Having missed the finals in 2015, Geelong is a win away from another grand final appearance. The change in their schedule is a big reason why.
Call them Schrodinger’s Cats, for the famed paradox of quantum mechanics – Geelong can be thought of as both flag contender and non-final fodder, only to be collapsed into one reality by a random event. And that event is the AFL fixture.
Victoria University academic and Western Bulldogs’ sport scientist Sam Robertson has created a model of match difficulty that takes into account not only the quality of opponent, but distance travelled by the visiting team and the amount of turnaround time leading into the match. When applied to the imbalances of the AFL schedule, the model turns up interesting measures of performance against expectation.
In 2015, Geelong missed the finals in 10th spot, with 11 wins, nine losses and a draw (another result was effectively a draw, the cancelled match against Adelaide). It has been widely noted that the Cats had a difficult fixture (the second-toughest by season’s end). But they were the second-best performed team according to the model, with only West Coast beating expectation more often.
While the AFL has tried to iron out the disparities in the fixture, the limits of getting 18 clubs to play 22 times each, and 10 of those teams located in one state, are too hard to get around. “In previous years, you’ve seen teams finish sixth versus 11th and there’s only a game or percentage between them,” Robertson says. “And we’re talking people’s livelihoods at stake because of one or two bad years.
“Adelaide and Geelong had pretty hard years last year with the fixture. Looking at their sides, and expecting them to get better, and then the much more favourable fixture, we expected them to do well. That’s not the only reason, but they were always favoured to bounce back a bit.”
The Cats’ schedule strength this season was fifth-easiest. Instead of opening with four finals sides in their first five, as they did in 2015, they had two. Their one trip west was to play the imploding Fremantle rather than the Eagles. They’ve won eight straight since round 17, and have played once in the last three weekends with a dinged-up Sydney Swans in front of them in the preliminary final. If a premiership is in the offing, Geelong’s path has surely been a factor.
Or maybe it was just because they had Patrick Dangerfield this year.