This is the most even season since 1998

The weekend after Brisbane rolled a potential finalist and two weeks after lowly Hawthorn shocked Adelaide, focus has naturally sharpened on the evenness of this year’s competition. We’re here to add to the chorus saying yes (this great piece by The Arc has more international context), this is a really even year.

It looks even more compact than it did earlier in the season, as frontrunners Adelaide, Port Adelaide and GWS shrink back to the pack and the worst teams rally.

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One measure of evenness would be the number of teams in premiership contention. Typically, we label as premiership contenders any team sitting above a rating of 105% (actually 104.96% thanks to the Bulldogs last year). On that bar we’re actually down on previous seasons, as there were 7 contenders in 2016.

However, given how relatively weak the top sides look this season, we’re sceptical that our 105% rule really holds right now. This is a season made for exceptions and runs of form by otherwise unconvincing sides.

We can see visually how this season compares to past years in terms of the positions of the best and worst sides, as well as the compactness of the middle tiers:

bar stack

Visually, this is clearly a very bunched-up year in a way that hasn’t happened for a number of seasons. It is also marked by a lack of significant frontrunners or massive strugglers.

No team is anything near as bad as 2013 Melbourne and GWS, for instance. Notably for premiership talk, there’s presently no lone bolter like the otherwise even 2007 or 2000. We wonder whether a fit GWS would have been capable of filling the role of 2007 Geelong or 2000 Essendon in this very open season, but this has not so far been the case.

Some more specific numerical representations of evenness are presented below. We’ve looked at the gaps from the top teams to other teams, and how far back the worst team is, as well as the average distance from mediocrity:

evenness

We can note for 2017 so far:

  • The league wide gap from first to last is as low as it has been since 1998.
  • Within the best 8 teams (note these are not necessarily the ladder top 8) the gap was last lower in 2003
  • The top 4 isn’t as even as last year’s very close race but is still quite close historically
  • The last place team isn’t particularly close to the 8th best side
  • Teams are, on average, closer to the median team rating than any time since 2002.

We can also look at this in terms of ranking the last 20 seasons across the measures:

evenness seasons1998 is the only year that was ranked as more even than 2017, with most other years falling down on various measures either due to dominant teams or hopeless stragglers.

On most measures, we can see that in general, the last decade (back to 2007) was more uneven than the decade before it. 2011 and 2012 were the worst years for competitive equality because of the weak expansion sides, but this doesn’t explain everything. The era in general was marked by less parity among teams, including within the cohort of finalists and top 4 sides.

It’s too early to call 2017 a state shift in the AFL towards greater competitive balance, but most of us surely welcome the early signs.

Trade period: AFLW clubs take divergent paths in building for the future

The first AFLW trade and free agency period has come and gone, and seen all eight clubs set on slightly different paths on the way to the upcoming season. Whilst the raw number of trades and free agency moves was smaller than the typical AFLM trade and free agency period, the magnitude of the moves may have a wide impact on the entire competition in the years to come.

Player movements

Below is a table of every club’s list from the season just gone, coloured by where players ended up moving for the upcoming season either by trades or free agency moves.

(Click for a larger image)

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As we can see, no club was left entirely unaltered with every club except Fremantle losing a player to another side, and only Adelaide failing to acquire an import. Neither side bothered engaging in trading, as segregated draft pools make pick order meaningless to clubs in single-team states. Instead, Freo pinched their homecoming prizes via free agency.

Two clubs (Fremantle and Carlton) now have three players originally designated as “marquees”, a term now discontinued by the league. As the AFLW doesn’t disclose each player’s pay, one can only guess at how these player tiers are split.

Club primary lists for 2018 will be 27 players, with the remainder to be filled up via the draft. At the close of trade period, clubs could only have a maximum 22 players, but we’re unsure that they were permitted to exceed this during the free agency period. None did, however, and only Melbourne seems to have even reached that 22 player total.

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Interstate clubs stayed mostly on the sidelines

Given the segregated draft pools, interstate clubs didn’t have much need to engage in trades for picks. Brisbane and GWS made exchanges prompted by players desiring a move to or from Victoria. Adelaide and Fremantle didn’t bother at all.

Adelaide and GWS, with the weakest local talent pools from which to draw, would have mostly focused on retaining players recruited from interstate. Adelaide had 7 from outside SA/NT and GWS had 10 from outside NSW/ACT. They mostly managed to retain those players and GWS topped up further.

The Giants lost Alex Williams back to WA and Ashleigh Guest to Melbourne, but have replaced those with four other imports via trades and free agency. The loss of Williams will hurt GWS in their already-shaky defence, but Randall and Privitelli are both defenders themselves. Eva adds some serious class to the Giants’ midfield, and Boyd is a ruck/forward who probably comes in to support McKinnon.

Their most unexpected non-signings are two AFL Canberra players, Queanbeyan’s Ella Ross and Riverina’s Clare Lawton, who both played every game at GWS. Lawton is likely on the outer due to the signing of Boyd, but look for both as redraft chances later in the year.

NSW/ACT is as a draft pool is difficult to read from Under-18s results this year – they matched it with the historically stronger Queensland side, going down by just 3. They then lost by 87 points to WA, which is hard to triangulate because Queensland then went on to beat WA in what was, on past results, an upset.

Adelaide couldn’t retain former marquee Kellie Gibson who wanted a return to Western Australia. There has been speculation that Gibson was told that she would move down the pay tiers, but her status as an unrestricted free agent indicates that she wasn’t offered a contract – in line with the Fremantle statement on her signing. As Gibson moved via free agency Adelaide received nothing in return for her loss, presumably because nobody wanted to move slightly east. A trade of picks would have been useless for both teams, due to the state pool draft restrictions.

