The AFL tries to give the weaker teams the easier fixtures, and the stronger teams more difficult match-ups. However, teams rise and fall – who got lucky and unlucky in 2019 from their fixtures being a lot different than expected? (Hint: anyone who played Brisbane twice got unlucky.)
Whenever the AFL fixture for the new season is released there are several ratings of the difficulty of each team’s fixture, including on this blog. These ratings though are primarily based on how strong each team was in the previous season. In this post I re-rate the difficulty of each team’s fixture in 2019, based on how strong each team has been in this season.
How the fixture was meant to work in 2019
In a season where each of the 18 AFL teams plays 22 matches, each team can only play five others twice. The AFL attempts to make the fixture more equitable by applying a ‘weighted rule’ to these ‘double match-ups’. Basically the 18 teams are divided into three groups of six based on how they finished after finals in 2018. Teams will tend to have more ‘double match-ups’ against teams in their own group, and less against teams at the other end of the spectrum.
This is who each team plays twice in 2019.
Ladder position sometimes hides the ‘true’ relative strength of a side. If we re-rate teams based on my rankings at the end of 2018 though the AFL did not seem to do too badly (see table below).
Fremantle were unlucky, in that they were the only bottom six side not to get to play Carlton or Gold Coast twice. My rankings considered North Melbourne and Sydney to be unlucky as well, as two of their ‘double match-up’ opponents – Geelong and Essendon – were rated more highly than their ladder positions.
(Note that, in the table below, combined ranking points have been reversed so higher points means an easier fixture. Also, points were adjusted so that their sum is zero.)
How the fixture has ended up working in 2019
Teams improve and decline, and so the strength of the fixture at the start of the season is different to how it actually turns out.
In 2019 the teams that have improved the most – based on their improvement in ranking points – include Carlton, the Western Bulldogs, and Brisbane (see table below). Facing these sides twice is now a tougher prospect than it first appeared. Geelong has jumped a lot of spots on the ladder, but the rankings consider that the Cats’ ladder position last season understated their ‘actual’ strength.
Conversely the biggest declines in performance, according to the rankings, have been from Melbourne and Essendon (despite the Bombers moving up the ladder). Sydney has dropped several spots on the ladder, but the rankings do not consider its fall to have been as great.
If we re-rank the strength of each team’s ‘double match-ups’ we see some significant changes for some teams (see table below).
Almost every team that played Brisbane twice is now considered to have had a fixture difficulty of a ‘top six’ side. The exception is Gold Coast, and its fixture difficulty has still moved from that of a ‘bottom six’ to a ‘middle six’ side.
Top sides Richmond, Collingwood and West Coast are now considered to have had much weaker fixtures than originally intended, as they played Melbourne twice. Richmond and West Coast’s fixture difficulties are considered to be closer to ‘bottom six’ or ‘middle six’ sides.
Sydney has gone from unlucky to not as unlucky, helped by playing Melbourne and Essendon twice.
GWS did not play Melbourne twice, but every team it played twice except Gold Coast is rated at least a bit weaker than last season.
Ultimately the fixture doesn’t turn you from a ‘good’ side to a ‘bad’ side, or vice versa. Further, this season the variation in fixture difficulty across teams is less than usual – there are no very strong teams, and with Carlton’s improvement there are no very ‘weak’ teams except for Gold Coast. Still, as Richmond and West Coast are jostling for top four positions, they may be a little bit thankful that their return bouts against Melbourne were a lot easier than they looked at the start of the season.