Monday, October 31, 2016

Which AFL Club Has The Easiest Fixture in 2017?

The AFL has now released its fixture for 2017, and with its release comes the annual media evaluation of which clubs ‘won’ and ‘lost’ from the scheduling. For some of the press the focus was on who received or missed out on the ‘prime time’ Friday night slots (summary: the Bulldogs and Swans won, Richmond and Fremantle lost). And the other main point of focus is which clubs got the easiest and hardest draws, and will therefore be helped or hindered most by the AFL playing 22 rounds with 18 teams.

This is the fifth year over at ‘The Wooden Finger’ that I have tried to answer the question: which AFL club got the easiest fixture next year? For anyone who is interested, and doesn’t feel like digging through the archives, these were the results:

Year
Easiest
Next Easiest
Hardest
Next Hardest
2016
Gold Coast
Geelong
North Melbourne
Adelaide
2015
West Coast
Melbourne
Western Bulldogs
Port Adelaide
Geelong
Hawthorn
2014
Western Bulldogs
Richmond
GWS
Essendon
Brisbane
2013
Melbourne
Brisbane
North Melbourne
Collingwood
Western Bulldogs
2012
Adelaide
North Melbourne
Collingwood
Western Bulldogs

Okay, let’s get into it: which AFL club got the easiest AFL fixture in 2017? First I’m going to go through my method for determining who I think has the easiest fixture, and who that says got the luck of the draw in 2017. Then I’m going to compare my results with those from a few other methods.

The WF Method

So here’s my method: I rate a club’s fixture by summing up over every match the ranking points of its opponents as determined by my end-of-season AFL Power Rankings, while adjusting for net home ground advantage. For example, a Victorian club that plays host to a non-Victorian club with 10 ranking points will get +2 points in terms of how easy the match is expected to be for them: -10 points in terms of the expected strength of the opponent, but +12 points for the expected home ground advantage.[1]
This means the rating for each club’s fixture is in effect the result of three components:
  • Effect of which clubs your club plays twice: This is the collective strength of the opponents that each club plays twice. A higher rating for this component means that you have easier opponents in your return bouts.
  • Net home ground advantage: This is the net effect of the adjustments for home ground advantage across the season. Not playing your home matches interstate helps out here (hello Western Bulldogs), as does playing clubs from out-of-town.
  • Effect of not playing your own club: If every club played each other the same amount of times the better clubs would generally have easier fixtures and the worst clubs would generally have the hardest.
There has been a bit of debate here about that last point. Some people think that rating the difficulty of a fixture should remove the effect of not playing your own club, and I would concede that fans usually exclude this effect when thinking about how difficult their fixture is. On a strict interpretation of how difficult a fixture is though I’d say it should be included. In the results below I show what the results are with and without this effect.

The Results
Using the above method here’s my ratings of the easiness/difficulty of each AFL club’s fixture in 2017, ranked from easiest to hardest:

Let’s go through each of the three components in turn.
Effect of clubs played twice: For the fixture the AFL uses a ‘weighted rule’ where it splits the clubs into three groups based on their positions on last season’s ladder (after finals), with more match-ups between clubs in the same group.
  • The middle six clubs are quite variable on this component. St. Kilda has return matches against two top clubs including last year’s minor premier Sydney, but North Melbourne’s only strong return opponent is the Western Bulldogs.
  • The top six clubs on the ladder tend to have the toughest sets of return matches. The exception is Adelaide as it has return matches against two strong clubs instead of three.
Net home ground advantage: Generally this component doesn’t make a huge amount of difference, as home matches and away matches even out. Carlton gets the rawest deal, as it has to travel interstate six times while only having four matches against non-Victorian clubs at home, two of which are against the Sydney clubs. Richmond also does relatively badly as it has six interstate trips and a trip to Geelong. Adelaide does relatively well because for two of its interstate trips its opponents have no or little advantage – North Melbourne in Tasmania, and Melbourne in Darwin.
Effect of not playing own club: Obviously stronger clubs do better on this component. But the main point here is how this component affects the assessment of how difficult a club’s fixture is. Without it weak clubs such as Brisbane, Gold Coast, and Essendon are assessed as having the most favourable fixtures, as is the intention under the AFL’s ‘weighted rule’. But with it Adelaide is assessed as having the most favourable fixture. The Crows, unlike those other clubs, have to play one less top club: the Crows themselves.
In summary then, the Adelaide Crows – with a relatively favourable fixture for a strong club, and a couple of interstate trips where their opponents have little home ground advantage – is considered here to have the easiest fixture in 2017. North Melbourne and Port Adelaide have relatively favourable fixtures for mid-range clubs, and their fixtures are rated as the next easiest.
As you would have seen near the start of this post Adelaide and North Melbourne were considered to have difficult fixtures in 2016. Is the AFL making it up to these clubs this year? Also we seem to have come full circle from my first-ever annual assessment, which was for the 2012 fixture, where Adelaide and North Melbourne were rated as having the easiest fixtures for that year.
At the other end for 2017 Hawthorn is rated as having the hardest fixture, having to front up twice against three of the top four highest-ranked sides. In terms of clubs they play twice the fixtures of Geelong and GWS are considered just as hard, but the Cats and Giants are rated as better sides than the Hawks.
Now let’s look at how these results compare to those of other methods of rating the fixture.
Rohan Connolly’s method for rating each club’s fixture has four components:
  • which clubs they play twice, based on ladder position (after finals)
  • number of road trips, including short and longer hauls;
  • number of matches where the club plays another club from interstate; and
  • the number of consecutive six-day breaks.
The second and third components together essentially form a version of net home ground advantage. The fourth component – six-day breaks – isn’t considered in my method, but it doesn’t make that much difference to Connolly’s rankings.
The main difference from my method is that Connolly’s method doesn’t include the effect of not playing your own club. Hence his rankings of clubs look similar to what the AFL is trying to achieve through its ‘weighted rule’ – except that, as noted above, Adelaide, North Melbourne, and Port Adelaide have relatively favourable draws given their groupings, and St. Kilda and Fremantle have relatively unfavourable draws. Essendon is rated as having the easiest fixture under his method.
Another difference from my method is that Connolly uses the ladder position to determine the strength of clubs. Ladder positions are arguably a little misleading when a club catches fire in the finals (hello again Western Bulldogs) or it had a favourable fixture the previous season, but the more important point is that it may not always be a good indicator of the gaps between clubs. For example by my rankings seventh-placed West Coast was closer in quality to most of the preliminary finalists than it was to eighth-placed North Melbourne, and I don’t think I would be alone in that assessment. Ladder positions are a lot easier to explain in a major newspaper though.
Connolly also assigns a higher penalty for road trips than he assigns an advantage for playing an interstate club at home. This raises the difficulty of the fixture for non-Victorian clubs under his measure (which perhaps doesn’t feel unreasonable if you are flying from and to Perth every other week), whereas under my method these types of matches broadly even out.
The Hurling People Now method only uses a ‘strength of schedule’ measure, with no reference to home ground advantage (or breaks). Therefore Carlton and Richmond, which have bad net home ground advantages in my method, do better in theirs. This site rates North Melbourne as having the easiest fixture in 2017, who I rated as having an easy fixture as well.
HPN’s post makes the important point that the strength of a fixture changes throughout the year, as clubs turn out to be stronger or weaker than initially thought. I feel like I’ve made this point before too, but cannot for the life of me remember where. Let’s just say I’ve already thought of it and not look further for proof.