Gibson aside, their interstate players have all settled in to play in the local comp over the winter and not returned home. Adelaide have therefore taken quite a minimalist approach to the sign and trade period, content to retain players. There is really not much to say about them. The most notable delisting is the behelmeted Heather Anderson, who was badly injured in the Grand Final and if fit will surely be redrafted.

South Australia have also had a couple of stronger under-18 classes in recent years. They currently sit undefeated with two massive wins in the 2017 u18 competition – albeit against weaker competition in Tasmania and the NT (the three teams will form “the Allies” in round 2 matches). As such, the Crows might find enough to replenish their list without looking interstate again.

Fremantle were also minimal participants in the player exchange, content to bring home a couple of big names via free agency. Despite their lack of movement, the Dockers may end up the biggest winners of the entire period. For a club who turned out to be unexpectedly hampered by the loss of the cream of WA’s talent pool, getting back Gibson and Williams is an unalloyed win. Fremantle now have three of the original marquees, having also retained Kiera Bowers who missed the season with an ACL injury. They also now have three priority pick level players from last year, retaining Antonio and Bentley as well as adding Williams.

The Dockers have left a couple of notable players on the table, including midfielder Demi Okely, rebounding defender Akec Chuot and the hard-tackling netball convert top-up in Alicia Janz. We’re more or less assuming the Dockers will look to draft these players if better local options don’t present themselves, but if another club can convince them to relocate, they could enter a different draft pool instead.

WA can probably also be assumed to be producing good under-18s talent, and will no doubt be adding several players this way. So far this year they have had a big win against NSW/ACT and a slightly surprising loss to Queensland.

For Brisbane, they retained their possible flight risks (especially marquee West Australian Sabrina Frederick-Traub) and their main involvement was trying to extract fair return for Tayla Harris. We’ll discuss them when we discuss that trade as a whole were made.

Like South Australia, Queensland sit undefeated in the under-18 competition, but they did it against much stronger opposition, knocking off perennial favourite WA by 10 points. Brisbane will expect to do well as well as anyone out of the upcoming draft.

Trades are for Victorians

Five trades were completed during the exchange period, all unsurprisingly involving Victorian clubs for whom the fungible currency of trade week – draft picks – actually have meaning. However, the four clubs took differing strategies during the week, with Collingwood and to a lesser extent the Dogs trading into the draft whilst Carlton traded out of it and Melbourne focused on player swaps.

We’ve translated the pick trades below into the position they ended up sitting within Victoria, as those will be the competitive element of the draft:

Trade2

These two trades between GWS and the Dees collectively sent two fringe Melbourne players to GWS in exchange for Guest and a pick that entitles the Dees to the 18th selection within Victoria. Compared to the other moves this is a relatively late pick, and will be the Demons last active pick – and a upgrade of two spots on pick 20.

Pepa Randall was the 16th draft pick for Melbourne, or the 19th player into their list overall. She is only 21 and didn’t manage a game for the Dees in 2017. At VFLW level she has proven to be an effective small forward who has a sense for the goals, but Giants sources call her a key defender. Boyd is a tall who rucks and plays forward. She played every game for the Dees, but as a secondary ruck behind Lauren Pearce and as a forward who didn’t get on the scoreboard at all.

Ashleigh Guest deliberately moved to the Giants this year, nominating for the NSW draft pool. She told an interviewing charity last year “I moved to Sydney from Melbourne in November to put myself out of my comfort zone”. She has apparently decided to move back into her comfort zone and should plug into the Dees midfield.

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Nicola Stevens won Collingwood‘s best and fairest in a pretty disappointing year for them. Carlton gave up three picks for Stevens – more or less trading out of the draft and demonstrating how highly they value her (or how lowly they value draft access).

Collingwood’s balance within this trade is probably best assessed in conjunction with the following movement.

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Overall the Magpies lose the two players their coaches rated as their best at their awards night – Stevens and Eva. In return they obtain Lambert, who will be potentially one of their best. She was the Dogs’ first draft pick (4th onto the list) and came 7th in the Dogs best and fairest while missing one game and otherwise struggling with a difficult hip injury.

Collingwood emerge from the exchange period down a top established top player on balance, and instead have an extra pick inside the first eight Victorian picks in order to replace the shortfall:

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We don’t have a valuation points system suitable to the AFL Women’s Draft at this stage but this move basically represents the addition of another high pick and improvements in position. If we assume Lambert can recover from her injury and be roughly like-for-like for Eva, then the Pies should do well, giving themselves an extra shot at securing a replacement for Stevens from the top of the draft. Collingwood had one of the oldest lists in 2017 so this move may be looking to position themselves for the future for  We’ll talk more about the draft below.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, used this trade to maintain their position at the top of the Victorian draft and improve the position of their second pick. The pick 3 they gave Collingwood was the first Victorian pick, but the GWS pick 1 they gained now becomes the new top competitive pick. A shrewd move.

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The core of this trade was Brisbane walking the tightrope of trying to get players for Harris without letting her walk and leave them with worthless draft picks via the system of discretionary free agency compensation. They’ve done quite well here, all things considered. Exon was technically a rookie due to her split involvement in athletics and VPL soccer, but she won a VFLW premiership last year before the Blues signed her as a rookie, an odd quirk of the foundation AFLW signing system. Exon ended up one of Carlton’s midfield run and gun players.

The other player traded in was Bella Ayre, who juggled year 12 and a two hour commute each way to training, leaving school at 3:30 and getting home from training at midnight. On paper Ayre is a slight downgrade forward option on Harris, but she starred in a couple of games last year and should allow the Lions’ forward setup to remain basically unchanged.

