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Big calls for the big dance: Who deserves the premiership from here?

It’s a conversation that rears its head at pub tables, offices and BBQs. Now that we’re down to the final four, who ‘deserves’ the premiership most? Of course, it’s a subjective issue – but there’s a handful of factors that come into play. Some might argue that the team that’s standing on that stage come the end of Grand Final day is the deserving winner, given that they’ve just conquered the holy grail of AFL conquests, and that’s that. But if we look into everything that’s lead us up to this point of the season, which has been an unprecedented one at that, you could make a case for each team before it comes to Grand Final day. So who really deserves to be lifting the cup at the end of it all?

Port Adelaide

First thing’s first – Port were minor premiers, which should count for something in anyone’s book. Not only that, but they didn’t drop from top spot all season. This goes to show a level of consistency at a high level which most people didn’t think we would see this year, given the condensed format, expected injuries and extra challenges that came with hub restrictions and extended travel times that were expected to interrupt team rhythm. Therefore, Port quickly asserted themselves as the team to beat.

Form: They haven’t lost much, but when they have it’s been by an average of 42 points – albeit to Brisbane, St Kilda and Geelong, all of which made the top 8. Their average winning margin against top 8 teams (excluding finals) is 47 though, which tells us that overall they’ve been the best, against the best. How else do you describe what it takes to win a grand final?

Fixturing: This is where things get interesting for Port, given that they were one of the more fortunate teams that had a hub at their home ground. This meant that they had 7 games at Adelaide oval, including a run which saw them have 5 out of 7 games at home. This wouldn’t be unusual in a regular season (in fact, it would be rough for Victorian teams…), however it proved arguably an even bigger advantage this season given that a majority, rather than the minority, of other teams didn’t have this luxury, and regular seasons have never seen hubs or restrictions like this one has. Their form would tell you that they still travelled well though, which is always a big tick when it comes to September October.

In terms of time between games, Port were gifted the most rest out of the remaining 4 teams, only having one 4-day break and two 5-day breaks, with a vast majority of their breaks being a week or longer – which is generally better than fixtures in regular seasons.

Team as a whole: Over the last 5 years, Port have finished 9th, 10th, 7th, 10th and 10th. They’ve been consistently inconsistent, and for them to shoot to the top of the ladder in this season is an accomplishment in itself. Weighing up this form as opposed to the same result from 5 straight years of making finals, I’d be more inclined to argue that this makes them more deserving, simply because they’ve shown that they’ve figured out where they were going wrong, and essentially come from nowhere to launch a massive assault on the flag.

Now, if we look at the team members themselves, it’s always subjective as to who, if anyone, stands out as deserving to be rewarded with a flag. Many Port fans would tell you that Tom Rockliff deserves to lift the cup, going 200+ games without playing in a final, after slogging through hard times at Brisbane earlier in his career. Travis Boak also comes up, after playing in the 2007 grand Final and sticking by the team through thick and thin when he could easily have gone to Geelong, and arguably being a big factor in the club’s rebuild. Any player would dream of retiring on a premiership, and for that reason Justin Westhoff could also be included in the conversation, in addition to Robbie Gray given his service to the club and standard over his tenure, plus Steven Motlop, who hasn’t had much success over his 200+ game career.

Richmond

If you ask any non-Richmond fan, it’s likely they’ll tell you that they’d be happy to see anyone except for the Tigers get over the line. But, are they genuinely deserving? Most of us were rooting for them to win in 2017, but fast forward a few years and they’ve become a heavyweight of the comp, having dominated since. Therefore, they’ve fallen out of favour with most, simply due to the yawn factor and supporter arrogance that comes with a building dynasty.

