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.

signings

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.

trade1

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.

What do we really know about Port Adelaide?

As the bye rounds get underway, our ratings system based on forward, defensive and midfield strength continues to settle into seeing a top three teams and then a large middle class.

Round 10 ratingsAlongside the ladder’s top two of Adelaide and GWS we also see Port Adelaide defying their eighth ladder position by sitting second overall in strength rating. The most obvious point here is they’re a game behind everyone else – win that (by enacting revenge on The Bye, perhaps) and they’re 4th.

We’ve talked before about Port’s midfield and defensive strength, this week we want to focus on the widespread analytical unanimity regarding them. Our high rating is interesting because we’ve come up with a similarly high rating of Port Adelaide to a number of other amateur analysts taking different approaches. The Arc has them 4th in its Elo system, Footymaths has them 3rd, Troy Wheatley’s power rankings has them third. Adrian Polykandrites has them 3rd in a subjective power ranking. Tony Corke has them with the second highest expected win percentage.

Why the agreement? Port have mostly done two things this year – destroyed lowly sides by extravagant margins, and put in competitive losing efforts against other contenders.

Their worst performance of the year, the loss to West Coast, still looks pretty good from most non-score based metrics and was probably best seen as a confounding tactical win for the Eagles rather than a lasting indictment on Port’s quality. Other than that, the Ls have been respectable losses to the top two sides and almost rolling Geelong on their absurd home deck.

The interesting thing, though, is the footy world doesn’t yet have much a track record for Port against teams in the vast middle tier of either the ladder or strength rankings. They have beaten the four current bottom sides and a 7th-placed Fremantle with a giant asterisk hovering over them. They’ve lost to the top three sides and then to 6th-placed West Coast in a truly weird game.

The Eagles and Dockers are the only teams they’ve played who are sitting anywhere between top-4 lock and likely non-finalist. Can Port lock up the expected wins against the league’s middle class? All our analytical signs, and those of others, seem to point to “yes”, but it really remains to be seen.

This week, it’s all downside for them – anything other than a big win over a 2017 struggler in Hawthorn will downgrade their ratings, and another dominant effort would just be more of the same. Fixtures can be weird that way.

Plotting the team strengths

The table of strength ratings we show above can also be presented in a graphical format, combining any two of the strengths to characterise the teams in different dimensions. Below are several charts plotting teams relative to the league average. In each case, you want your team to be in the top right quadrant.

A general bit of context: Most premiership teams sit in the top right quadrant (ie, above average on all measures), mostly above 105% on each. The main exceptions have been the 2016 Bulldogs and the 2005 Swans who both had slightly below average offensive strength.

Round 10 offmid

Adelaide and GWS are the main powerhouses in the midfield+forward dimension. They both generate a predominance of inside-50s, and then use them with above average efficiency once inside. A number of sides such as the Bulldogs, Collingwood and Richmond clearly show their main flaw on this graph – butchering their plentiful inside-50 forays.

Brisbane are highlighted here as being non-terrible once they actually get forward. Zorko, Hipwood, Robinson, Beams and Schache have all averaged a goal a game when they’ve played and collectively done enough to pose an average level of forward threat.

Round 10 defmid

There’s Port Adelaide, using the combination of inside-50 predominance and a stingy defence on the relatively rate occasions they concede as their main path to victory. Richmond look the same but to a lesser extent. Essendon are highlighted as a team which defends pretty well – and they have to, as their midfield is providing no assistance. Brisbane are Brisbane.

The other fourteen teams seem to cluster rather tightly here, in stark contrast to 2016 when Sydney were historically good defensively decent on the midfield axis, with more sides trailimh off towards current Brisbane territory of defending poorly but getting hammered even worse between the arcs.

Within the cluster, West Coast stand out as a team who look poor in the midfield and average in defense, but in spite of these measures but are still firmly in finalist range.

Round 10 defoff

This third plot ignores the midfield and just focuses on what happens within the 50-metre arcs. Teams that look really strong at both ends of the ground are Essendon and Adelaide and to a lesser extent, GWS and West Coast. The key difference between the four sides is of course how well their midfield power protects and provides opportunity at the two ends.