The Dees shed Deanna Berry to the Bulldogs but obtained Bianca Jakobsson in exchange. They were both mostly forwards, but as with many players, various sources insist they are versatile. Of the two, Jakobsson is a truer tall target, finishing in the top 10 in the AFLW for contested marks and marks inside 50. However, Berry is four years younger than Jakobsson, and might have more room to grow in her game.

This is probably an upgrade for the Dees in terms of their prospects next year, as Jakobsson plays tall. The Dees were relatively average in this area last year – 5th for contested marks per game, 3rd for marks inside 50.

For the Bulldogs, through either style or personnel reasons, they weren’t a great marking side last year. The loss of Berry won’t impact them that much on that front, and they indirectly benefit from Melbourne obtaining Jakobsson here. Melbourne left Jessica Anderson – another full-forward – unsigned. She had only kicked 1 goal and took 7 marks in her 5 games, and on statistical output Jakobsson is a clear upgrade. However, the Bulldogs may find use for Anderson if they want to add another tall to support Brennan, having obtained most of their goals last year from midfielders such as Blackburn, the now departed Lambert, and Lamb.

The Blues surprised us this season with a relatively unheralded group (for a Victorian team) in terms of previously established talent – we noted they had the least elite talent in terms of all-star honours. They then proceeded to embarrass us and other pundits with an organised game based around a small core of top talent supported by the players they pulled from the draft.

They have now taken the exact opposite approach this year after drafting successfully – removing themselves from the draft to an extent, and trading aggressively to secure two gun players:

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Carlton did secure their prize in Tayla Harris, as well as the Collingwood B&F in Stevens earlier in the trade period, but have given up plenty in order to do it – three best-16 players and multiple early draft picks.

Who “won” trade period?

The question of which are the right moves move probably hinges on whether this upcoming draft is a mature one useful for building a long term future. Much of the eventual success and evaluation of this trade period will come with the announcement of the player retention rules with respect to the expansion of the AFLW in 2019.

We can conceive of the Collingwood/Bulldogs and Carlton/Melbourne trade periods as (perhaps by necessity) taking opposite bets on the state of the upcoming draft. The Dees were content to take their picks and gain one mid-range new pick, while Carlton left themselves with just one pick from the first 15 Victorian selections – pick 12 overall, or number 7 in Victoria.

The Bulldogs have three selections before Carlton’s first pick, and one a little after it. Collingwood have two picks before Carlton’s first, and then three more soon after. In both quality and quantity terms, the two clubs are positioned aggressively for this draft.

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What sort of draft will it be? Last year’s draft was establishing the competition, and presumably collected all of the key established talent of all ages. So the question is whether the incoming young cohort who were too young or undeveloped last year are of sufficient number and quality to provide the multiple elite players needed to justify the bet on the draft.

Damien Keeping at Carlton and Wayne Siekman at Collingwood both have recent experience in Victorian women’s football development. Keeping and Siekman were both in the Vic Metro Youth Girls setup last year. This makes the contrasting positions they’ve taken is especially intriguing in terms of how they might rate the talent pools with which they should be quite familiar.

Check back in five or so years to see who was right.

What about cross-code rookies?

This coming season, rookie listed players will only be able to play if upgraded for an injured player like in the men’s game. This suggests we may not see the same volume of cross-code converts making headlines in future. We’re not sure if clubs will, or can, leave primary list spaces vacant for rookie upgrades.

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In 2017, nine rookies out of the sixteen played a game, a total of 58%. This was a pretty good strike rate, and a number of players had a real impact. Some of these players had football experience, such as Exon who had played other sports (Victorian Premier League soccer) but also had a football background. Exon won a flag with Darebin before being recruited by Carlton.

Others brought over a generalised athletic skillset that worked in transfer, such as Catherine Phillips (ultimate Frisbee) and Ellie Brush (W-League). Erin Phillips of course, came in as a rookie and combined both a childhood footy background and being an experienced, world class athlete and won the league Best and Fairest.

If we’re looking for players likely to bring similar attributes to the successful rookies, those who might be likely to have an impact if upgraded, we’d nominate Georgie Parker at Collingwood from the small group of announcements. She’s an Olympic level hockey player, an elite standard of athlete, so could be expected to contribute if given the chance. There may also be more signings to come of players with actual football experience – so far only six of a potential 24 rookies have been signed.

However, overall, we should expect to see the cross-code transfer rookie signing reduce in significance with the new list rules.

Shanghai isn’t an AFL expansion attempt – it’s much more interesting than that

When Port Adelaide announced last year that it had struck a three year “partnership” with Chinese business, the dominant reaction was probably confusion or derision. With a game now having been played for premiership points in Shanghai, now is a good time to try to get to grips with what exactly is going on.

While expansionism is often at the forefront of the minds of many ambitious footy fans who are keen to prove that the Australian game is the best game in the world, a much simpler answer is likely afoot: soft political power and raw cash.

A brief history of the AFL in China

The AFL-China linkage hasn’t come out of thin air. The idea of connecting foreign sports with Chinese money and audiences has been around for a while. Those with a long memory may recall that in 2010, China-linked Russian company Kaspersky paid Melbourne $300k to play a preseason game in Shanghai. Woodside, a then-Fremantle sponsor who export gas to China, also came on board as a sponsor of the game.

China’s history with the game before then was minimal, with the first local amateur championship played in Beijing in 2009 – just a year before the Melbourne-Brisbane preseason game. Since the mid 1990s, local leagues and Auskick programs (with some limited AFL support) have been springing up across the country – but on a relatively small scale to other international sporting programs in China. China had the 15th strongest national team at the 2014 International Cup, a standing that has not changed much since their first entry in 2008.

