Last week, with the top eight looking just about set, I decided to run through the likely finals contenders and the potential Achilles heel which may cost each of them a premiership. It's fair to say it didn't age well.
By the end of Round 15, some so-called heavyweights faltering, the eight looked more precarious. Worse (for me) was the performance of the two teams I believed had the fewest question marks, Geelong and Richmond.
The Cats, against Brisbane, suffered their heaviest defeat since the 2017 preliminary final. The Tigers looked even worse in arguably their poorest performance over that same span of nearly four years.
Make no mistake, I'm not jumping off either fancy ... yet. But last weekend was at the very least a big statement of sorts made by the newer kids on the finals block.
It's only fair then that in keeping with that flavour, this week we give those more precocious contenders their dues by focusing instead on the qualities which may be key to actually helping them win a premiership. And yes, it's still those same eight teams for mine.
There's enough reasons out there that each can't win the 2021 flag. But let's stay positive. Here's why they can.
If a favourite football saying "defence wins premierships" is to hold true, the Demons will have been a perfect example. The key position intercepting duo of Steven May and Jake Lever have been outstanding all season, and with rebounders like Christian Salem, Trent Rivers and Jayden Hunt, offer a great example of what defence in the modern game is about. Melbourne is second behind the Bulldogs for fewest points conceded, but a clear No. 1 for fewest scores conceded per opposition inside 50 at just 35.1%, the lowest figure ever recorded by Champion Data.
The Bulldogs' extraordinary midfield depth is their strong suit (Adam Treloar and Josh Dunkley still to return to the mix), but its benefits are shown not just in the regular midfield measures, but the extent to which it helps them hit the scoreboard. When the Dogs won the 2016 flag, they ranked only 12th for points scored. In 2021, they are not just a clear No. 1 (a goal per game better than next best), but first also for scores once inside 50 and points from turnovers, second for points from clearances. Their mids kick as well as create goals, Marcus Bontempelli averaging 1.5 per game, and Tom Liberatore, Treloar, Lachie Hunter and Bailey Smith all in their top 10 goalkickers.
Brisbane is playing with a harder edge in 2021, best represented in the pressure it applied to Geelong last week, perhaps the benefit of a good couple of years now of sustained form and finals appearances. Four finals appearances in two years is going to help plenty in September. But so is an even attack, ranked second for points scored, and on the differentials, fourth for points from turnovers, third from clearances. Leading goalkicker Charlie Cameron is only equal 15th in the competition, but Brisbane has half-a-dozen players averaging more than a goal per game, and has also markedly improved its conversion.
For a team which for a long time was seen as notoriously flaky, the Power have become pretty honest in their performance levels. While much has been made of their inability to dispense of top quality opponents, they are as consistent in beating the teams they should as anyone (and they have, in fairness beaten fellow top eight teams Richmond and now Sydney). Ball movement and owning the territory battle is the Power's strength. They rank second for points scored from defensive half and also win the second-most forward half intercepts of any side. Port also ranks third for fewest points conceded per opposition inside 50.
The Cats are No. 1 in the AFL for disposals, contested and uncontested possession, but their greatest weapon this September might well be simply their experience. And while that's always the case, it shapes as even more significant in 2021 given the still-relative inexperience at the pointiest end of a finals campaign of Melbourne, the Bulldogs, Brisbane and Port Adelaide. Geelong has six players -- Patrick Dangerfield, Mitch Duncan, Tom Hawkins, Gary Rohan, Joel Selwood and Isaac Smith -- with at least 20 finals games experience. No other team in this year's finals race has more than two.
Even the Swans themselves would concede that they're a premiership longshot. The bookies certainly think so. Despite sitting sixth on the ladder, the Swans are paying $41 for the flag. No other team in the current top eight is longer than $15. That said, Sydney certainly goes into a first finals campaign since 2018 with the biggest "wildcard" factor of any finalist provided it can get its flock of young dashers like Justin McInerney, Sam Wicks, Chad Warner and Errol Gulden firing at the right time. More specifically, the Swans are a good "turnover" team, currently ranked fourth for points from intercepts. Each of the last 10 AFL premiers are ranked at least top six in that statistic.
Experience? Tick. Talent? Tick. Height? Tick. Form? Bzzzzz. That's a considerable factor, no doubt. Yet should the Eagles somehow manage to reverse recent mediocrity to win the three interstate finals in a row it will take for another premiership, they'll at least have had the knowledge that they almost certainly won't need as many opportunities as their opposition to make a dent in the scoreboard. West Coast has rare scoring efficiency, which continues to give it a chance even when generating fewer opportunities. The Eagles rank only fifth for points scored, but are the most accurate team in the AFL for a third straight season, having kicked more behinds than goals just five times in their last 32 games.
Sure, last week certainly hastened a few people's obituaries for the Tigers. Not mine, though. Their handy run home will see them stay in the eight. And again, Richmond's greatest strength at the pointy end of the year will be the brand of football it pursues. Frenetic ball movement, however it comes, great positioning behind the ball, pressure. In short, it's how most finals are played, which for Richmond means there's precious little adjustment to be made from the week-to-week. It's still a strong forward half game (the Tigers No. 1 for points per game from forward half intercepts and third for time in forward half differential). They're also the fourth hardest team to move the ball against from one end to the other.
You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.