By Gordon Hunter Meredith
Talk back radio, talking heads, TV footy shows, back pages of newspapers and ‘vintage’ patrons at pubs are all saying the same thing… “Footy’s F@%#’d.” Well instead of joining the negative masses, we’re going to offer you a solution, or two… (or many.)
According to many, the AFL Top 8 is set by Round 7, if you prescribe to the very unimaginatively named “Round 7 Rule”, which (long story short) is basically that if you’re not in the Top 8 by Round 7, you’re probably not making it.
Our derision of this rule doesn’t come from its inexactitude, it’s actually quite accurate. In the AFL seasons since 2001, there’s been a total of just 21 changes to the top 8 as it stood at the end of Round 7. Only six times in those 17 years has there been more than one change, and of the 21 teams in total to force their way in, 16 were no worse than one game off the pace by Round 7 in their particular season.
No, our angst instead arises from the theory’s reduction of the week-to-week nature of footy to being just the means to a ‘Premiership-or-Nothing’ end.
To say that the Top 8 is set by Round 7 of a given AFL season is in many ways to say that Rounds 8–23 aren’t worth watching, attending or even paying attention to. Experts obsessed with predicting premiership fancies after just two months of footy are also often the ones lamenting the fact that the game is ‘broken’, that the general public is turning its back on the sport and that a plethora of think tanks, rule changes and fundamental timing and dimension changes (think AFLX) need to occur to capture the “Millennial Market”.
What the “Round 7 Rule” fails to capture is a fan’s (and a player’s, coach’s, or administrator’s) weekly desire for their club to win. For the two and a half hours that your team is playing you want them to win, regardless if they are on top of the ladder, pushing for the Top 4, chasing an unlikely finals spot or sinking quickly into the quagmire of the 24-hour-news-cycle-footy-crisis-obilivion on the bottom of the ladder.
The fortune tellers and crisis merchants, who sold their fandom for the prestige of being a “sport reporter”, “sports broadcaster” or “sports pundit” forget that your team winning on the weekend can make the rest of your week all the more bearable. Your club is your refuge, not just an escape from everyday life — it is often your life. As such, any given Sunday upset in Round 15 should not be forgotten, let alone underplayed or under-appreciated.
But you, the fans, already know this. You took the Monday off work when Carlton beat GWS in Round 12, 2017 by a point under the Docklands Dome. You filed a sick day under “bereavement” for the Mondays after both the Round 8, 2017 and Round 17, 2015 Richmond losses at the boot of David Mundy after the siren. Neither of the heart-breaking set shots had an impact on the Tigers’ overall seasons but that didn’t dissolve the palpable embarrassment that a Punt Rd resident would have felt turning up to work on the Monday after.
Experts be damned! Each and every game of the season matters and while we, the fans, know this and live this on a weekly (if not daily) basis, the cultural bulwarks of mainstream footy culture have forgotten this.
We need to give them a reminder, a weekly reminder, of the importance of any given Friday, Saturday, Sunday and (increasing) Thursday.
This is where our Champion‘s Belt model comes into play.
The AFL Champion’s Belt (sponsored by Sporting Chance) will be up for grabs each and every round of the home and away season.
Now, we must admit this isn’t an original idea. The world’s best domestic Rugby Union competition The Mitre 10 Cup plays out like most sports leagues do — with a ladder, a finals series and a premier. They also however, respect the notion of “Any Given Saturday.” The Ranfurly Shield, known colloquially as the “Log o’ Wood” is a trophy that an opponent challenges the holder for. Throughout the season, every home game for the holder is a compulsory ‘challenge game’ and the holder must accept at least seven challenges in a season.
While that system is all well and good, it does mean that the Log o’ Wood or in our case the SC Champion’s Belt isn’t up for grabs each and every week, and as such doesn’t fulfil our desire to make each round of footy special, no matter how negative or jaded the pundit.
So, the SC Champion’s Belt is even simpler.
Each home and away round the belt is up for grabs. The ‘Belt Holder’ must beat the Challenger (whoever they are playing) to retain the belt.
This system also extends to each position on the AFL ladder. Beat a team below you? Well done, but that was expected — you get to hold your spot on the ladder. Cause an upset? CONGRATULATIONS! That elation is now reflected in movement on our secondary AFL ladder.