The Matter of Stats method is similar to mine, but it is more precise about the home ground advantages. For example, Fremantle is rated as having more of a disadvantage than West Coast when it plays at the M.C.G., whereas in my system there is no difference between them and the other non-Victorian clubs – Sydney clubs aside – when they travel to Melbourne. Despite these differences this site also rates Adelaide as having the easiest fixture in 2017.

But Does The Fixture Matter?

Back in my first annual assessment of the AFL fixture in 2012 I said that one shouldn’t blame the fixture if your club is doing badly. Matter of Stats and Hurling People Now both estimate that the difference between the easiest fixture and hardest fixture is only about one win. And Rohan Connolly’s headline even noted that, based on past assessments, a tough fixture generally didn’t mean ‘doom and gloom’.

So it can make the difference between say, finishing fourth or fifth (or finishing fourth or seventh if things are close). But you are not becoming a top club through a favourable fixture. Perhaps then clubs should indeed be more concerned about how many ‘prime time’ matches they have when the fixture is released.


[1] I’ve actually adjusted each club’s ranking points a little so the sum of fixture difficulty across the league is zero.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Wooden Finger Five – October 2016

5.Right Back To The Start – Merchandise

Merchandise are a trio from Tampa, Florida (who have actually topped a WF5 post here before) but they sound more like gloomy British post-punk, and on this track, like British new wave. The synth-hook makes it; it’s certainly not singer Carson Cox murmuring the lyrics. I looked the lyrics up: they’re a bit of a downer actually (‘I came back to my home, it was slashed and torn’ … ‘I spent 39 years collecting the seeds / But they all died …’). They seem to me like they’re about being at the end of a relationship and feeling like your efforts are all now for nothing. Almost they suggest the narrator has jumped realities – ‘went looking for a lover but she was never born’ – but at the least that he feels like a stranger in the place he finds himself in.

The band even dresses in dark tones – I have trouble reconciling all of this with the Florida sun. If I just think of Merchandise and their music as being from northern England they make much more sense. But then so too did dark-jacketed San Franciscans Black Rebel Motorcycle Club; sometimes dirt and dinginess are just a state of mind.


Scottish alt-rock stalwarts Teenage Fanclub recently released their tenth album: a stage of their careers that ‘The Ringer’ called ‘too old to be ascendant, too young to come back into style or resign themselves to the nostalgia circuit’. (The article put Wilco into the same category.) It’s worth a listen, even if like me you haven’t heard that much of their past work.

The opening track, ‘I’m In Love’, is a real winner. Like the #1 song on this month’s list I didn’t know beforehand this was the single off the album, but it immediately stood out to me. The title, lyrics, simple guitar chords, and harmonies give it a mid-to-late ‘60s pop-rock feel. As has been noted elsewhere the chorus – ‘I’m in love, with your love’ – is a bit ambiguous about the singer’s feelings: is he in love with another person, or just the feeling of love itself? Regardless it’s a bright, catchy tune that makes the band sound twenty years younger, as if this style of music was just beginning rather than having come from the now-distant past.


Some months ago I was watching the ABC Kids Channel with my daughter and in between shows there was this somewhat baffling, somewhat charming two-minute animated segment. It featured two blocks with funny faces sitting on a bench singing a pretty good song actually about how different they were. ‘We are different / we are different,’ went the chorus, ‘as you can clearly see / A most unlikely pair we are / A most unlikely pair are we’. One of the blocks was a weird-looking fellow that sang in a high voice, while the other was more of a ‘hipster’ block in a hat and glasses who delivered his lines in a rap-like, conversationalist tone. This allowed the song to carry forward through snippets of exchange such as these:

BLOCK 1: ‘In my spare time I play hide-and-seek’
BLOCK 2: ‘While I like to teach rubber ducks how to squeak’
BLOCK 1: ‘You teach them to squeak?’
BLOCK 2: ‘Yep’
BLOCK 1: ‘That’s unique’
BLOCK 2: ‘Yeah, I try to give them tips on their squeaking technique’

Big Block SingSong is largely the creation of two Canadians, animator Warren Brown and composer Adam Goddard. Each episode features a unique character and tune, although the voices of the characters are similar across episodes. Over the past several weeks my daughter and I have had a few binge-watching sessions through the ABC’s iview site: ‘More! More!’ my daughter says, pointing at the screen, and then I click on another episode. I can’t tell you what her favourites are, but I personally like ‘Wilderness’ (about a block who lives in the forest), ‘Technology’ (Kraftwerk or Devo if fronted by singing blocks), ‘Brave’ (Queen if backed by singing blocks), and the rock ‘n’ roll ‘Princess’ (one of the few episodes with a female protagonist). But they’re all great – if you have a young one I highly recommend getting him or her hooked on them.

