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How early do we know who will finish top and bottom of the AFL ladder?

In the wake of the Western Bulldog’s complete domination of North Melbourne and Wayne Carey’s calls that North will go winless this year, we at Sporting HQ have decided to see how early history has shown that we can determine the winner of the wooden spoon as well as the minor premiership.

Wooden Spoon

As most fans would know, the ‘wooden spoon’ is awarded to the team that finishes last on the ladder and brings the promise of the first draft pick the following year. Outside of this benefit, the spoon is otherwise a subject of embarrassment for supporters and something a club would be keen to not tally up. With this in mind, there’s been much early-season discussion as to who is set for this unflattering achievement, with most experts pinpointing North Melbourne as their favourites off the back of a tough first few rounds. Some have said in a twenty-three round season that this is far too early to call, prompting the following review of seasons 2011-2021 to discern how clear cut the bottom team has really been.

Having looked at the fixtures from previous years, history has shown that the bottom team usually struggles in the initial parts of the season and is consistently bottom of the ladder for the longest total stretch (in most cases the entire second half of the season). This is most obviously demonstrated in Adelaide’s 2020 season and GWS in 2013 where they were bottom spot since round three and didn’t budge, as well as Carlton in 2018 who were last at every stage bar round eight after the opening two rounds. Despite this, there are some cases where the wooden spoon has been a tug of war between two sides for large amounts of the season. This can be seen as in both season 2015 between Carlton and Brisbane and 2011 between Port Adelaide and Gold Coast, where the spoon was decided in the final round of the season!


However, as much as people would like to, you just can’t predict footy, with surprise drop-offs showing that early wins aren’t everything. Using the Suns in 2019 as an example, they were 3-1 and well in the top eight and out of the spoon conversation, but a shock eighteen-game losing streak afterwards saw them finish clear last. And where there are drop-offs there are also teams who pickup form, such as the 2017 Sydney Swans. Beginning the season with a six-game losing streak, the Swans had been bottom of the ladder for consecutive weeks, only to lose two more games for the whole entire year and make it into a Preliminary Final. Overall, while it doesn’t appear that any teams seem to be contesting the Kangas for bottom spot by round three, these unpredictable performances from past teams make us reticent to make assumptions.

Minor Premiers

Now that we know what past seasons say about wooden spooners, let’s see how teams who finished on top of the ladder in previous years tracked so far. Surprisingly, the top spot on the ladder seems a bit more predictable, with the last four years straight showing teams who started strongly consistently staying on top of the ladder for most of the season. For example, in 2020 Port Adelaide didn’t relinquish top spot all year, as well as 2019 Geelong and 2017 Adelaide who were second spot on the ladder at worst (post rd1). Having looked at the standings from previous years, the data shows a majority of teams on top at round five and almost every single team that was on top of the ladder at round 16 went on to keep that spot and finish top of the ladder.

Regardless, just like with the wooden spoon, there were some anomalies and teams that didn’t quite follow the trends. Some examples include the 2012 Hawthorn outfit who only secured top spot for the first time as late as round twenty-two, as well as Sydney in 2016 who only managed to regain top spot after round three as late as round twenty-two, ultimately finishing atop the home and away season ladder. Therefore, looking at the developing ladder of 2021, history shows that it wouldn’t be tough to see the fast-starting Bulldogs, as well as the Power and possibly even the Eagles, contesting top spot for the entire season.

What we learnt

While it can be interesting to speculate who will finish where, it is important to note that within this chosen decade only one team has won the minor premiership and gone onto win the flag as well, being Hawthorn in 2013. As a result, looking back through the archives tracking past premiers is an unpredictable mess, as in most cases they didn’t once gain top spot and even won it from as low as 7th. Ironically, the only year that Richmond won the minor premiership in the last 4 years was in 2018 and that was their only failed attempt at a premiership since 2017, hinting at how early home and away success can detach from finals performance. In continuation, looking at Richmond in 2019 being outside the eight as late as round fourteen but winning the flag regardless shines a light on just how important form in the latter part of the season truly is, underscoring how early predictions on ladder positions mightn’t always be the most fruitful.

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