Numbers tell the story about that AFL finals bye

RESTED: Port Adelaide will be trying to break the recent preliminary final trend. Picture: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images
RESTED: Port Adelaide will be trying to break the recent preliminary final trend. Picture: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

I have written recently about how dramatically the pre-finals bye has changed the pattern of the AFL finals since its introduction in 2016. That's not the sole focus of this piece, but it's certainly still relevant to it.

There's little doubt that the break after the last home-and-away round has had a negative impact on teams that finish top four and go on to win their qualifying finals.

The numbers say plenty. In short, prior to the bye, 17 of the previous 18 preliminary finals had been won by the qualifying final winners. Most of them won handsomely, against tired teams which had played through while their higher-ranked opponents enjoyed a one-week break.

The record since 2016, in contrast, has been just 50 per cent; four of eight qualifying final winners having lost their chance to book a grand final spot.

Three of those four losers - Geelong in 2016, Richmond in 2018 and Collingwood last year - were all slow out of the blocks in their preliminary finals. Not surprising perhaps, seeing the playoff for a grand final spot was their only game in a block of at least 27 days and, in the Pies' case last season, 29 days.

So, what's the point? Well, this time, it's also about the other half of that preliminary final equation. And, particularly in this highly unusual season, there's some pretty compelling reasons that there's every chance of the recent trend being continued.

You'd hardly call Port Adelaide or Brisbane sitting ducks. They have after all, maintained first and second on the ladder for much of the season. In fact, in the Power's case, all of it.

But they are, in finals terms, nonetheless, relatively new to the caper.

How are they going to cope with the sort of crammed schedule they've become used to this season suddenly turning into an extended break - one in which Brisbane will have played just one game over a 28-day period before its preliminary, and one game in 25 days for Port?

The extra potential sting in the tail this year comes in the shape of their potential opponents.

Regardless of who wins Saturday night's semi-final between Geelong and Collingwood, Brisbane - still with the fourth-least experienced list in the AFL - knows it will be taking on a seasoned competitor.

It's either the Cats, preliminary finalists in three of the past four seasons, or Collingwood, fresh of one of the most-inspiring wins of its history in an away final against West Coast after having been quarantined for a week.

On the other half of the draw Port Adelaide, like Brisbane a finals greenhorn, sits waiting and waiting for either Richmond or St Kilda, two potential opponents in stark contrast.

The Tigers are shooting for a third premiership in four years. Until last week, the Saints hadn't played a final of any description since 2011.

Against the Tigers this week, they'll be without ruckman Paddy Ryder (a star in last week's elimination final win), key defender Jake Carlisle and another valuable defender in Ben Long. Little wonder St Kilda is a $3.50 outsider.

Funnily enough, it's the Saints who managed to beat Port during the home and away rounds; the Power having pulled out one of their best performances of the season to beat Richmond in round 11. But there's little doubt it's the Saints that Port would rather play off against.

There's often a big "jump off" factor when it comes to the flag prospects of beaten qualifying finalists. It's far from the case this year when those teams happen to be the best-performed side of the last three seasons, plus a finals perennial.

Last week, Richmond couldn't get its act together for long enough against Brisbane and badly missed the marking and goalkicking power of Tom Lynch. But he should return for this game against a defence suddenly looking undermanned.

The Tigers are still very much in the premiership equation. And I can't be the only one thinking back a few years to a strikingly similar scenario.

The year was 2015. Hawthorn, having already won back-to-back premierships, had to travel to Perth to take on West Coast in a qualifying final, a game in which it was soundly beaten.

But the seasoned Hawks still had plenty left in the tank. They would smash Adelaide in a semi-final, head back to Perth - this time upsetting Fremantle in a preliminary final - then completely turn the tables on West Coast on grand final day at the MCG. This year though, Richmond can't have the luxury of a grand final at home. Indeed, it could end up facing Brisbane again on the Lions' home ground, after having to get over Port Adelaide on the Power's own turf.

But given their record in finals over recent years, who would seriously think the Tigers aren't still a decent chance of getting there. And history might be on their side, too.

Since the revamped final eight came into effect in 2000, a qualifying final match-up has been repeated on grand final day five times.

And four times - in 2003, 2005-06 and with the Hawks of 2015 - the loser of the first bout has flipped the result in the game which mattered most. Indeed, in 2018 Collingwood was arguably two minutes away from making the record 5-0.

Port Adelaide and Brisbane, with good reason, will have much neutral support behind their flag bids. They've been exciting and a breath of fresh air.

But as their long wait for judgement day continues, it might become even clearer once they know their preliminary final opponents that there's still a lot of water to go under the bridge this finals series.