When U.S. indie folk band Bon Iver premiered their new album at bandleader Justin Vernon’s festival back in August they announced the song titles by sending them to the festival app. With strange track names like ‘22 (OVER S¥¥N)’, ‘___45___’, and ’29 #Strafford APTS’ that may have been the only way to announce them, although Vernon claims that they are not as hard to say as they look. For a band that started off as earnest – the famous three months Vernon stayed in a log cabin writing their first album such an essential part of their origin story – it could be viewed as an over-the-top attempt to shake off that past, and post-Kanye West friendship and endorsement, to now be seen as brave and experimental.

What does ’33 GOD’ mean? The song goes for 3:33 (3 minutes and 33 seconds), but that meaning could have been added at the end rather than part of its core. Each line seems barely related to the one before it, apart from the last verse which seems to be about the singer staying over at someone’s apartment for the night. Vernon auto-tunes the shit out of his voice, adding to the sense that he is being intentionally oblique.
But it works. As the website Pretty Much Amazing put it there’s ‘an air of cross-pollination to it … instruments clash with unprecedented force. On the other hand, you can imagine a stripped down version with untouched vocals working on the strength of the melodies.’ Indeed, the sounds do work together. And Vernon’s voice, distorted as it is, still sounds like distinctly his own. It’s enough to keep it spiralling into pretentiousness, despite the hipster cassette-listening parties that marked the album’s release.


The third track from Cymbals Eat Guitars’ latest album, ‘Wish’ makes the band sound like the lounge act evoked by the album cover, only way better. In making the album they looked to musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and The Cure for inspiration. But I didn’t think of either of those when I first heard this, I actually thought of this early-‘80s band my Dad used to play, called Mink Deville. Mink Deville’s ‘hits’ included songs called ‘Italian Shoes’ and ‘Spanish Stroll’: they were a bit bluesy, a bit cabaret, a bit punk, and this track is all of those things in some degree.

The saxophone may give it a lounge sound, but singer Joseph D’Agostino’s hoarse delivery gives the song an urgent edge. It seems to be basically about longing – ‘I wish that I told you’ – but the lyrics are more complicated than that: ‘An inch ahead of the event horizon …’ goes the opening line for example. And there’s a line ‘Can we shut the lights please?’ which may be part of the track, or just studio chatter. It’s a fun little stomp and a great introduction for me to this band.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 127

BASKETBALL: NBA hipster teams over the past 30 years – the teams that it was ‘cool’ to like. [The Ringer]

FILM/HUMOUR: Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ re-created by characters from 260 movies. [YouTube]

POLITICS: If Donald Trump wins the US election, what is the most likely explanation? [Marginal Revolution]


VIDEO GAMES: The cycles of violence in the BioShock games. [Kill Screen]

ECONOMICS: Why an exotic dancer is financially like your hairdresser. [Billfold]

Saturday, October 1, 2016

AFL Power Rankings: Post-Finals 2016

In my last post before the finals I said that the top clubs were quite close this year, making the finals series hard to predict. Still I would have put a very low probability on the Western Bulldogs – rated as a just-above-average side at the end of the home and away season – winning four straight finals to win this year’s premiership. Indeed I thought the Bulldogs would be lucky to escape the first week.

Instead the Bulldogs had easily their best four weeks of the season, improving by between two and three goals per match in the rankings after going backwards over the preceding two months. Their level of performance isn’t unprecedented, not even in the past year – the Bulldogs’ opponents in the Grand Final, the Sydney Swans, performed at a similar standard over their four matches up to the end of the preliminary final. But the Bulldogs definitely performed at a much higher level right when it mattered most than they had shown over the season up to that point.

Why? Was it because that the Bulldogs re-gained some of their best players for the finals series? I initially thought this couldn’t be the whole explanation, and that some of their players must have played a lot better during the finals. But it’s not clear that, on average, their players did improve. Looking over each player’s average SuperCoach scores before and during the finals some players such as Clay Smith, Tom Boyd, and Liam Picken did seem to clearly play a lot better. However, other players such as recently-recalled pair Jake Stringer and Easton Wood, and Matthew Boyd, seemed to play worse, even if it wasn’t noticed that much while their team kept on winning. Perhaps then it was in large part due to the players that returned – Wood and Stringer, but in particular Jack Macrae, Jordan Roughead, and Tom Liberatore – and that these players were a lot better than the players that replaced them during the final weeks of the home-and-away season.

Still that to me doesn’t seem to quite nail the explanation. Maybe it was that the Bulldogs’ opponents under-performed during the finals? I don’t subscribe to views such as it was the Bulldogs’ ‘spirit’ that got them through. Or if it was their ‘spirit’, what specifically was it that they did better as a result? I reckon there’s an interesting ‘study’ to be done by someone as to how the Bulldogs suddenly turned into a side that could knock out four teams that had won 16 or more matches in consecutive weeks.

It’s probably the most unlikely premiership win in my lifetime. I wouldn’t say it’s the most unlikely there has ever been – the Bulldogs had certainly shown more than the Fitzroy team that came from the ‘bottom’ to win it all in 1916. Nevertheless the Bulldogs became the first club to win four straight finals to take out the flag. [Correction: Adelaide did it too, in 1997, but they didn't need to.]

I said earlier this season that the Bulldogs’ lack of premierships had come from their lack of great, as opposed to good, sides. This Bulldogs team, taken over the season as a whole, wasn’t great either. But for the final four weeks they absolutely were, and in the end that was all they needed.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Wooden Finger Five – September 2016

5.Freedun – M.I.A.