Note that “midfield” here refers to everything between the arcs – midfield strength by inside-50 is a measure of the whole team’s power between the arcs. Adelaide and GWS’ much vaunted half backs contribute to the midfield just as much as the “true” midfields.

At the other side of the line, we see a stack of sides who look below average at both ends of the park. Collingwood, Carlton, Fremantle, St Kilda, Hawthorn and Gold Coast all, relatively speaking, leave a lot of work to be done by players in the middle of the field.

Finally, Richmond and the Bulldogs almost stand alone as being effective in defence and pretty dysfunctional up forward.

The Race for the Eight is tightening up, and the Dogs are on a surge

Over the last 7 weeks HPN has been tracking the fortunes of teams using our Team Ratings, and some early trends appear to be emerging. But before we get to them, lets look at how the ratings sit after 9 weeks of footy:

Round 9 ratings

For the second week in a row, Port Adelaide hold the top spot on the HPN Ratings, just a sliver ahead of cross-town rivals Adelaide. GWS sit on their own between the surging top two, and the cluster of 11 teams below. After their bad loss to Essendon, West Coast have lost a lot of ground, with their midfield rating a particular concern at this point of the season. While their much vaunted attack has largely lived up to expectations from the opportunities obtained, and their defence is performing above league average against the amount of ball they’ve had to defend, their midfield threatens to sink their hopes of playing in late September.

(Bear in mind of course that these are average measures, meaning both home and away games, and therefore can’t account for the weird space-time inversion that apparently befalls West Coast when they play in Melbourne.)

The Eagles currently sit in the bottom third of the league in their ratio of clearances to opponent clearances, and inside-50s to opponent inside-50s. Most of their companions in the lower range for these measures don’t look like finalists at this stage:

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The addition of Sam Mitchell doesn’t seem to have helped in at least these measures of midfield ability. The West Coast will be hoping that the easy answer for their issues is that they are an away thing, but their average midfield output over the year (regardless of venue) hasn’t looked that good. There’s still plenty of time to go in the season, but the signs aren’t so good at this stage.

St Kilda also took a big step back last week after threatening to cement a spot in the top 8 of the HPN Ratings. Without Josh Bruce (who kicked 6 goals in the last 3 weeks prior to being dropped), St Kilda’s forward line seemed to lack in targets inside-50, and the Swans were able to reel in 18 marks inside 50 to the Saints’ 6 in perfect conditions.

Much has been made of Paddy McCartin’s development, or lack thereof, but McCartin is only barely 21 years old and is an undersized key forward. He was always unlikely to dominate in a game where Riewoldt and Membrey also had limited influence. Most KPFs take a little bit of time to get up to speed, and his form in the VFL has been very encouraging. Bruce is perhaps still the Saints’  better third option up forward right now, but McCartin’s time will very likely come.

On the flip side of the coin, Fremantle were the biggest movers up last week, beating a weakish Carlton after a slow start this week. The HPN Ratings are much more pessimistic on Fremantle than the AFL ladder, and intuitively we probably all understand that three wins by less than a goal leaves a club’s win-loss record flattering them a little. However, it is clear that they are on the way back up after a very poor 2016.

Form Guide rd9

Over the last seven weeks the Dockers are the biggest movers up our ratings, a touch ahead of the Bulldogs. It’s taken some time for the Fremantle’s new additions to fit into Ross Lyon’s system, but it appears they are loosely in the mix for the bottom end of the eight.

The other team mentioned above, the Bulldogs, are seemingly starting to hit some form. Last year the Bulldogs turned an okay season into a surprising premiership, and there was then much conjecture around which Bulldogs side would show up in 2017. For the first month the answer was neither, as the Dogs side out on the park looked like it would struggle to make the finals. However, over the last month or so the Dogs have settled as players have re-integrated into their best 22, and finals footy seems to be their destiny if the progress continues. And if the Bulldogs make the finals anything can happen, as last year shows.

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The two sides that have dropped the most are the Tigers and the Lions – and both are somewhat expected.

