We need to talk about home ground advantage at AFL finals' time

The Brisbane Lions would relish the chance to play for a flag on their home deck. Photo: Michael Wilson/AFL Photos via Getty Images
The Brisbane Lions would relish the chance to play for a flag on their home deck. Photo: Michael Wilson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

It's taken 16 years, but on Saturday night - even before it steps on to the Gabba turf against Geelong - Brisbane will have some sense of satisfaction about wrongs finally put right.

In 2004, the Lions were shooting for a record-equalling fourth straight premiership. They'd finished the regular season in second spot and won their home qualifying final in slashing style.

But to get to the grand final they still had to overcome Geelong - which had finished fourth, lost its qualifying final, then bounced back with a semi-final victory. What's more, Brisbane had to do so on the MCG against a Victorian team that, despite it's lower ranking, somehow still had a home state advantage. That was because of a contractual stipulation that the MCG had to host at least one preliminary final.

Despite endless negotiations, the Melbourne Cricket Club held firm, and Brisbane - scheduled to play Geelong on a Saturday night before a Sunday return home - effectively conceded grand final opponent Port Adelaide a 36-hour head start, despite its narrow win over the Cats.

Who can say how big a factor it proved in the Lions' grand final loss to the Power? Certainly big enough for then-Brisbane coach Leigh Matthews to accuse the AFL of sabotaging the club's attempt at history. And certainly, morally indefensible.

Brisbane was far from the only victim of such finals injustices. In 1996 and 1999, West Coast was forced to play MCG semi-finals against Essendon and Carlton, losing both, despite being a higher-ranked finals team.

In 2002, Adelaide was a top-four team yet still had to play a semi-final against Melbourne, which had finished only sixth, on the Demons' home ground so that the MCG's hosting rights could be preserved.

The 2004 preliminary final, however, was the straw which broke the camel's back. The following year, the MCG's contract was recast, allowing top four teams a guaranteed two home finals regardless of whether the "G" would be left dormant or not. Even so, that's only ended up happening on preliminary final weekend twice in 15 years since. This weekend would have been a third such occasion even had COVID-19 not robbed Melbourne of any football since the start of July; Port Adelaide and Brisbane having finished in the top two spots on the ladder and both winning their qualifying finals.

Complete karma, of course, would have arrived had it been Geelong which had won its qualifying final and Brisbane which lost, yet the Lions this weekend still facing the Cats on their own home deck.

But in terms of integrity, this finals series has so far played out well; Brisbane, Port and West Coast all still ending up with a home ground advantage which in week one their respective ladder finishes had entitled them to, and last week four Victorian teams doing battle at least on a neutral ground rather than at the home of a lower-ranked team.

One glaring inequity remains, however, and you can expect next week's first-ever grand final played outside Melbourne to bring it into even starker focus.

This is the 30th year of a competition officially named the AFL. Eight of nine finals each season have for 15 years now been played at the venues finals rankings say they should have been. That's except the most important one of the lot, contractually tied to the MCG until 2058 now thanks to a deal signed two years ago and recently extended by a year to make up for the loss to the Gabba this year.

Since the final eight began in 1994 (both the old and post-2000 versions), there have been no fewer than 16 occasions on which a side from outside Victoria played a Victorian team on the MCG on grand final day (and three more in which both sides were from other states). Eight of those 16 times, it was the non-Victorian team which was actually higher-ranked, and thus in strictly competitive terms more deserving of a home ground advantage than the opponent which effectively ended up with one.

Only three times - West Coast in 1994, Brisbane in 2002 and West Coast again two years ago - has the non-Victorian side emerged holding a premiership cup aloft. Had Dom Sheed not got the Eagles over the line in the last couple of minutes in 2018, it would now have been five grand finals in a row in which a local team had triumphed over an interstate rival that had been ranked higher.

If we're serious about the integrity of the premiership, it's something which needs to be addressed ... MCG contracts, crowd capacity arguments or not. Over the years, I've baulked at the prospect purely on aesthetic grounds, and using the MCG's six-figure capacity as a crutch. But I've changed my mind.

What is the point of teams fighting tooth and nail all season to finish in as lofty a position as possible, only to have the advantages that should come with that diminished - as is already increasingly appearing the case with the AFL's controversial pre-finals bye?

Now, circumstances have ripped away the grand final security blanket the MCG has provided. Yes, a Gabba grand final is going to feel a little strange. But I strongly suspect it will also produce a feeling of "we did it, and the sky didn't fall". You can count on the pressure from the non-Victorian contingent of eight clubs ramping up significantly on this issue afterwards. Particularly if Brisbane ends up taking out the flag.

The Lions may have copped the short end of the straw all those years ago. But winning a premiership in front of their own delirious supporters would be more than adequate payback. And all the encouragement those clubs living on the other side of the Murray need to attempt to right those wrongs on a permanent basis.