M.I.A’s latest album ‘AIM’ – thought to perhaps be her last – has been well-received by some, but not by others. ‘Freedun’ works pretty well though. It has a smooth, relaxing sound, but still has some heavy beats to keep it moving along. The chorus is sung by ZAYN who, since I’m not much of a boy band or ‘The X-Factor’ fan, I’ve literally just learned as I’m writing this that he used to be in One Direction. (I’ve also literally just learned as I’m writing this that One Direction used to be on ‘The X-Factor’.) Given the rest of the album and M.I.A.’s career in general it seems like there might be some political themes on this track, but it’s actually more about her bragging than anything else, particularly the second verse (e.g. ‘Dinosaurs died out and I’m still strong’). Still, give me a nice tune and I don’t mind you telling me how great you are.

4.Skeleton Tree: album – Nick Cave

This is the album following the death of Cave’s son Arthur, who fell off a cliff after taking LSD last year. Not that this tragic event has likely changed the album much: Nick Cave’s albums are well-known for being dark affairs, and he has said that he wrote most of the lyrics before Arthur’s death. Lines like ‘You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field near the river Adur’ – the first line on the album – and ‘I called out, I called out, right across the sea’ from the closing title track are possibly coincidental in their imagery then. And like David Bowie with ‘Blackstar’ Nick Cave’s work is too multi-faceted to be simply reduced to alluding to death.

Reviewers have generally been effusive in their praise of the album so far, and it looks like it may be up there with ‘Blackstar’ (and Radiohead, always Radiohead) on critics’ end-of-year ‘best of’ lists. It hasn’t quite taken a hold of me yet. My favourite song is definitely ‘Distant Sky’, which is a duet with Danish soprano Else Torp. Otherwise it’s just another solid Nick Cave album to me so far. Maybe its power will be revealed with more time, or maybe Cave’s music has always been so powerful that even the most personally harrowing of circumstances doesn’t do much to affect it.



3.Sunlit Youth: album – Local Natives
Now this album has been a pleasant find. Local Natives are an LA indie band who have now released three albums, and their latest – ‘Sunlit Youth’ – doesn’t really have a bad track on it. Yeasayer is the most obvious comparison to me, though opening track ‘Villainy’ reminds me, at least vocally, of the Blue Nile (as does the album cover). If you don’t know what I’m talking about that in itself tells you what corner of the music world Local Natives occupy – pop/rock that its fans will love but won’t be troubling the top of the charts any time soon. Other tracks I like, making it hard to pick just one here, are ‘Fountains of Youth’, ‘Coins’, and ‘Dark Days’, with the Cardigans’ Nina Persson.


2.Power Over Men – Jamie T
The new single from South London’s Jamie T wouldn’t be out of place playing in an Austin Powers movie, making it perhaps one of the more conventional tracks from his excellent album ‘Trick’. But that also means that it is a lot of fun. The track seems to be simply about one of those good-looking women that makes men weak at the knees, just with Jamie T’s more complex vocabulary – the phrase ‘she was never academic’ could be a substitute for ‘dumb blonde’.
The story gets a little more interesting when Jamie suggests that this woman’s power not only makes men drool, but also makes them engage in a bit of under-handed competition to win her affections: ‘She walked in, I could say she looked good, I could she’s just a friend / But that would just be throwing you off the scent … She’s under my skin’. Then Jamie introduces a ‘twist’, which seems to just be the standard plot device that this femme fatale will never fall in love – ‘she can never really kiss’ – although the cause for this, ‘there’s never remiss’, doesn’t quite make sense to me. She never has a ‘lack of attention’? Did he just use the word ‘remiss’ because it sounded good? I’m a little confused.
Then if you watch the video clip the phrase ‘power over men’ takes on a further meaning …
1.Shut Up And Kiss Me – Angel Olsen

Forcefulness and submission – many relationships have both, and they both seem to be present in this strident track from US singer-songwriter Angel Olsen. In part her voice is desperate: ‘This heart still beats for you’ she implores her lover, ‘I’m not going anywhere’. In part she’s damn well up for a fight: ‘I ain’t giving up tonight … Tell me what you think / And don’t delay’. Both sides collide in the chorus, in Olsen yelling ‘Shut up kiss me hold me tight!’ which she delivers in a way that you can’t tell who is grabbing who. She actually sounds to me a little like the singer from 1980s’ US band The Motels (Martha Davis) in this song.
The title of Olsen’s new album is ‘MY WOMAN’, in capitals. Is that meant to contain forcefulness and submission also? (I’m your woman, but I’m also MY WOMAN.) Anyway in a month filled with notable new releases (Cave, M.I.A., Wilco, Teenage Fanclub, Bastille, Okkervil River) Olsen’s and Jamie T’s albums are the two that sit highest on my ‘buy list’.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 126

COMIC BOOKS: Why the comic book industry needs to die! [The Outhousers] And why big comic book journalism has. [Pipeline Comics]

STATISTICS/AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL: When predicting football results humans prefer their own errors to those of statistical models. [Matter of Stats]

MUSIC: Tips on how to put on a music festival (in case you wanted to). [Pitchfork]


ECONOMICS/ART: The economics of operating a museum during an ‘art boom’. [The Conversation]

VIDEO GAMES: Why no-one knows how long video games are – and why maybe we should. [The Ringer]

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Armchair September: The First Week of Australian Footy Finals, 2016



For the all-inclusive Australian football follower this past week was a joy, and it was a slog. Australia’s two biggest sporting leagues – the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League – both had their first week of finals. Each league has eight finalists, meaning four finals each during this week and eight finals in all.[1] You can’t hope to watch all of them live in their entirety – particularly if you actually attend one or two of them – but you can still fairly well gorge yourself on men chasing cowhide. Of course, if you think that one or other of the codes is rubbish then you can watch and tweet and shout at your TV (and shout at Twitter) through all four finals without interruption.