Richmond got off to the hottest of starts, with their defence a force of nature early on. Since then the Tigers have been merely good around the ground – still firmly in the mix for finals, but probably not the top two or perhaps even four. As per our earlier table, the Tigers struggle to win clearances – not a debilitating issue, but potentially a problem. The Richmond forward line has also shown that it hasn’t quite learned how to get their large amount of inside fifty entries to count on the scoreboard, with the forward line perhaps looking the most deadly when Martin (13 goals, 12 behinds, 10 assists, 53 inside-50s) floats up.

The Lions, by contrast, are pretty good with respect to winning clearances and pretty terrible at turning them into inside 50 entries. When they do get the ball up forward, Brisbane are less efficient that the average team in converting into points. The Lions are also terrible at stopping opponents from scoring from inside-50 opportunities, conceding at the highest rate per inside-50 entry of any team in the league. The Lions are young, and it might get better for them as the season progresses, but it doesn’t look good right now. It looks bad. Real bad.

The 2017 AFL season is really, really good, so why are we being distracted from it?

It may be a bold opening statement, but we will use it anyway: this early AFL season is the most compelling one that HPN can remember in our footy watching days. No side is invincible, no side utterly hopeless (Brisbane aren’t utterly hopeless).

The early season favourites in Adelaide were just convincingly beaten two weeks in a row by sides with gameplans to counter them but who may not make the finals. The presumptive pre-season premiership favourites (or PPPFs), GWS, have an injury list that stretches for days and are being exposed by other strong midfields.

Geelong are extraordinarily top-heavy with Dangerfield, Selwood and Duncan leading the way; Melbourne without Gawn are perhaps lacking in star power, with Cam Pedersen (?!?) currently one of their most important players. Sydney forgot how to play Australian Football for the first six weeks of the year and have maybe remembered too late. And who knows if the Bulldogs are any good? We sure don’t.

On an individual basis, we are seeing the rare resurgence of an injured star over 30 (Ablett), and the emergence from the clouds of a young player as perhaps the best in the league through two months (Sloane). The spread and depth of talent across the league is impressive right now, and with much of that talent being young it will only keep moving this way.

This season has shown that any team can beat any other, and the race for the finals is truly up in the air.

The HPN Ratings for the week reflect this.

Round 8 ratings

Port Adelaide have leapfrogged their local rival into first in the rankings, driven by their stellar midfield and inexplicably stingy defence. Port’s midfield is particularly well rounded, with the inside grunt provided by Wines, Ebert and Powell-Pepper tempered by the run and creativity of Wingard, Wines, Gray and Polec. Ryder and Trengove have proven to be a ruck combination that provides more value around the ground than any potential losses in raw hitouts, and they never fail to provide a solid contest under the ball.

Melbourne’s impressive win over Adelaide vaulted them up the standings, with the Demons looking remarkably well balanced through the eight weeks to date. The issue for the Dees remains consistency of effort from week to week, and the ability to cover for significant outs, such as Hogan and Gawn.

At the other end of the scale, North Melbourne looked very ordinary last week in backing up from their own win over the Crows. North is a relatively unknown quantity in 2017, with their best performances (such as in the GWS and Adelaide games) worlds away from their worst. They aren’t totally out of finals contention yet, but a loss this week to Melbourne will severely dent their hopes.

However, none of these things have been the major AFL media topics this week.


 

Distraction is a critical part of any PR armoury – using a thought provoking issue or proposal to distract away from any bad news. The NRL has State Of Origin for built into their schedule pretty much for this reason.

The AFL has been conditioned to handling near-permanent bad news stories since 2013, with the Essendon/ASADA scandal sucking up a massive amount of oxygen from the media and general footballing public. It’s easy to see how distraction, at least on a temporary basis, has formed a critical part of the AFL’s thinking.

The move to a 7-day-a-week, 50-ish-weeks-a-year media cycle hasn’t helped, with the easy distraction of “footy on the weekend” only covering a bit over half of that timeframe. As such, the AFL have become adept at tossing out hypothetical ideas for the public to discuss, helping to retain interest and to distract from negative off-field events. They’re also good at dropping bad news at the end of a given cycle, after newspaper and TV news deadlines. This isn’t uniquely mischievous – just smart media gatekeeping by a huge and powerful organisation.