The AFL has long nurtured dreams of substantive international expansion, but they’re not naïve enough to think it starts with spending a lot of money to play games in China. As best as our research shows, the AFL isn’t footing much of the bill in China, and even groups like Tourism Australia have kicked in. The South Australian Government has even contributed $250,000 for a 25-part TV show on AFL for the Chinese market. For Port Adelaide, six staff members are listed as currently working in their “China and Government Relations” division – a substantial investment commensurate with the financial gain they are obtaining from the project.

Broadly it could be said AFL ventures overseas have three interests – financial gain, intergovernmental relations, and actual expansion of the sport. Initiatives like playing games in New Zealand and drafting from the United States seem to be far more serious ventures for expanding the reach of the sport. Those things are really what international expansion means to the AFL right now, not so much Port Adelaide playing in Shanghai.

Who is Shanghai CRED?

This deal certainly isn’t an isolated or random measure for the Chinese partner, Shanghai CRED. They are a real estate company with about $3 billion AUD in assets, led by a billionaire named Gui Goujie who is described in at least one article we’ve read as “affable”. Shanghai CRED seems to be a private company that used to be a state agency. Like many business elites Gui is embedded in the government establishment. He sits on the Shanghai committee of the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and “has been assigned by the Chinese government a major role in linking state and private companies, and in building Chinese investments overseas.”

Make no mistake that this sort of philanthropic engagement by expansionist Chinese business interests has official blessing. Many private businesses are of course closely linked with the state in China, and the Premier of China himself attended a game with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier this year, during an extended Australian visit.

The company has a lot of other interests in Australia and elsewhere in the western world such as New Zealand and China. Last year Shanghai CRED was a minority partner with Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting in a joint venture bid to take over large swathes of S. Kidman and Co. cattle group land across Australia, a move approved by the Treasurer Scott Morrison in December 2016, after earlier bids by other foreign interests were rejected. Rinehart, naturally, attended the match at Jiangwan Stadium yesterday.

The key thing to note here is that the Shanghai game happened because of sponsorship of Port Adelaide by Shanghai CRED, and other firms to a much lesser degree. The money is substantial in AFL terms – reportedly worth $6 million in new revenue so far with more expected – but a rounding error compared to a major agricultural property deal or CRED’s $3bn asset portfolio.

The AFL as subject, not object

There’s been a lot of pretty funny press around the match, rather justifiably making the AFL and its teams look like absolute rubes in over their heads. From Port’s captain Travis Boak being roundly mocked for claiming to be the first western pro sport to play for points in China…

…to the truly weird spectacle of the Age’s photographer chucking a murky yellow filter over their photos, making them look smoggy…

…to antiquated racist jokes on Fox Footy, and the reporting of the Suns bravely surviving minor flight delays, it’s all been a bit of a cringe-fest as a resolutely local sport discovers the joys of long haul international play.

The amateurishness, the ill-preparedness, the earnestness, the boorishness, all make a lot more sense when you realise that the push isn’t really being led by the AFL or its clubs, regardless of how they like to spin things. The AFL are very much the acted-upon party here, offered a bunch of free money in exchange for the chance to showcase their product and, most importantly, to build local links and a better image for Chinese businesses. We’re not used to thinking of the AFL – locally imperious and powerful – as a passive subject going along with other people’s plans, but that’s what’s happening here.

So Sunday’s game is probably not a hubristic attempt by a major sporting body in Australia to expand its game into foreign markets, and they’re not about to be smacked down by the cold hard reality of world indifference. The adventure is easy to mock, but there’s not much AFL investment and there’s little risk here. Port have made millions off this deal. They don’t really need to suddenly develop Shanghai into a Canberra or Launceston-style second home. Their financial rewards are upfront and concrete.

The game was a success when it was played without significant incident, and when the cheques cleared the bank.

Sport diplomacy to support the ‘Peaceful Rise’

This event is best read within the context of Chinese policy of smoothing a “peaceful rise” towards superpower status and everything that entails. The AFL and Port are the lucky recipient of a downpayment of goodwill and trust-building by the business interests of a huge and rising foreign power.

It is a small component of a much broader policy. The foremost example of Chinese soft power through sport is of course in the Global Game, where the state has plans for China to become very good at soccer and invest in other countries’ leagues  in order to improve its image and create a conduit for connecting with other countries’ cultures. But a parallel logic applies here, too.

China is a rising superpower, keenly aware of the potential conflicts its expansion could cause. It is interested in deepening its foreign ties to guarantee its economic interests. Part of the way to manage this rise is by establishing networks of linkages with other countries’ business, government and cultural elites in order to increase understanding, trust and reciprocal obligations. Gui and his company are an example of this; he is a business elite with political connections running a former state asset. Gui is tasked with engaging overseas in order to expand and facilitate his business and country’s investments.

This push makes perfect sense – American soft power is no doubt what China would like to emulate. Think about it. American culture is enmeshed everywhere in Australia and elsewhere around the world, and that enmeshment tends to make American business and policy interests very intelligible and more acceptable to others. We all know roughly what Americans think, what their government is like, what their culture is like. Chinese diplomats and businesses would love to achieve that sort of normalisation in the minds of others.

Initiatives like the Port Adelaide one make sense in this context. Connecting Chinese commercial interests with local sporting competitions – the logic runs – will surely increase Australian familiarity with China and make us more inclined to view Chinese economic power benignly. They hope it can make Australian governments more familiar and friendly with China, and reduce the political cost of policy concessions to Chinese interests. Ultimately, the hope is more cultural linkage would make Australian governments less likely to block future asset sales out of fear of bad publicity.