Form: The reigning premiers started this season off poorly, only having 1 win to their name after the first 4 games. However, they gained momentum back in the latter half of the season, winning 8 of their last 9 games of the home and away season to ultimately finish 3rd. Of their 4 losses, Hawthorn was the only team who finished outside the top 8 (15th in fact), with St Kilda, GWS, and Port Adelaide being the others, losing by an average of 22 points. Pointedly, the Tigers only won against half of the teams that ended up in the top 8, and dropped the Qualifying Final against Brisbane.

Fixturing: The Tigers only had 5 games in Melbourne during the season – very out of the ordinary for a team used to having far more on their home deck, which they often cop a bit of heat for (interestingly, they only got 2 wins out of those). In the end, they’ve been on the road since July, which is a pretty considerable feat. Out of the final 4 teams, they also got one of the better deals in terms of break length, only having one 4-day break and three 5-day breaks.

Team as a whole: Looking at Richmond’s last 5 years, they’ve had a pretty decent run to say the least. Specifically, their form over the last 3 years have seen them as a prized, and they were widely expected to go back to back in 2018, before that shock demolition at the hands of Collingwood in the Preliminary Final. In fact, Richmond are the only premier since 2012 to still be in contention. So, they’ve risen up the ladder, where they’ve stayed – and have 2 flags to show for it. It could therefore be fair to say that since they’re here again, at a stage they haven’t missed in 3 straight years, they deserve it as a testament to their dominance. Conversely, this could be the exact reason why they don’t – simply from a ‘time to give someone else a go’ perspective. Although, Bachar Houli surely deserves a Norm Smith after the one he was robbed of in 2017. You decide.

Overall, you can’t argue that Richmond aren’t amazing to watch when they’re on song. They clearly have the ability to go to a different gear to remind us all why they’ve been so dominant, and they’ve been shaken from their regular Melbourne security this year. But it’s getting a bit been there, done that for the Tigers.

Brisbane

One of the most talked about clubs this season it seems, Brisbane have had a cracker of a season which saw them fall short of the minor premiership just on percentage. They’ve been consistently competitive throughout the year, and never really had a rough patch like Richmond and Geelong.

Form: The only teams to claim bragging rights against the Lions were Hawthorn, Geelong and Richmond. Out of the 4 teams left, they had the lowest winning margin against teams that finished in the top 8, being 20 points. Coming up against them at the Gabba proved an insurmountable task though, not dropping a single game in front of their home crowd. Regardless of the advantage that they had, their standard across the season proved them as genuine contenders, which is further solidified by the fact that they were triumphant over Richmond in the first week of finals, much to the annoyance of everyone – and there were a lot – who predicted another straight sets exit. Proving doubters wrong could come in as a key credential in deciding who’s most deserving.

Fixturing: Brisbane had undoubtedly the biggest advantage by far where ground scheduling is concerned. Being unbeatable at home in a season where genuine home games were hard to come by is a huge factor in the overall scheme of things, which is even more profound given that the Grand Final will be played there too. On the other hand, Brisbane weren’t dealt the best hand when it came to match scheduling. In fact, they had the most 4-day breaks of any of the remaining teams.

Team as a whole: Brisbane have had the biggest growth in the last 5 years – the fact that they’ve gone from the wooden spoon to 2nd on the ladder in 2 years is more than commendable, especially after they finished 2015, 2016 and 2017 in 17th, 17th and 18th respectively. Similarly to port Adelaide, this rise to prominence showcases a tightened game plan, brushed up skills, a bunch of young players with huge potential, a hot favourite for the Brownlow and a genuine belief around the club. Lions fans alike will agree that seeing Daniel rich with a premiership medal would be heart-warming to say to the least, after sticking by the club and giving his all in the lows that preceded the last couple of years. Likewise, Dayne Zorko lead his club to where they are, and many would consider him deserving of a flag after his on and off-field contributions and commitment to the club.

Another angle to consider is the youth in their list. With a bunch of guns in their early 20s, many were saying last year, and even this year, that the Lions were simply too inexperienced to be able to get the job done. Whilst the ‘I told you so’ outcome prevailed last year, Brisbane have already topped their 2019 efforts and are looking to make the big dance, should they beat Geelong on the weekend. Does this make them more deserving of a flag when considered against an experienced list? Maybe. But let’s not count our chickens just yet.