And in an extremely critical reading of the week’s events, that’s what the AFL has attempted here. Last weekend former number 2 draft pick and injured but currently listed Fremantle player Harley Bennell wandered onto a field of his reserves team to talk to his cousin, and was promptly removed by club staff. This event came about a month after his refusal by airline staff to board a flight due to perceived drunkenness.

This, by most standards, is a “negative issue” and could therefore benefit from a reset of the media narrative, along with the racist “banter” on “The Bounce“. What the AFL appears to have done is to reset the narrative using their “off-season” playbook by floating thought bubbles, and not using their “mid-season” one which generally involves returning to focus on footy. These really should be two separate ways of handling PR issues.

The floating of stupid fixturing ideas – and to repeat, they are stupid ideas, and we will discuss in more depth in coming weeks why they are so very stupid – has almost completely removed any focus on Bennell or Danny Frawley, but also almost any other football issue including the week of footy ahead.

(Incidentally, you’re never going to make the fixture fair until there’s four more teams or a shorter season, but more on that another day.)

According to Matt Cowgill at ESPN (and The Arc) eleven sides have at least a one-in-four shot at finals footy, with only one sitting in a near-hopeless position. Even Carlton, should they upend Fremantle and North, will have about a 15% chance of September action. No team should feel secure right now, and no fan really has an excuse to not watch the weekend ahead.

The AFL should focus on getting that message out instead.

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.

Who are the Kings of Style of the 2017 AFL season?

This week’s post features a contribution from the excellent Figuring Footy, aka Rob Younger. If you don’t already follow him/read his work, get around it ASAP!

After a weekend of big upsets, HPN thought we’d take a step back and reassess the league as it sits after seven weeks. With Adelaide finally registering their first loss, immediately after we talked them up, we currently sit at the spot that is (practically) inevitable each year; no team is invincible, and no side utterly hopeless.

Indeed, on the HPN Ratings even the outlying Crows have come back to the pack a little, with the previously mentioned long tail seeming even more pronounced.

Round 7 ratings

However, while we feel the ratings above are accurate reflections of the strengths and weaknesses of each side, they miss some of the colour of the play of teams. As such, we thought it appropriate that we look at the differing styles of each side in the season to date.

Richmond Are The Anti-Arsenal (they won’t let you walk it in)

Perhaps the most surprising side of the 2017 season has been Richmond, which joyously means that we won’t hear any shitty “9th again” jokes. Good riddance.

The catalyst for the Tigers’ resurgence hasn’t necessarily come in the front half of the ground, but instead in the back 50. Compared to last year’s Richmond outfit, the Tigers have turned into a defensive wall, especially close to goal.

We asked Friend Of The Program and all-around top stats guy Rob Younger from Figuring Footy for a way to show this.

Compared with 2016, the Tigers have conceded nearly 200 fewer points in the first seven rounds, and 141 fewer ExpScore points as well. Where the goal square and close corridor was a mess of shots in 2016 (27 across the first seven games), the Tigers have nailed that door shut this year, only conceding 12 shots with 10m of goal.

THEY. WON’T. LET. YOU. WALK. IT. IN.

Richmond also had an alright defence in 2015, albeit with a slightly different focus:

The Tigers have kept a slightly right-leaning focus of their defence. This could perhaps be a product of where the opposition feels comfortable leading, a conscious effort to push right-footers to their non-preferred side or maybe just teams avoiding where Alex Rance stands. Whatever the reason for the lopsidedness, the Tigers have pushed the opposition opportunities out significantly, and denied almost anything near goals. Adelaide was able to work out a solution when the two sides met, but no other side has found a real counter to date. If they can somehow keep this type of defence up, they will be in premiership contention later this year.

Queensland’s Matador Defence

During summer the Queensland Bulls often run riot over the short grass of the Gabba, but this season (and for the last three as well) their co-tenant the Lions have been playing the other half of the bullfighting equation.