At the end of the day, we’re a football blog, not a foreign policy or business blog. All we’re really suggesting here is that we should view the Shanghai experiment through the correct lens. That is: the AFL and Port Adelaide are a slightly bewildered and certainly eager vessel for diplomatic exchange. Meanwhile, Shanghai CRED (and perhaps the wider Chinese political machine) wants Australian trust and goodwill because they hope that will make their own interests easier to pursue. At least one major Chinese business with political links sees our most-attended sport as a tool to help with this goal.

Is this an AFL season without terrible teams?

Last week we focused on the possibility that a lead group of between three and five teams was already separating itself from the pack. This week we want to look at the rest of the competition. There’s an evenness becoming evident this year, with a lot of ordinary sides, some of whom will make finals. Even the bottom teams don’t look as bad as the worst teams from many previous years. At this stage, there’s nobody who stands out as being abjectly terrible. There’s nobody currently rating as relatively lowly as the Bombers last year, the early years of GWS, or the hapless Melbourne sides of a few years ago. Subjectively, every bottom side has certainly shown patches of decent footy.

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This isn’t to say that nobody will implode or start truly tanking. The season is long, and there’s always the possibility that one or more of the current battlers go backwards from here. Alternatively, it could tighten up – but it’s worth noting that Essendon (the worst team last year) finished up at a rating of 86% after hovering around the 83%-86% mark all year. That 86% mark was good enough to be among the ten worst team-seasons since 1997.

The middle pack

With Melbourne still looking above-average, the six teams below them continue to jostle and perhaps to separate a touch from the lower group. Collingwood (up 4 places) and North Melbourne (down 4) were the biggest movers, but really, the spread between West Coast (99.9%) and Fremantle (97%) is very small.

None of these teams look brilliant and we can point to flaws in all of them just with a glance at the red and orange cells representing their Midfield, Offensive or Defensive strengths. However, this group logically has to produce finalists, and we have no idea if anyone is going to step up. If not, two of them will stumble into September regardless. This could potentially be a season with a finalist with 11 or less wins, if results break the right (or wrong) way.

Looking further back, we see Essendon, Gold Coast and Sydney slipping back a touch. This maybe suggests that Essendon are about as good as they were in 2015, before their players weer banned. The Swans, amusingly, rise a spot in the ratings despite probably watching their hopes of a quick recovery go up in flames over the weekend, and in spite of their actual figure itself moving backwards. The Swans benefited from Gold Coast slumping a touch more, the swap is largely reflective of changes to the grading of their past opponents. Gold Coast have played Hawthorn and Brisbane who had bad weeks, whilst Sydney have Collingwood, West Coast and the Bulldogs in their history.

But about the Crows…

We do need to look at the top as well, because the Crows can’t be ignored. This time last year, this rating system had the eventual preliminary finalists as a top 4. This includes the Bulldogs, though they did drop off later in the regular season for us, replaced by Adelaide. A word of caution – Geelong briefly looked nearly as good as Adelaide does now in ratings terms after Round 8 last year, but that slumped back to the pack pretty quickly. Samples are still somewhat small at this stage.

Richmond’s previously league-best adjusted defensive strength rating took a relative battering under bombardment from Adelaide’s historic offence and midfield. Hilariously, though, Richmond weren’t disgraced in their twelve goal loss to Adelaide, and only suffered a modest downgrade with no loss of relative position to the competition, still sitting 5th overall and presenting as a probable finalist. The story here is not Richmond, but rather that Adelaide’s performance continues to be stratospheric.

The challenge for the Crows will be maintaining it, but the season they’ve produced so far is a truly rare vein of form, including against good opposition. The Crows have played our current 2nd, 3rd, 5th best teams as well as 13th, 15th and 18th – a slightly above average set of opponents overall, especially considering that they couldn’t play themselves. We want to stress that this isn’t like North Melbourne’s false run at the top of the ladder last year, our system never really rated North. When they were 9-0 last year, North looked about 5th best on raw strength ratings and 8th best with scaling for opposition strength. If the back end of the ladder looks happier than recent seasons, the Crows are currently out on their own at the top.

Who is your AFL club death-riding this year?

The introduction of future draft pick trades in 2015 has given us, the footballing public/nerds, the wonderful spectacle of clubs quite literally taking bets on each other and then “death-riding” them the following year in the hopes of securing a better pick.

In 2016, for example, Collingwood’s struggles resulted in the pick they traded for Adam Treloar turning into pick 8 (in addition to the pick 7 from 2015), significantly more than they would have hoped to have paid for him. By contrast, Melbourne took a bet on themselves last year and traded their 2016 first round pick for a 2015 one from Gold Coast, a deal that ended up in Melbourne’s favour due to their moderate rise up the ladder.

Thus, we give you, a death-riding chart for 2017:

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We’ve kept this to the first two rounds as there’s probably not a lot to be gained from pick shifts in the third and fourth rounds.

St Kilda stand to win handsomely from the Hawthorn trade even if the Hawks end up premiers, but if the Hawks miss the eight it will turn from a bargain into an outright heist. Here’s what we said at the time of the trade:

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St Kilda, for their part, effectively split their first rounder into two useful second round picks while retaining a first rounder of currently unknown quality. The pick split is a move we think works in isolation due to the greater expected output of two picks in this range vs a typical pick 10 but the addition of a 2017 selection is a massive bonus.

St Kilda gave up pick 10 for multiple good picks, and right now there’s a chance that Hawthorn’s first rounder by itself could land around the pick 10 they gave up.

Hawthorn, in a frenzied final day’s trade, were left holding just one pick in the first two rounds, and it’s tied to GWS’ finishing position. This was due to the Hawks swapping the equivalent of more than entire draft in multiple moves to obtain O’Meara. Currently GWS are one of two teams sitting 1-1 so on our death-ride chart the pick looks better, but the Giants are still one of the presumptive premiership favourites (Matt Cowgill at The Arc has them with a 15% chance of finishing in the top 2). If that pans out it leaves Hawthorn entering the draft at pick 36.