In any round, a cellar dweller can move from dead last to inside the Top 4 Challenger rankings and conversely, a high flyer can plunge into the depths.
In reality, it’s no different to the ridiculous week-to-week narratives the media creates about each upset, brain fade or against the season trend result but we’ve gone and put a belt on it. You know, a big one — WWE style.
So, would it really make the season more enjoyable for all and sundry?
Well, yes… after Round 5 this season only two teams have sat top the AFL ladder but FOUR have claimed the SC Champion’s Belt, including two clubs that didn’t sit atop the “actual” ladder and the Champion’s Belt has changed hands a total of SIX times!!!!
The Handover Moments…
Round 2 — Adelaide (№1 Challenger) vs. Richmond (Belt Holder)
Result: Adelaide (18.10–118) def. Richmond (12.10–82)
Forget a simple “Grand Final Replay”, this was your WWE style “Revenge Match.”
For all their bravado, power posing and formidable 2017 home and away form, Adelaide were embarrassed in the 2017 AFL Grand Final by a Richmond outfit determined to break their premiership drought. It turns out that Adelaide hadn’t forgotten that embarrassment.
Adelaide’s maligned twin towers finally stood up in a “big game” with Josh Jenkins kicking five goals and captain Taylor “Tex” Walker booting four in a 36-point win.
A Champion’s Belt victory doesn’t numb the pain of a lost Premiership chance, but the Crows sure would have enjoyed it.
Bout Rating: 7/10 — The opening quarter was tight but from then on the decision could only go one way… a home victory.
Round 4— Adelaide (Belt Holder) vs. Collingwood (№12 Challenger)
Result: Adelaide (9.2–58) def. by Collingwood (16.10–106)
Remember when Collingwood were good? No, neither can we.
Remember when Collingwood were relevant? Same…
Except this season it seems that the “Good, Old Collingwood” might be back.
No matter which way you dice it, Collingwood pulled off the biggest upset of the season with a thumping 48-point win over Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval. At the time they were 14th on the AFL ladder and 13th in the SC Championship Rankings.
It was a three punch combination that provided the Magpies with the knockout power — ruckman Brodie Grundy (33 touches, 40 hitouts) was best on ground, silky utility Steele Sidebottom (career-high 43 possessions, 26 contested) towelled up Rory Sloane and soon to be break-out teenage star Jaidyn Stephenson slipped right under the Crows’ guard with a five-goal haul.
This was the AFL equivalent of Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz I. Everyone in attendance was expecting a routine home win. Instead this fight didn’t last two rounds — by halftime the score was 3.2 to 8.5 and the Crows were cooked.
Bout Rating: 6/10 for the actual contest but 9/10 for the result.
Round 6— Collingwood (Belt Holder) vs. Richmond (№3 Challenger)
Result: Collingwood (10.10–70) def. by Richmond (16.17–113)
Remember “Rope-a-dope”? That’s exactly how this match played out.
Collingwood lead three times in this match (albeit by less than a goal each time) but it never felt like the Magpies got to play even a minute on their terms.
For three quarters Collingwood were wailing body punches with Richmond backed up in the corner, but unfortunately for the Magpies they failed to see the smile on the Tigers’ faces while they were leaning against the ropes.
The Tigers kicked half their goals (eight!) in the last quarter, cracking Collingwood in the final term to run away 43-point winners.
This match was notable for two reasons:
a) Richmond reaffirmed their status as the AFL’s masters of manic pressure, especially in fourth quarters. b) Damien Hardwick’s post match comment that “Collingwood were the best side Richmond had played this year” was as close as you can get to post-bout smack talk in the AFL. (How’s it feel Adelaide fans? You won the Champion’s Belt in Round 2 and Dimma STILL doesn’t rate you…)
Bout Rating: 8/10 — There was an air of inevitability about it all but it was still an entertaining spectacle.
Round 9— West Coast (№4 Challenger) vs. Richmond (Belt Holder)
Result: West Coast(20.10–130) def. Richmond (12.11–83)
A journeyman boxer, down on his luck gets his shot at redemption.
Well, he might not be a “journeyman” but the oft maligned key forward Jack Darling basically grabbed the SC Champion’s Belt by himself in this one.
For years, forward Jack Darling has been the token whipping boy among West Coast fans.
