It looks likely now that the top eight ranked teams here – the same top eight since Round 19 – will also be the eight teams that make the finals this year. This may seem not that unusual, but there are usually one or two ‘better’ sides that miss out through a couple of results not going their way (e.g. North Melbourne in 2013). Combine that with a season where so many teams are bunched around the middle and it is sort of remarkable that it looks like we’ll have the ‘right’ eight sides in the finals.
This week, it’s the last of my ‘end-of-season’ team summaries, covering Port Adelaide to the Western Bulldogs. Again you can see the ranking points of these teams for each round of 2017 in the graph below.
Port Adelaide: Port started the season really well, beating the heck out of Fremantle, Carlton, Brisbane, Gold Coast, and Hawthorn. Beating the heck out of bad sides – that is, really destroying them – is something these rankings value, and as a result Port spent a good chunk of the season within the rankings’ top four. However, proponents of the view that thrashing bad sides doesn’t mean a lot were vindicated in this case as the Power fell away, and now look like that they won’t make the top four on the actual AFL ladder. In terms of the rankings Port’s big losses to Essendon in Round 12 and Adelaide in Round 20 did the most damage to their standing.
Richmond: Apart from Essendon the Tigers have been the biggest improvers in 2017. They were bad last season, particularly towards the end, but this season they returned to a level more in line with their performances from 2013 to 2015. Until this week I thought that they were probably not a top four side in terms of ability – and a relatively easy fixture had helped to get them there – but I’ve had to revise my opinion a bit after they finally did what good teams do this weekend, and annihilated another side. Either way, things certainly look a lot less bleak at Tigerland than they did at the start of the season.
St. Kilda: Like Collingwood the Saints have generally been about average across 2017. They had two games after which their ranking points jumped up – Hawthorn in Round 6, and Richmond in Round 16 – though in the latter case it came right back down again when the Saints were in turn well beaten by Essendon the next week. The team would probably be a bit disappointed it did not progress further this year, but they have still come a long way from 2014.
Sydney Swans: Last year’s top-ranked side Sydney started off badly, losing their first six matches, which was reflected here in the Swans losing about four goals of ranking points in just the first seven rounds. However, because they were so good last season they never fell below sixth in the rankings. Over the final two-thirds of the season they regained their 2016 form, and are likely to finish the season along with Adelaide as clearly the two highest rated sides. The Swans have been particularly good since Round 15 – a stretch that has included comfortable away wins against Geelong and Melbourne, big wins over Fremantle and Gold Coast, and wins against other top sides GWS and Adelaide.
West Coast Eagles: The Eagles went from being pretty good to just average in 2017, which resulted in them receiving perhaps a disproportionate amount of criticism during the season. Apart from the big loss against Essendon in Round 9 (and perhaps the loss against Hawthorn early in the year when the Hawks were performing badly) they were mostly OK, but the drop back from premiership hopeful to fringe finals side is the one that brings the most heat. In hindsight that loss to the Dons was really the first, big sign that the Eagles were not going to be among the ‘second tier’ of teams anymore.
Western Bulldogs: I like the Dogs, but I admit they possibly became a target for my analytic smugness during 2017. (This writer may be even more smug.) The Bulldogs won an improbable – though not at all undeserved – flag last year, and had fans, media, and bookmakers proclaiming them as one of the competition’s new superpowers. More than that they became the lightning rod for theories and narratives about ‘what it takes’ to win a premiership – heart and guts, a week’s rest before the finals, being a team rather than individuals – as if the other seven clubs in the finals were somehow significantly more tired, selfish, and unmotivated.
I enjoyed the Dogs’ flag, and was happy for their fans (most of them anyway). So it’s nothing against the Dogs themselves that I took some assurance in watching all of those narratives get exposed for the largely unsubstantiated ‘hot takes’ that they were as the supposed new powerhouse sat among the middle rungs of the ladder. Look: if you play finals series enough times eventually unlikely outcomes will happen. And after some tough preliminary final losses over the years the Dogs were due their day. But there was little that was destined about the Bulldogs’ triumph in 2016. Anyway … sometimes we should appreciate something precisely because it was improbable.
(Of course, if the Dogs somehow do it all again this year, I will seem like quite the fool in a month’s time ...)