Richmond have ended up with Geelong’s first round pick after it changed hands no less than three times. First it moved to Carlton in the Tuohy-Smedts swap, then went to GWS in the deal that moved Marchbank and Pickett. Finally, GWS traded it to Richmond in the swap for Deledio. The end result is that the Tigers will be hoping Dangerwood fails to repeat last year’s preliminary final appearance.

Brisbane acquired Port Adelaide’s first round pick in the Pearce Hanley trade, where the balance of traded goods roughly values Hanley at whatever the Port pick nets them:

hanley swap.PNG

Port Adelaide had pick 9 in the first round last year after finishing 10th and popular opinion (although not that of HPN) had them getting worse and regretting giving up that first rounder this year. However, on early season form that looks less likely.

After a subsequent, perfectly weighted swap with Sydney, Port took four picks in the first 33 last year, including round 1 Rising Star Sam Powell-Pepper. The others, Todd Marshall, Willem Drew and Joe Atley haven’t been seen yet. If Port can get some use out of those other draftees, they’ll be pretty happy with their 2016 trades even before we consider a potential jump up the ladder devaluing their first rounder.

GWS ended up with St Kilda’s second round pick for Jack Steele, which as we noted last year, was a win-win, with the Giants getting extra value from a pick and the Saints getting more from Steele than the Giants would. A Saints preliminary final appearance (or complete collapse after their 0-2 start) would probably be required to alter the pick value enough to change this equation.

The Giants also got Collingwood’s second round pick for Will Hoskin-Elliott, and that bet remains one between Collingwood’s ladder expectations vs Will Hoskin-Elliott’s potential.

Gold Coast are sitting on a glut of second round picks, and should be variously tracking the fortunes of Fremantle, Hawthorn and Richmond this year. They got the Hawks’ second rounder as part of the swap for O’Meara and the Tigers’ pick for Prestia.

Most interesting is probably the Fremantle pick, which was a mundane pick swap and represents a pure bet against the Dockers improving:

freogc.png

HPN’s AFLW Grand Final Preview

The first AFLW Grand Final participants have been decided, after a weekend of relatively wacky results. As we outlined last week, Melbourne needed a record-setting win to maximise their chances of making the big game. Whilst the Dees managed the record-breaking 70 points, and a big 54-point win, it wasn’t quite enough to make Adelaide worry about the margin of their win. The Dogs summarily took care of the Giants in Canberra to ensure GWS would take the wooden spoon, which set up Sunday for a frantic finish to the season.

Right up to the last quarter Collingwood looked like they would win the game – that is until Phillips, Perkins and co. took the game away from the Pies. With their four goal win, the Crows cemented their place in the last week, and killed off the chances of Melbourne, Collingwood and Carlton. Finally, although they were eliminated from finals contention, Carlton turned up to play, ending Brisbane’s winning streak at 6.

HPN’s AFLW Team Ratings

Last year HPN developed a team rating method for the AFLM competition. We thought we’d have a look at how they would stack up for the first AFLW season:

AFLWRatings

As an explanation, the different scores are based on:

  • OffScore: Points per inside-50.
  • DefScore: Points conceded per inside-50 conceded.
  • MidScore: Inside-50 per inside-50 conceded.

Each rating tells a slightly different story. The MidScore broadly describes how effective a team is at creating scoring opportunities for their side, and denying those of their opponent – a ball movement index in essence. The OffScore describes how efficient a team is once the ball is pushed up forward, whilst the DefScore explains how good a team is at stopping their opposition from scoring. All three measures are presented relative to league average, of 100, so a score of 105 is above average, and a score of 95 is below average.

As you can see, the ratings largely match the final overall places of the ladder. While the margins are slim, Adelaide and Brisbane rate as the two highest rated teams overall, slightly ahead of Melbourne (who were relatively unlucky to miss the GF). The Bulldogs were probably a bit better on paper than their final win-loss record suggested, while the Blues (led by Darcy Vescio) were the most potent team up forward by a considerable margin.

Breaking down the Grand Final

Quick hat tip – there has been some really solid AFLW work undertaken by FMI, PlusSixOne, Footy Gospel, Girls Play Footy and probably a bunch of others we are forgetting here. If you are as excited for this weekend’s showdown as we are, take some time to click a few of those links.

The Crows-Lions match-up not only presents the two strongest teams of AFLW playing off against each other, but also two teams with considerably different styles. As demonstrated above, the Crows have been, by a very long way, the best MidScore side in the competition. They have not only got the ball inside 50 at a prodigious rate, but denied their opponents from doing so. For the Crows, Erin Phillips, Ebony Marinoff and Chelsea Randell have led from the front, all sitting in the top 6 for inside 50s competition wide.

Brisbane, by contrast, has been phenomenal at defensively soaking up opposition attack after attack. We don’t have an inside-30 stat, which would possibly be more relevant to the AFLW’s usual scoring range, but anecdotally we’d suggest the Lions also keep the ball out of that tighter arc extremely well, with a lot of inside-50s being shallow entries.

Whilst the Lions’ defenders were not highly credentialed coming into the competition, Kaslar, Virgo and co. have established themselves as the form unit of the entire competition. When the pressure becomes overwhelming, the Lions have a tendency to throw Harris or Frederick-Traub down back to limit the option of the high bomb, forcing their opposition to find another way to goal.

