The week off. Blessing or curse?
By Daniel Emilio Amato

The McIntyre final eight system the AFL (and NRL) use for their respective finals series, has been used for twenty years now. Majority of the time, there was rarely any dissatisfaction from the players, coaches media and fans. It seems as fair as can be, first and second host third and fourth respectively in Qualifying Finals. The winner is granted a week’s rest and home Preliminary Final, the loser is forced to host a home Semi Final. For the bottom half of the top eight, they are required to win four consecutive finals (all away games for 7th and 8th) in order to claim the ultimate glory. 

Since 2016 however, the AFL implemented a bye week before the finals where all eight competing clubs had the opportunity to rest, prepare and recover from any injuries. The rule was bought in to allow all players the opportunity to be in the best possible condition for the best standard finals series possible. This rule coincided with the year the Western Bulldogs became the first club since 1998 to win a premiership from outside the top, winning four consecutive finals. The Bulldogs limped over the line this season, losing to 16th placed Fremantle in the final week of the home and away season with a mounting injury list. That pre-finals bye allowed the club to regain a large percentage of players to recover and be fit, ready to go for their Elimination Final in Perth. Chances are, had they not had the bye, they would not have even beaten West Coast, let alone won the Premiership. This is an example of the pre-finals bye being a possible blessing.

Geelong in 2016 oppose this, as they were one of the best teams in the competition. Finishing second on the ladder and beating Hawthorn by less than a goal in the Qualifying Final, they looked just about headed for the big dance. The Sydney Swans (minor premiers) lost their Qualifying Final to baby brothers GWS and therefore, had to host Adelaide in a Semi Final at the SCG before meeting Geelong at the MCG. Despite Geelong being hot favourites, the Swans slammed the first eight goals of the game and would run away with a commanding win to set up their Grand Final. There are many reasons Geelong did not win this game, but could having a week off before the finals, then another directly after that first final have been a reason? Only playing one game of football in twenty days against a club who have had continuity and been able to consistently play have been their downfall?

A similar example is Richmond of 2018 who were the best team in the competition by a long way, claiming the minor premiership and comfortably defeating Hawthorn in their Qualifying Final to secure a home Prelim after another week’s break. They faced an underdog Collingwood side who were playing their third game in as many weeks, and similarly, the Tigers got off to a shocking start. At the 22nd minute mark of the second quarter, the score read 64-11 and the Pies on their way to causing one of the biggest upsets in Preliminary Final history. Ironically, the year after Collingwood secured home ground advantage after another week off, and were handed a taste of their own medicine by GWS who upset the favourites by less than a goal in their third straight final.

The statistics show since the pre-finals bye, in three out of four seasons a club has lost their home Preliminary Final after winning a Qualifying Final and securing that extra week off. This was not so much the case pre-2016, as only 4/20 seasons saw a team from outside the top four reaching a Preliminary Final. 

This begs the question, just how valuable is that week off? Does home ground advantage really matter all that much considering it would only be a club’s second game in three weeks? History suggests not so much. Does this bode well for Port Adelaide and Brisbane, who this weekend will be doing something they haven’t done in several days… playing.

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