I’m not one of those people. For me it would be slightly more helpful if one of the codes moved their finals schedule by a week, particularly since the second week of the AFL finals is usually a yawn and can often be skipped. (The second week of finals in NRL, which has more upsets, is generally more interesting.) If anyone’s fault it’s probably the AFL’s, as the NRL has established its Grand Final on the night before the October Labour Day public holiday in its heartland of New South Wales. For the past couple of years the AFL has departed from its iconic ‘one day in September’ phrase, holding its Grand Final on an October date.

Still, I get a jingle of excitement before the first finals weekend. Compared to most regular season matches the finals matter. This may seem an obvious point, but the point may be obscured a bit by the commentary and hype around some of the regular season outings. Most regular season matches, contrary to the message of many pre-match build-ups, aren’t going to change a team’s premiership chances by all that much. In finals your premiership chances can plummet to zero in a single afternoon. Regular season matches are mainly there to fill out the journey. Finals are rare and significant – they make up 1/23 of the season in AFL and 3/67 of the season in NRL – they are the big pay-off to the months of football you followed before it.

This year’s first week of finals also had a vast geographical spread – each Australian state and territory which has a team in at least one of the leagues got to host a final or two. In the 1990s – soon after the leagues had expanded from being state competitions of Victoria (AFL) and New South Wales (NRL) – this may have seemed more significant, but in 2016 the nationality of the two leagues is now well established. East, west, north, south, day, night, it doesn’t faze us now; for our first final of the week, we started out west …

AFL: West Coast Eagles (6) v Western Bulldogs (7)
Domain Stadium, Western Australia, Thursday 8 September, 6:10pm

A final on a school night, aided by the AFL’s decision to take a week off before the finals series started. Last year’s runners-up the Eagles had gained some form in the last few matches of the regular season, handily beating three-time reigning premier Hawthorn, and putting about as much of a dent in Adelaide’s premiership chances as a team can in a non-finals match. The Dogs meanwhile were limping towards the season’s end, missing captain Bob Murphy for most of the season, and several important players for decent chunks of it, though most had returned for this match.

Yes, finals were here … But I soon found, after waking up that morning, that not everyone in my family had the same jingle of excitement I had at this time of year.


I shall not forget this familial betrayal.

The Bulldogs stayed pretty much where they were in terms of ladder position this season but, thanks to comedian Danny McGinlay, they have really taken the lead in terms of the banners that each AFL team runs through before a match. The Dogs’ banner when travelling to play the Sydney Swans, which made fun of Sydney’s alcohol ‘lockout’ laws, was a bona fide classic. Once again, out in resource-rich Western Australia, they started the match off right.


The Bulldogs started the better of the two sides in general play, but they missed their first three shots at goal, including a couple of relatively easy attempts. Meanwhile the Eagles converted their first couple of shots on goal, and it seemed like the Dogs may have missed their chance. But they soon re-established their dominance in play and within the first half had moved a few goals clear.

The Eagles fell further away as the match went on, as the Bulldogs seemed to keep going over the top of their defence. It was clear nearing the end of the third quarter that the Eagles – once clear favourites – were now unlikely to win. Bulldog midfielder/forward Liam Picken popped up with several useful plays. High-priced Bulldog recruit Tom Boyd had what seemed like his best match yet, roaming the ground as a quasi-ruckman. Though when you actually look back over Boyd’s statistics – 14 disposals, 5 marks, no goals – they actually weren’t all that remarkable. I think role players get more notice in finals and playoffs, as it seems like they have come through in vital moments, even though a team’s most productive players are probably still driving its performance. In this match I remember Boyd, but it was probably a player like Luke Dahlhaus that was much more important to the Bulldogs’ win.

When the final siren went the Bulldogs, remarkably, were eight goals in front of a club that had won 73 per cent of its matches (16 out of 22) during the regular season, on its home ground. I had planned on saying that for the Dogs, losing on a Thursday night about 3,000 kilometres away, that the finals would have felt like they were over before they even really started. Instead they had their best win for several years, and now have another final back in Melbourne next week.

Western Bulldogs 99 defeated West Coast Eagles 52.


AFL: Geelong Cats (2) v Hawthorn (3)
Melbourne Cricket Ground, Victoria, Friday 9 September, 7:50pm

Was this the best AFL match I have ever attended? Two big, bitter Victorian rivals, and the two most successful AFL clubs of the past ten years, in a significant final that was decided by a shot for goal after the siren? I was not there for the great run of Grand Finals the AFL had from 2005 to 2012, so it has to be up there … In the end, after the excitement had faded, I think I’d still go for the 2007 Preliminary Final between Geelong and Collingwood – the combination of a then-premiership-starved Cats side (they had not won the flag for 44 years), and a finals-starved Melbourne crowd (no Preliminary Final between two big Victorian rivals for six years) gave that match an atmosphere that will not soon be replicated. But this one set a new benchmark for first week AFL finals that will be hard to beat.

My sister and I went along together to this match, and we definitely had a pro-Cats/anti-Hawks sentiment. Hawthorn has won four of the past ten premierships, including the past three, though the Cats have won three of the past ten themselves. So from the standpoint of ‘I’m sick of watching this team win’ there isn’t that much between them based on recent years. However those three premierships are Geelong’s only three in the past 50 years, while the Hawks have won nine – freaking heck, NINE! – premierships in our 30+ years of life. Further, when we think of Geelong we think of players like the lovable Jimmy Bartel and the charming, fantastic Patrick Dangerfield. When we think of Hawthorn we think of roughhouses like Luke Hodge and Jordan Lewis, and the over-exuberant commentating man-love for Cyril Rioli.[2]  Plus, we just find Geelong more fun to watch. Hawthorn has basically ‘solved’ Australian Rules football with their emphasis on short, accurate kicks, which may be hugely effective but it’s not as exciting as Geelong’s more open approach.  