Overall, there’s no doubt that Brisbane have been formidable this year, but their significant home ground advantage is likely to put question marks over their deserving status when compared to others. On an unrelated note, Chris Fagan is a super likeable guy, so that’s got to count for something.

Geelong

And now to the Cats. Geelong fans would be breathing sighs or relief that they’re still part of this conversation, given their recent finals hoodoo that saw them lose 6 of their last 7 matches in the first week of finals. Does that stat alone (paired with their 4-11 record in finals overall since their 2011 flag) make them more or less deserving of eventual victory? On one hand, they’ve had plenty of opportunities to go deep in finals, and you could consider them too wasteful to deserve it. On the other hand, this could be spun in a way that frames them as hard workers who deserve to finally get over the line.

Form: Geelong lost the most games out of the remaining teams, going down 6 times and finishing 4th. They were beaten by half of the teams that finished in the top 8, however, the ones they did beat were in convincing fashion – winning by an average margin of 52 points, including a 10-goal victory over Port Adelaide at Metricon Stadium… who then defeated them in the Qualifying Final. This tells us that they’ve been a little inconsistent this year, but still in touch with the form that’s seen them hover around the top end of the ladder in recent years. It’s meant to be the best of the best that win the cup, but can you claim to be the best when you lost in the first week of finals?

Fixturing: The Cats only played 3 games at their true home ground all season, which is challenging for a team whose home ground is nothing short of a fortress. This meant that they’ve also been away from their home state since July, which would be tough for anyone. They proved that they were able to travel well for the most part though, which saw them have a nice little 8-2 run towards the end of the season. Their fixture itself was one of the kinder ones too, with their challenges spread out nicely. In terms of breaks between games, they didn’t fare as well – having two 4-day breaks and four 5-day breaks, averaging roughly a week’s break. This meant that overall, they had limited help to put them in a good position come the end of the finals when compared to the other remaining teams.

Team as a whole: In the last 5 years, Geelong have finished 1st, 8th, 2nd , 2nd and 10th – so they’ve been floating around the better teams for a while now. As mentioned, it’s debatable as to whether this gives them more or less reason to deserve the premiership over the other teams, but my overall stance is that they would have deserved it more if they’d got the monkey off their back by winning in the first week of finals.

A lot of Cats fans will tell you that Patrick Dangerfield deserves a flag, given his fighting nature for the club and the fact that he’s never played in a Grand Final at all. Others will tell you that a more humble man in Gary Ablett Junior deserves it, because even though he’s won 2 flags before, it’s all but confirmed that he’ll retire at the end of the season – so to end it on a premiership would be fitting since he’s one of the best of all time. This ties into the aspect of Geelong’s aging list. With 9 players over 30, should this be the last hurrah for players who have every chance of being let go for the sake of the club’s rebuild?

Overall, it’s hard to be convinced that Geelong have done enough to make them more deserving of the flag over other teams that are left. Maybe their blue and whit ship has sailed.

The verdict

A number of things considered, I think you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who thinks Port Adelaide don’t deserve ultimate footy glory this year. A premiership feels like a natural progression for them after the season they’ve had – they’ve competed at a high level for the entirety of the year and shown they can match it with the best for the vast majority of the season, meaning that there’s only one team still left that they haven’t beaten at some point during the year. As a team who wasn’t on anyone’s radar after last season as a premiership threat, they’ve shaken things up to show that not only can they beat the best, but stay at the top – showing an ability to withstand a compact fixture, plus various restrictions and unprecedented conditions. Yes, they’ve had a decent hand through playing at their home ground more than most, but they won’t be able to rely on this come Grand Final day, which is what they would have had to do if it were at the MCG anyway. Forget about the prison bars and enjoy the cup instead.

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