Whether it be his costly dropped mark in the 2015 Grand Final loss to Hawthorn, or his knack of fading in games, Darling has never been fully embraced by West Coast fans. Until now.
15 marks (6 contested), 21 possessions (11 contested), 12 score involvements and 6 goals.
Yes, football is a team sport but this was Jack’s time to be West Coast’s Darling boy.
Bout Rating: 5/10 — Unless you really like watching Richmond lose, or are a West Coast fan, this match up didn’t offer much beyond a humble 2nd Quarter charge from the Tigers.
Round 13— Sydney (№5 Challenger) vs. West Coast (Belt Holder)
Result: Sydney (10.12–72) def. Richmond (7.15–57)
This Belt Challenge would have broken PPV records everywhere.
West Coast was on a ten-match win streak came up against Sydney, who had curated their own superb run of form (five straight wins). The Swans were only considered the №5 Challenger however, due to their last four wins coming against lesser opposition.
It’s rare to have an ‘authentic’ finals-like atmosphere in many games during the middle of the season, but these old-foes gave us a 2005 Grand Final-esquelow-scoring scrap.
Imagine if Mayweather and Pacquiao had have fought each other in their early 30s instead of their late 30s… This is the type of battle you would have seen.
Heavy tackles, hurried skills, smothers, spoils and so much pressure… this match had everything that crisis merchants say is wrong with the game but ironically it provided one of the games of the season. Go figure!
Two teams with a deep desire to win at all costs will always provide a thrilling contest, an epic battle and an enthralling spectacle.
Bout Rating: 10/10 — “Finals-like” footy in June. Got. To. LOVE. IT!
Round 15 — Richmond (№8 Challenger) vs. Sydney (Belt Holder)
Result: Sydney (10.12–72) def. Richmond (7.15–57)
The Reigning Premier becomes the Reigning Belt Holder as well… (again!)
It was a 1v2 billing according to the AFL ladder but it was the Belt Holder vs. the №8 Challenger occurring to our rankings, as Richmond were still climbing the Championship rankings board after a shock loss to the last placed contender, Port Adelaide in Round 12.
But if there was any doubt as to which club was the Premiership (and Championship) front runner in 2018, there wasn’t after this match. The Tigers confirmed their status as title favourites with a hard-fought 26-point win over Sydney.
Surprisingly, this match had more in common with a teen-fight flick then a proper martial arts bout. Reece Conca ‘celebrated’ his 100th game by dislocating his left ankle in gruesome fashion but this allowed the Tigers to share a moment of empathy and compassion for their fallen compatriot before literally “lifting for Conca.”
A 6.1 to 3.1 jump start on Sydney was enough for Richmond to keep the Swans at arms length for the entire match and head back to the sheds for an extremely emotional rendition of “We’re from Tigerland.”
It’s worth noting that while Richmond won “the war”, Lance Franklin won his own battle against Alex Rance, kicking 4.0 to prove that he is still the ‘Top Dog’ in the AFL.
Bout Rating: 8/10 — we’ve seen closer, tougher and harder battles but it’s difficult to go past the emotional pay off of this win.
OTHER INTERESTING CHAMPION‘S BELT FACTS:
Correct Weight Dogs:
The Western Bulldogs were the best “weighted” team in the AFL up to Round 13. They didn’t lose to a challenger below them, nor beat a holder above them in the first 13 weeks.
Tough at the Top:
No club has defended the belt for more than three rounds. The longest reigns were West Coast (R10–R12), Richmond (R7–R8), Adelaide (R3), Collingwood (R5) and Sydney (R14).
The “real” ladder doesn’t tell the real story:
The only team who’s “real” ladder position is reflected by their Championship Challenger ranking is Richmond, who is on top of both.
The Championship over-performer is St Kilda, who after knocking off Melbourne in Round 15 is now the №3 challenger.
Conversely, the Championship under-performers are West Coast, who after throwing away a 24-point lead to Adelaide in Round 15 (a team that had suffered shock losses to many lowly ranked challengers) now see their ranking drop to the №13 challenger, and Geelong who’s up-and-down year now sees them wallowing on the bottom of the Championship rankings after losing a nail-biter to the Bulldogs.
Knowing the Cats however, they could easily soar up the rankings with a win over the Swans next week.