This dichotomy of strengths is similar to last year’s AFL Grand Final, which pitted the defensively outstanding Swans against the ever-swarming Bulldogs midfield. For that game HPN suggested that:

“HPN usually refrains from picking outright results in games (as not to look like pontificating fools), but instead tries to pick the paths to victory where possible. For the Bulldogs to win, they must dominate the territory battle between the arcs, deny the Swans chances to get the ball forward, and to wear down the Swans defenders with repeat entries.

For the Swans, they must aim to turn a likely superior ruck performance into an increased number of inside-50s (as compared to last week against the Cats). The Swans must exploit their apparent advantages up forward, and trust that their defence will hold up to repeated (but not constant) attacks down back.

It should be a fascinating game to watch, given the differing strengths of each team.”

We suggest that a similar story might emerge from the game on the weekend, with different names involved.

For the Crows to win, the weight of inside-50 entries will have to be immense to breakdown the Lions’ defensive wall. Adelaide will also have to rely on multiple paths to goal, both small and tall, to counter Brisbane’s multifaceted defensive approach.

For Brisbane, the key will be slowing down Phillips, Marinoff and Randall, a feat easier said than done. If they are unable to do that, the game becomes tough for the Lions – but not impossible. The Lions would then have to rely on their aforementioned defensive prowess, but perhaps more importantly maximise on their few entries forward to score.

The last time these two sides played, in early March, the Lions took a slim three point win against the odds and away from home. The Crows massively won the inside 50 count (36-18), but were utterly unable to turn the repeated pressure into scoring opportunities. Adelaide was only able to secure four marks inside 50 from their plethora of entries – with Brisbane getting the same from half the number of forays.

If there is a silver lining from that game for Adelaide, it is that they had more scoring shots but lost; a sign that they were able to at least get the ball into position to score. The Crows will likely win the battle at ground level, and if they can do slightly better in the air they should be able to take the premiership.

For the Lions, their biggest positive sign is that they were able to win without a single goal from the two marquee forwards (Harris and Frederick-Traub). Both players had an impact on the game, but they were able to still score in other ways, such as through the severely underrated Kate McCarthy and Emily Bates.

With all said and done, the AFLW Grand Final shapes as a fascinating battle between two well-matched teams.

Best player leaderboards and a look at potential All-Australians

The following table shows the number of games played and the number of times named in the AFL.com.au bests for every player in the league. While the bests lists are seldom perfect, the repeated emergence of the same names should tell us who are some of the best players most likely to be fancied for MVP and AA honours.

r7 final bests

The notably hard-done-by players tend to be those with less fashionable roles such as rucking and defending. Leah Kaslar at Brisbane (zero nominations) may have been in the best couple of defenders in the league, while the two premiere rucks in the league, Emma King at Collingwood (two) nominations) and rising star Erin McKinnon (zero) were also overlooked a few times.

We’re left with a “leaderboard” on this count that looks like this:

bests leaderboard

The goalless Darcy Vescio probably had her first real down game even as Carlton almost rolled the rampant Lions. The other players with perfect records maintained them, and any of Phillips, Pearce, Blackburn or Kearney would be a worthy MVP. Emma Swanson, notably, also has been among the Giants’ best in all five of her outings with them.

AFLW Round 7 Preview and Power Rankings

To start off this week’s column, HPN thought we’d get to the nitty-gritty and step through the scenarios each team has before them to make the grand final:

tomake

Effectively, it’s all in Adelaide’s hands unless Melbourne do something unprecedented to Fremantle.

With that behind us, let’s get to the week’s power rankings:

1. Brisbane

The Lions enter the last week of the regular season undefeated and as the presumptive favourites for the flag. Brisbane have shown an uncanny knack of holding onto slim leads late, with constant opposition attacks being repelled. With two marquee tall forwards (Harris and Frederick-Traub), the Lions have the ability to switch one down back late to plug any holes.

Frederick-Traub in particular has been an ironwoman so far – spending just 0.8% of the total Lions game time off the ground. Harris and Kaslar are also in the top 10 in this category – the only club to play three players that heavily. Harris and Frederick-Traub are also the only two players in the competition with more than 10 contested marks – the two have more than the Bulldogs and Giants have as teams so far.

This week they don’t have to worry too much about the result, however they can end Carlton’s season by either winning or keeping the game close.

2. Adelaide

The HPN panel agonised about whether to drop Adelaide below the Dees, but in the end stuck with the ladder. Despite their loss to Melbourne last week, the Crows are still in the box seat to make the grand final. With Perkins missing parts of the game last week with injury, it demonstrated a potential weakness in the Crows forward line – a lack of depth up forward which threatens the clean, open forward-line structure favoured by Bec Goddard.

The scenarios for Adelaide to make the grand final are laid out above, but it’s pretty simple – win and they’re (more or less) in. Adelaide will know if they need to worry about winning margin by the time they play, because Melbourne play Fremantle the day before.

3. Melbourne

With a win over Adelaide, Melbourne strengthened their final credentials, but it may be a case of too little, too late. The Demons rely on the top end of their list to a very high degree. Paxman, Pearce and O’Dea are three of the top four disposal winners in the entire AFLW to date, with the Dockers the only other club to have three players in the top 10 for disposals.

While one may be tempted to suggest that they rise and fall on the play of these three (and the prolific Mithen and Hickey as well), in reality it is the lesser lights of the Demons squad is often the difference. If Mifsud fires, or Kemp jags a few marks, the Demons turn from being a good side to a deadly one.

Melbourne are in with a win and an Adelaide loss, but they’d need to break margin records against Fremantle to give themselves a chance of qualifying against a victorious Crows.