 


The match itself didn’t really take off until halfway through the third quarter. That was when the Cats pulled back the lead Hawthorn had opened up with three quick goals to put the match basically back on even terms, and it felt like this was on. From then on the two clubs essentially traded goals, with no side able to get more than a goal ahead. The Hawks held a one goal lead for a fair share of the final quarter, but then Geelong’s Josh Caddy kicked a goal to put his team up on points with a few minutes left. For the last two minutes the Cats tried to work their way to kicking a goal to seal the victory, while they and everyone else was mindful that one bad kick and Hawthorn might sweep it down the ground to win the match.

Which is kind of what happened – Cat Steven Motlop attempted a difficult shot with about a minute left which only scored a behind and gave possession back to the Hawks. A few well-placed kicks and the ball entered Hawthorn’s forward line – Hawk Luke Breust got the ball, had his kick smothered, retrieved it, and then unerringly kicked it over to teammate Isaac Smith for a shot at goal from inside 50 metres. The final siren blew – a goal by Smith would win it.

I thought that Smith was a really good chance of making the shot. It turns out he only had a slightly better-than-even chance of kicking a goal based on long-term conversion rates from that spot.





As the kick went towards us fans stood up and cheered but at first I couldn’t tell which fans they were. I thought it was probably the Hawks’ fans. Then I realised it was the Cats’ fans. Then I saw the Cats’ players celebrating. The Cats had won…!!!

‘Tough luck Hawthorn!’ I shouted, unsporting. Truthfully though they had put in a good performance in what was a great game.

Geelong Cats 85 defeated Hawthorn 83.

NRL: Brisbane Broncos (5) v Gold Coast Titans (8)
Suncorp Stadium, Queensland, Friday 9 September, 7:55pm

Attending Geelong-Hawthorn meant that I could only catch the Broncos-Titans match on replay, and I only watched the five-minute highlights, but this was one of the matches I was less interested in anyway. I expected that the Broncos would comfortably win this, with the Titans not widely expected to even be in the finals, and winning less than half of their regular season matches. This means I have spent far more time writing about this match than I did actually watching it, but isn’t that often the case with sports coverage…?

This was the first time that all three NRL sides from Queensland – Brisbane, North Queensland, and Gold Coast – had made the same finals series. I think this was sort of a big deal for Queenslanders. Flicking through Queensland’s Sunday Mail newspaper when I was up in Noosa Heads last week they had even gone as far as to shout ‘C’MON YOU RAIDERS’ on the front of the sports section, when a Canberra Raiders win was needed to ensure a finals berth for the Titans. Coming from Melbourne I am used to the rivalries being quite bitter, and some AFL fans including myself would sometimes take a perverse joy in a big Victorian club missing the finals. Even when the North Queensland Cowboys beat the Broncos in last year’s NRL Grand Final in just about the most devastating way possible some Brisbane fans seemed to be reasonably OK with a fellow Queensland side winning it. Perhaps Queensland v New South Wales trumps all else when it comes to rugby league.

Anyway, most of the tweets I read back over regarding the match complained about some of the decisions that had been made by the ‘Bunker’ – the NRL’s centralised video review room which isn’t well-loved by fans in any case – and that those decisions had all gone against the Titans. Looking back over the highlights the decisions, taken collectively, didn’t seem to me quite as bad as they had been made out to be, though I can understand that fans’ anger would build up in real-time as these occurred.

One controversial call was the penalty try awarded to Brisbane after Titans player Konrad Hurrell kicked the ball out of Jordan Kahu’s hands as he was reaching for the try line. But it did actually look to me like Kahu would have scored if Hurrell hadn’t deliberately lashed out with his leg, and it sounds like the Titans’ coach Neil Henry kind of agreed with that particular decision. More dubious to me were: a) the non-call against Brisbane’s James Roberts when he kicked a Titans player during a passage of play that resulted in a Broncos try; and b) the decision that Broncos’ winger Corey Oates had been put in a dangerous position as he leaped to catch a kick, when it looked to me like Oates was the one to put himself in danger.

Did these possible referee mistakes ultimately change who won? Probably not. Still it’s a shame that one team got the worst of it.

The good part about the result though was that it potentially set up another Cowboys v Broncos final. These two teams played two of the greatest rugby league matches you will ever see in last year’s finals series, making another final between them a mouth-watering prospect. For that to happen I had to hope that another result, which I had the most investment in over this weekend, fell the way I wanted it to.

Broncos 44 defeated Titans 26.

AFL: Sydney Swans (1) v Greater Western Sydney Giants (4)
ANZ Stadium, New South Wales, Saturday 10 September, 3:20pm

Four of the eight finals were on the Saturday, starting with AFL minor premiers the Sydney Swans playing their ‘younger brother’ the Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Giants. This was the Giants’ first ever final in their five years in the AFL.

GWS had been the most remarkable improver of the 2016 season. Their first four seasons had been: awful, awful, slightly less awful, merely bad, and then suddenly they were a really good side. Generous draft concessions given to them by the AFL in their first few years meant that they had stockpiled a bunch of talented young players who had now picked up as they moved towards their peak years. But they had also been a bit smarter about the assistance they had been given than fellow ‘expansion’ side the Gold Coast Suns. Unlike the Suns they had used their special recruitment entitlements when they were first established to target younger players – co-captains Callan Ward and Phil Davis, and former number one draft pick Tom Scully. While this meant they got belted by even more to start with these players have effectively functioned as additional high draft picks when the rest of their list matured. They have also topped up well with productive players that for various reasons had been pushed out of other clubs – Heath Shaw, Shane Mumford, and Steve Johnson, two of which would increase their notoriety during this match.

