If there's one thing at which the powers that be at the AFL excel, it is an all-encompassing solution to a non-existent problem. One of the more recent and drastic of these solutions is the pre-finals bye, introduced last season to deter clubs from resting large numbers of players ahead of a finals series.
The problem: two teams rest a bunch of players ahead of games whose results will not affect the makeup of the top eight.
The solution: adjust the fixture so that it may or may not affect all of the teams in the top eight.
"May or may not" is the operative phrase. After one season of the pre-finals bye it is impossible to say what effect it had on the results of the finals. Any statistician, any lay person in fact, could tell you that a sample size of one can give you exactly zero insight into cause and effect. The fact that the Western Bulldogs won the 2016 flag from seventh on the ladder, the first team to ever do so, in the same year that the pre-finals bye was introduced does not show causality, only coincidence.
What is often forgotten when pundits talk about last season is the closeness, and perhaps the quality, of the top seven teams. Sure, the Dogs finished seventh, but they won 15 games and only two wins separated seventh and first. This year, and in many other years, 15 wins would get a team into the top four.
So, yes, the Dogs were the first team to win the flag from seventh but they were most certainly not the first team to win the flag with 15 home and away wins.
Then there is Geelong and GWS from last year. Some argue that winning their qualifying finals and earning the following week off wins acted as a disadvantage since they already had a week off before their qualifying final wins. Two top four teams knocked out of the finals having two out of three weeks off. Cause and effect? Possibly. Coincidence? Almost certainly.
In 2014 Geelong and Fremantle finished third and fourth after the home and away season and both teams were knocked out of the finals with two straight losses. For the first time two of the preliminary finalists, Port Adelaide and North Melbourne, came from outside the top four. No week off ahead of finals, no obvious reason that both teams could follow such similar paths, just a weird coincidence. It happens.
Until the AFL season features a pre-finals bye for a an extended time, there really is no way to tell what effect it has. We can look back in time and get a slight insight though. From 1973 until 1990 the VFL/AFL used the McIntyre final five finals system. Under that system, used widely in football leagues throughout the land, the team that finishes first earns a week off in the first round of finals. Should they win their first final, the second semi, they get another week off ahead of the grand final.
In the 18 seasons that system was used at this level, 10 teams made the grand final by winning the second semi, having two weeks off out of three, essentially the equivalent of Geelong and GWS in last year's prelims. Of the 10 teams that made it through, seven finished the season as premiers. That's a decent strike rate.
Obviously, over the same time eight teams finished on top and lost the second semi after a week off. Of those eight, five won the prelim and made the grand final. Of those five, only two won the premiership. So, from a slightly larger sample size, having two out of three weeks off had a 70% success rate, while having only one week off had only a 25% success rate (Essendon had two weeks off before their first final in 1990 because of the draw and subsequent replay between Collingwood and West Coast in the qualifying final, but they've been counted in the "one week off" group).
"But that was ages ago. You can't compare eras like that," I hear you say. Quite correct. In the last 30 years sports science and player management has improved stratospherically. The folks in charge of such things at AFL clubs these days should have no problem managing the loads of their players with the knowledge that may have an extra week off. For a team like GWS, so cursed with injury this year, the extra week off would surely be beneficial.
The conversation could well be the same next year, too, with the best team over the last four months finishing sixth on the ladder. If the Swans happen to make it to the grand final the year after the Dogs doing it from seventh, expect a lot of pundits to consider their opinions confirmed.
Personally, I'm not a big fan of the bye. I loved watching the AFL Women's State of Origin game on Saturday night, and even enjoyed the EJ Whitten Legends Game, but they felt like a quite contrived weekend of events wedged into an unnecessary gap in the schedule. So, I am in favour of scrapping the bye, but using a supposed disadvantage to the top four teams as the reason? Give us a spell.