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The Lions are currently last defensively as measured both by opposition scoring shots per inside-50 and by marks inside-50 per entry – both by a substantial margin. Their only real competition with respect to the former is the side that concedes the most goals per opposition inside 50 entry; their state-mates the Suns.

Both the Lions and the Suns have shown the ability to score in bunches this year, but when their midfield is beaten their respective back groups have been simply unable to keep the opposition at bay. Aggressive run and gun might be both sides’ only hope of victory, but it really hasn’t worked so far for the Lions in particular.

Kick First, Ask Questions Later

The kick v handball question is an old and nuanced issue. About a decade ago the pervasive thinking amongst football clubs moved from kicking where no other better option exists to looking for an extra handball to find a better target by foot.

As The Arc pointed out earlier this week, Carlton in 2017 is going a different way. The Blues are turning the clock back to a slightly happier time on Lygon Street.

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Carlton have played like a team that doesn’t know how to spell the word handpass, let alone execute one (citation required). There’s often benefit to “zigging” when almost every other side “zags”, even if the move is one back to an older age of footy. The weather that Carlton has faced may have something to do with the figures so far (Carlton have been to the MCG five times and Etihad once), but as our dads might say “THAT’S HOW FOOTY USED TO BE PLAYED.”

For GWS, Everything Is A Clearance Sale

We don’t think every team puts equal stock in winning clearances. A won clearance can still easily result in a turnover from the subsequent possession, and lead to the ball being rebounded back the other way. Clearances aren’t a great midfield strength measure in isolation, as they don’t correlate terribly well across the competition with inside-50 ratios or even with, you know, winning.

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Adelaide and Port Adelaide, for instance, are doing pretty well on the scoreboard and in generating a predominance of inside-50 opportunities despite being indifferent break-even clearance sides. Port in particular have a very high ratio of inside-50s to opponent inside-50s despite not winning clearances, suggesting an outside midfield game that is working well.

However, a very high clearance ratio in a good team probably suggests they regard it as a strength and a tactical tool. Such may be the case with GWS, whose clearance ratio is a league high 122% and whose dominant wins in 2017 all match with games where they destroyed their opponents in the clearance stakes. A lot of analysis of GWS focuses on the wave running they do with their powerful and skilled runners, and they seem able to achieve this out of stoppages at will if teams aren’t sufficiently careful.

The games where GWS didn’t win a disproportionate share of clearances were those where they looked mortal. They lost the clearance counts to Adelaide (by 1) and St Kilda (by 11) and only just topped the Bulldogs (by 2) in their close win. Elsewhere, they did what they pleased and won accordingly.

We don’t have access to score sources, but we’re willing to bet the Giants do very well scoring from stoppages. We’d also speculate that sides who can win clearances can trouble the Giants. That could include Collingwood this weekend (who incidentally have never lost to the Giants)

What Fremantle’s ruck dominance means

FreoHitouts

How do teams generate clearances? One obvious answer is by having a good ruckman. Fremantle, the side with the best ruckman, are also a good clearance-winning team. The top five sides for clearance ratios all also have positive hitout ratios (but not the other way around) which suggests rucks do still matter if you care about winning clearances.

Fremantle’s 115% clearance ratio is almost certainly partly a product of the towering presence of Aaron Sandilands. Gold Coast, GWS, Collingwood and Brisbane all also have pretty good primary ruckmen securing hitouts, and this may be part of what is translating into their relative clearance success. The Demons are a strange case which should probably be ignored for the moment – they’ve gone from having a really good ruckman to not really having one at all, so their season totals reflect both those situations.

This doesn’t mean that hitout domination necessarily translates linearly into midfield success, however. North Melbourne, for instance, are sixth in hitout differential, but lose the clearance counts on average. Fremantle are the key case study to what ruck dominance means. The Dockers themselves are generating more than two hitouts for every opponent hitout, which is an insane degree of dominance. But they’re also not translating those hitouts as efficiently into clearances as that might suggest.

The brute force effect of utterly dominating hitouts is only giving Freo a modest advantage in terms of winning the ball away from the area around a stoppage. This may suggest there is a saturation point of ruck dominance beyond which ruck contests get too predictable, and midfielders too evenly matched, to gain further advantage.

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.