The first half of this match was pretty brutal. Johnson hit star Sydney midfielder Josh Kennedy with his shoulder and Kennedy had to leave the field for a concussion test, though he later returned. Nevertheless Johnson was booed by Swans fans at every opportunity. Mumford meanwhile laid a tough tackle on Sydney forward/ruckman Kurt Tippett in the second quarter. Even putting those incidents aside it was a hard-fought match. It was almost even at half time, and GWS looked to be in every bit as good as shape as their cross-city rivals.

That turned out to be the least of it. My memories of the second half are somewhat vague as Ms Wheatley was out for the afternoon and the night, leaving me in sole care of our Little Miss. My daughter is a delight, but at about two years of age can be rightly classified as a household pest. In between shooing her away from items she knows not to touch I saw GWS take control of the match, with forward Jeremy Cameron kicking three goals in the third quarter. Soon it was clear that the Giants were going to win this one and move straight into a preliminary final on their home ground.

Though the result was apparent early in the final quarter I watched until the end, both because it was a historic occasion for the AFL’s newest club, and to hear its excellent theme song. Herald Sun music expert Cameron Adams got it right when he said it had an ‘old-school vibe’ but didn’t ‘sound exactly like something your grandparents listened to’.


  

GWS Giants 91 defeated Sydney Swans 55.

NRL: Canberra Raiders (2) v Cronulla Sharks (3)
GIO Stadium, Australian Capital Territory, Saturday 10 September, 5:35pm

After the Giants’ theme song had finished I flicked the TV over to Raiders-Sharks, which meant that I missed the awesome (if appropriated from Iceland football) Viking Clap that the Raider fans did before their boys came out for their first final in several years. When I turned it on the Raiders had built up a 6-0 lead, and scored another try soon thereafter. Their wingers and centres that had torn up the league over the second half of the season looked to be burning past the Sharks’ defenders, and I thought that they could be on their way to putting 30 or 40 points on the board before the match’s end.

Admittedly, I was also a bit distracted watching this – I was getting ready to go to the Storm-Cowboys NRL final in Melbourne that evening, and getting Little Miss Wheatley ready for her adoring grandparents to look after her for the night. I did catch Cronulla get a handy try back just before the half time break. I then put Little Miss Wheatley in her pyjamas, handed her over, and walked out into the Melbourne rain while listening to the second half on radio, thinking about the match I was about to see and about not getting my ticket wet in my jacket pocket.

But Canberra couldn’t seem to score. And then I heard there was just over ten minutes left and the scores were still tied. Then with five minutes left Cronulla got a penalty goal, which put them two points up with time for only a few more possessions. The Sharks, who had won 15 straight matches during the regular season but had sputtered in the final weeks, were going to beat the league’s hottest team.

I felt like this result lifted some of the pressure from the night’s match. If my team the Melbourne Storm lost they would be on the side of the ‘draw’ in which Cronulla would host a final. Given recent form, and how handily the Storm had beaten the Sharks last week, I feared a preliminary final against the Sharks less than I feared one against the Raiders’ backs. Still the Sharks had just beaten the Raiders. And I still wanted a home preliminary final for the Storm. I still wanted to win.

Sharks 16 defeated Raiders 14.

AFL: Adelaide Crows (5) v North Melbourne (8)
Adelaide Oval, South Australia, Saturday 10 September, 7:10pm

Attending Storm-Cowboys meant that I could only catch this match on replay, and I only watched the seven-minute highlights. But I expected that North Melbourne, who lost 10 of its last 13 matches in the regular season, didn’t stand much of a chance against a very good Crows side on their home track. Since this went pretty much as expected, unlike the Broncos-Titans match, I’m going to summarise this game in a way that is more commensurate with the actual time I spent watching it.

Crows got first goal. Crowd was fired up. Adelaide forward Eddie Betts did something spectacular. North Melbourne stayed in it for first quarter and a bit. Betts did something spectacular again. Adelaide ran away with the match in the second half. Eddie did something spectacular again, to put the icing on the cake. Four North Melbourne veterans, including AFL games record holder Brent Harvey, exited among tears.

(Actually before we move on let’s dwell on Harvey for a moment. He played 432 matches over 21 seasons in what is a fairly physical sport. The NRL games record holder, Darren Lockyer, played 355 matches over 17 seasons. If you split Harvey’s career in half he would have made the AFL team of the year twice in both careers, and won two club champion awards during his first career and three during his second. He averaged well over 20 possessions per match over the second half of his career. In other words Brent Harvey had two pretty good careers in one career. That’s worth a little reflection at least.)

Adelaide Crows 141 defeated North Melbourne 79.



NRL: Melbourne Storm (1) v North Queensland Cowboys (4)
AAMI Park, Victoria, Saturday 10 September, 7:55pm

A few minutes after the Raiders-Sharks match finished I joined up, sans Ms Wheatley, with my in-laws in our usual seats at the Storm’s home ground. For big matches the NRL make it generally worth getting there before kick-off, with fireworks and other pyrotechnics aplenty. But one of my favourite parts of attending a Storm match is the few minutes before the team, adopting the AFL tradition, runs through their banner onto the ground. In those minutes AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ plays at high volume over the speakers, with Angus Young’s wonderful, high-speed guitar riff repeating over and over again, along with the boom of the phrase ‘THUNDER!’, right up until the moment that captain Cameron Smith and his team burst through the banner. Then the last line of the chorus – ‘You’ve been … THUNDERSTRUCK!’ – blasts out, the guitar riff ends, and the two teams get into position for kick-off. It’s a great nod to the Storm logo, which is itself (in my potentially biased opinion) a clever nod to the city of Melbourne and its weather patterns.[3]

There was some trepidation going into this match, as the Cowboys had beaten the Storm when Melbourne hosted them in a preliminary final last year, though the Storm had won both matches against the Cowboys this season. The Cowboys also have probably the league’s best player, Johnathan Thurston. But the Storm had performed better than expected this year, particularly after losing superstar fullback Billy Slater. Slater had been ably replaced by the wonderfully-named Cameron Munster, while the Storm’s other superstars Smith and Cooper Cronk had been well supported by Melbourne’s seemingly never-ending supply of talented recruits. Once again the Storm were minor premiers, about three or four years after most people assumed their run of success was ending.