4. Collingwood

The Pies have gone from being also-rans to being nearly the form side of the competition, with their third win on the trot coming against GWS last week. Six weeks in, the Pies seem to have sorted their forwardline issues, and Hutchins has been a stabilising force down back. But, of any player in the league, Emma King might be the biggest lock for All-Australian selection, dominating in the ruck (and last week up forward) week after week.

It’s bordering on impossible for the Pies to make the grand final, but merely being mathematical shots after being winless halfway through the competition is a fantastic achievement.

5. Carlton

Last week’s loss against cellar-dwellers Fremantle has likely cruelled the Blues chance of making the grand final; as Melboune’s loss the week before to GWS did. At one point of the season the Blues were likely the best side going, up until 10 minutes left in the Adelaide game. Had they won that game, they would likely be eyeing off a spot in the grand final. Unfortunately, injuries and slight form issues hurt Carlton, as did a few close results going against them.

As indicated above, the Blues can still make the top 2; but it’s a hard task from here.

6. Western Bulldogs

In another universe the Bulldogs may be in contention for the grand final – with three losses of less than 10 points and another of 14 on their resume. The Dogs are a good side, but have sorely missed their marquee forward (Brennan) for most of it. Brennan is still second in the AFLW for most goals per game – the issue being that she has only played three games.

The Dogs play GWS this week in Canberra with the Wooden Spoon on offer – something both sides are presumably desperate to avoid, with not even a decent draft boon available from finishing last.

7. Fremantle

After a long difficult slog, with several stars on the sidelines, the Dockers finally recorded their first win. Kara Donnellan led from the front, and has likely cemented her spot in the AFLW Team of the Year.

The Dockers have a chance to spoil the Demons’ final hopes this weekend if they can manage a second win on the run. If they are badly beaten by the Dees, and the Bulldogs win a close one, the Wooden Spoon could also still be theirs.

8. GWS

Of all the teams in season one of the AFLW, the Giants may be the most unpredictable. When they are switched on, GWS can eke out a solid performance, as they did against the Blues, Dockers and Demons. When they aren’t, blowouts like last week’s or the matches against the Crows and Lions tend to happen . Next season should be better for the Giants, as they should have a second marquee ready to go from the start, and can hope for better luck on the health side of things.

Team depth and team bestsr6bests

Round 6 was another week where most of the marquees dominated, and Emma King finally got a nod of recognition from whoever writes the bests lists at afl.com.au.

Carlton again had their elite four players among their bests, but those players were still mostly less impactful than in other weeks given the loss to Fremantle. We’ve noted the concentration of workload in the Blues top end, and the potential drawbacks from that. Fremantle showed them up this week with a wide spread of contributors and plenty of pressure. 74 tackles is the league’s third highest total this season, and was met with just 37 by Carlton. Six Dockers also got into double-digits, while only two Blues did.

Vescio hit her average of seven touches and kicked her 3 goals. Davey’s 14 was well down on her usual 20 while Arnell (8) and Jakobsson (6) did not reach their usual high quality 11 and 10 disposal average. In the end, Carlton couldn’t find other support when their best players were mostly only good, not great.

For Fremantle, a side still hurt by injuries, a big bright spot was their top-up in Alicia Janz being named in the bests. The netball convert Janz is the first top-up to be so named so across the competition. In her second game she showcased her strength and aggression with some of her 8 tackles being huge and impactful ones laid at key moments.

Now let’s look to the team-by-team season tallies:

bestscountr6

We’re down to five players who have featured among their team’s best players every week, and four of them are among the biggest stars identified at the start of the season, VWFL marquees for the Victorian sides.

The fifth player to be recognise among the bests every week is a bolter – Erin Phillips in her first season of competitive adult footy. She was picked up as a rookie convert by Adelaide and we’ve written before about the serendipitous and clever Adelaide recruiting. Phillips’ versatility and impact has been immense. She’s averaging 18 disposals, has kicked 5 goals, has laid 3.3 tackles per game. Perhaps an under-noted feature of her game is the sheer volume of free kicks she continues to receive, with her 18 frees (3-a-game) well in front of Sarah D’Arcy’s 11 in second place. While as an accomplished basketballer Phillips has probably successfully “simulated” a few (especially in round one against GWS), the bulk have come from the panicky infringements she induces in defenders during the 1-on-1 contests Adelaide have consistently set up for her.

Who might win the MVP

If we’re looking for a likely league MVP (we’re assuming a 3-2-1 system for this analysis by the way), we can look to the most frequently named players in the bests:

mostbests

From this group, the Bulldogs’ Blackburn and Kearney seem less likely to take the award, having each other as competition for votes and playing at a Bulldogs side which unexpectedly sits at the bottom of the ladder. The same may be true of the well-balanced Lions, where in different games one would expect Harris, Frederick-Traub, Bates, Zielke or Ashmore to potentially take the maximum votes.

Within the struggler division, Donnellan should nearly monopolise the Dockers’ votes and Dal Pos and Swanson should do the same at GWS. Nobody at these sides is likely to take enough off winning sides to come close to the top. Collingwood haven’t had a consistent standoud all year, with Eva or King probably closest to favourite to top their vote total.

Vescio exploded onto the scene in round one and has continued to be the most prolific and dangerous goalkicker in the league, but goals aside, Davey has been much more involved in general play and they will probably play spoiler to each other. Phillips, a clearly dominant player in one of the best sides, must also be favoured to win a lot of votes at the Crows, particularly early. Marinoff, Randall and Perkins would be the competition there.

Our favourite for the unnamed inaugural AFLW best and fairest award, however, is Daisy Pearce. Pearce is such a class above her teammates (and, really, nearly everyone else), that she could plausibly poll in every Melbourne win, including multiple 3-vote games, as well as jagging a vote or two in their narrow losses to Brisbane and GWS.