finals action in Melbourne throughout September. West Coast and Geelong probably deserve to be favourites, but Collingwood and Adelaide are also strong contenders (we might know more about the Crows' chances after they play West Coast at AAMI Stadium this week). The rest appear to be battling to make the top eight, though from there anything can happen. Let's hope attacking footy continues to show its worth and that a spectacular finals series awaits us.