There is another part of my regular Storm-watching experience that I want to convey. About a block of seats away sits a large, bald-headed, bearded man. Several times a match this man will yell out the following, in a rough, throaty, foghorn voice:

‘STOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORRRRRRRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!!!!!!'

One time, going to the bathroom, I could hear him out in the corridors. For a few moments I thought he may be just wandering the corridors, yelling out ‘STOOOOOOOORRRRRRRMMMMM!!!!’ as he wandered about. I was disappointed to work out that he was not indeed haunting the area; it was just that I could still hear him in his seat.

For the first twenty minutes or so he was a bit quiet, with neither team scoring a point. The Storm got close to their try-line a few times in a row. Then the Cowboys had four consecutive dropouts (thus getting another set of six tackles each time), which were each stopped by the Storm’s terrific defence. The first score was actually a penalty goal to the Storm – Smith just looking to get some points on the board, which given how often tries are scored in league, seemed a wise move.

Around this point in this game we were introduced to the decibel meter on the scoreboard, which asked you to ‘SCREAM FOR YOUR TEAM’. I did wonder how the meter was able to differentiate the screams of Storm supporters from those of Cowboys supporters. Perhaps a microphone had been situated near the largest block of supporters for each team (there was an identifiable patch of Cowboys fans near one goal end), in which case the screams of most supporters were effectively useless. And why wasn’t our very loud neighbour joining in? I also wondered what NRL fragrances, being advertised on the sideline boards for $19.95, smelt like – the sweat of a front rower?

There are two things you could perhaps point to as driving the six-point difference in scores at the end. One of them is that the Storm were awarded, and converted, three penalty goals. The other is that Storm rookie Suliasi Vunivalu scored an unlikely try by intercepting a Cowboys pass and running half the length of the field (although I think Smith missed that particular conversion). Vunivalu, a tall Fijian-born player who has been playing for two years, is another example of the Storm’s ability to pluck stars out of seemingly nowhere. His intercept lent further support to my theory that the aim of rugby league is primarily not to stuff up.

It was a nervous final few minutes even with a six-point lead that meant, if the Cowboys scored late, the Storm at least could not lose in regular time. There was a couple of ‘heart-in-mouth’ moments where the ball fell loose, but the Storm didn’t stuff up and generally looked rock solid.

‘STOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORRRRRRRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!!!!!!'

When the siren went we were happy and relieved, and looked forward to a home preliminary final in two weeks.

Storm 16 defeated Cowboys 10.

NRL: Penrith Panthers (6) v Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (7)
Allianz Stadium, New South Wales, Sunday 11 September, 4:10pm

For the past three years the Sunday of the first week of the AFL finals had been occupied with me going off to watch the AFL club I support – Richmond – play off in an elimination final. This year there was no Richmond in the AFL finals on Sunday, and no AFL finals at all. Instead I got to sit comfortably in my armchair and watch this coda to the first week of Australian football finals in the NRL’s usual free-to-air TV timeslot late on a Sunday afternoon.

For the first half hour neither team could find a way to break through. Three times in a row the Panthers were stopped on their set of six tackles without putting up a kick. Amongst the inaction Ms Wheatley commented a couple of times on how the stadium was only half full. Then quietly Bulldogs half back Moses Mbye found a gap and scored the first try of the game against the general flow of play. The Panthers got a try back but still trailed 6-4 at the half time break.

However in the second half the young Panthers – including fullback and captain Matt Moylan, winger Josh Mansour, and centre Tyrone Peachey – broke loose. Some observers, including one of the commentators on the broadcast, reckon that Moylan is currently in better form than any player in the competition. Penrith was regularly running for long gains in metres and the Dogs looked like a team whose time had come and gone.

The Panthers’ win now sets up an encounter with another team with a bunch of in-form backs: the Canberra Raiders. The Bulldogs and their fans, their season over, were left to trudge off into the Sunday dusk.

Panthers 28 defeated Bulldogs 12.

In each of those past three years of September Sundays Richmond were eliminated from the finals in the first week. As was probably the case for those Bulldogs fans, in each year there was a definite sense of an ending, of a season being over. Last year I began the first finals week jumping around my lounge room as the Melbourne Storm upset top-placed NRL team the Sydney Roosters. I ended it in disappointment as Richmond lost to eighth-placed North Melbourne by a couple of goals. In contrast there was nothing this year to give me that sense of closure.

Endings feel rarer in sport nowadays. Both sets of finals will continue next week, and my team the Melbourne Storm will be playing again in a couple of weeks. The next morning I would get up early to watch Cowboys and Giants of a different kind – Dallas and New York in America’s National Football League. The Major League Baseball playoffs will be on next month. When I came home from the Storm-Cowboys match I switched on the Manchester United-Manchester City derby in the English Premier League. The European football league seasons will go on for several more months, if indeed association football/soccer ever really stops. And before those end the Australian football leagues will start up again for 2017.

With access to almost every sport in some form or another, and media coverage of the major sports continuing throughout their off-seasons, nothing really ends nowadays. Unless perhaps you are the type of person who just watches your footy team on the weekend. Maybe in that case if your team was already out for the season you left the TV off, didn’t check your Twitter feed, opened up your front door, and went and did something else instead.

[1] There is a top four and a bottom four – the losers of the bottom four in the first week go out, the winners of the top four earn a bye, and we are essentially left with a six-team knockout tournament to play out over the remaining three weeks.
[2] Though given I just called Dangerfield charming and fantastic you might say I’ve shown some man-love too.
[3] My favourite NRL team names: Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos (a fearsome bit of alliteration), and for its uniqueness South Sydney Rabbitohs.