Is the AFL top 8 already set? The 'Round 7 Rule' suggests it might be

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HANDS UP IF you envisaged Fremantle occupying second spot on the ladder more than one-quarter of the way through the 2022 AFL season. Hands up if you saw St Kilda in fifth spot, or Carlton and Collingwood both occupying the top eight. Hmmm. Not seeing many hands.

Now hands up if you think those teams are going to still be there by the time we get to Round 23 of this home and away season. What's that, even fewer hands? That's interesting, because more than two decades worth of evidence suggests strongly we could be seeing all of the Dockers, Saints, Blues and Pies in finals action.

Yes, it's that time of the season again; the storied (well, for a few of us) "Round 7 Rule", alternately known as the maxim of "if you're not in the top eight by now, chances are you won't be when it counts, either".

The evidence is as follows: Since 2001, there has been 21 completed AFL seasons. In 19 of them, the top eight has changed by a maximum of just two teams from the end of Round 7 until the end of the final home and away round.

There was a period between 2002 and 2010 -- nine seasons -- when only once did more than one team that hadn't been nestled inside the top eight come the end of Round 7 end up playing finals.

Eight times there's been just one team make it from outside to a finals campaign, eight times overall it's been only two teams, and on a couple of occasions, none at all. Across 21 seasons, the average number of changes has been around one-and-a-half.

And that average includes 2019, when there was, by comparison, an absolute flood of change, with four teams inside the top eight after seven rounds dropping out.

Mind you, those four teams -- Fremantle, Adelaide, Port Adelaide and St Kilda -- were even then only fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth, to be replaced by the four teams immediately beneath them - West Coast, GWS, Western Bulldogs and Essendon.

Last year, it was two again, and indeed two big guns in Richmond and West Coast, winners of the previous four premierships, making way for Greater Western Sydney and Essendon, both of whom had played finals recently and were always lurking near the fringes of the eight.

There's been the odd exception to the Round 7 Rule. Richmond in 2014, for example, had won just three games by the end of Round 14 and was a dismal 16th on the ladder before reeling off a string of nine wins in a row to reach an elimination final.

In 2017, Sydney was winless and stone motherless last after six games. The Swans then won 14 of their last 16 games to finish sixth. They and North Melbourne of 1975 (which incredibly went on to win its first premiership) are the only clubs in 60 years to start a season 0-4 and make finals.

But as a pretty steadfast rule for a long time now; what you've seen from a side to this point of an AFL season is what you're more than likely going to see from it for the remainder. And in that context, the current ladder provides an excellent test for the theory's credibility.

That's because there are currently no fewer than three finalists of last season stuck in the bottom five on the table, Port Adelaide in 14th, GWS 15th and Essendon just two spots off the bottom in 16th.

Surely their relatively recent accomplishments suggest a major turnaround is possible? Or maybe not.

I'd argue that might still be the case for the Power, who looked a far better team since half-time of their Round 5 loss to Carlton when they trailed by nearly 50 points. Port would want to avoid any more major injuries for the remainder of this season, though, because a rush of them early on exposed a real lack of list depth, and from here, they would need absolutely everything going right.

The Giants and Bombers, however, simply don't look like they're capable of making a quantum leap from their current states.

The GWS "Ferrari" has become very much a Holden Commodore. Not that there's anything wrong with that, either (I still drive one), but the Giants do look a long way short of the class of most of the teams above them.

Essendon? Well, like Port, some injuries have also sorely exposed the Bombers' lack of depth. Their clash with the Bulldogs on Sunday is absolutely pivotal. Lose to the also injury-struck and out-of-sorts Dogs, and with games to come against Hawthorn, Sydney, Richmond and Port, it's pretty much all over.

And those surprise packets who have supplanted last year's finalists in the eight? The form of both Fremantle and St Kilda is looking more solid and reliable by the week. They don't look like budging anytime soon.

Carlton and Collingwood -- even Hawthorn -- pushing hard just outside the eight? Well, possession, even in terms of the AFL ladder, is nine-tenths of the law. And if there is to be a late run from the bottom half, I'd fancy the likes of the Dogs or Richmond to launch it far more than the Giants or Dons.

There isn't much certainty in football anymore. But I reckon the "Round 7 Rule" is still a more reliable football rule of thumb than most. And that means, even while we're still in April, get ready for a pretty different-looking September.

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