When your team makes it to the final four, that should be considered success, right? Instead, it’s footy’s equivalent of a Rorschach test.
You know, those inkblots that psychologists get patients to interpret. Ask fans how they feel about how their team went in a preliminary final, and you could tell a lot about their personality.
In Inside Sport recently, former Western Bulldogs’ legend and current Fox Footy pundit Brad Johnson recalled his own days of finals footy. “Although we never managed to break the club’s longstanding grand final drought, losing in three consecutive prelims, I remain proud of what we achieved in that time,” Johnson said. “In the end, we were just beaten by three better sides.”
It’s a reasonable, and admirable, attitude. But my Bulldog-supporter mate would beg to differ, still suffering from the serial disappointments of 2008, ’09 and ’10. Compound it with the club’s six-decade-long premiership drought (current Bulldog coach Luke Beveridge is pictured above walking past their sole cup, won in 1954), and it’s understandable how the prelim final exit might be the toughest loss of all in our codes.
To make a grand final – even if you lose it – delivers great emotional rewards. Your team gets to be part of the season’s ultimate moment, and should it end in defeat, it can always be rationalised that we were only one game away from the premiership. To be a grand finalist is to have defined that year in football.
A prelim final loss offers no such relief, just a lot of what-ifs. Surely you can remember last year’s GF teams, but how quickly do the pair of losing prelim finalists come to mind? (Hint: in 2015, the Roosters were one in the NRL, while the AFL had four entirely different teams.)
At its worst, a prelim loss gets caught in the spin of footy chatter. Looking at this year’s final four in both AFL and NRL, the outlines are clear. For experienced sides with recent success, elimination would be a disappointment, or even a choke (Geelong Cats, Sydney Swans, North Queensland, Melbourne Storm). For young teams on the rise, a loss is a bearable learning experience (Canberra Raiders, GWS Giants). Then there’s the class of the long-suffering, the Bulldogs and their rugby league equivalent Cronulla, which has famously never won a premiership, and whose last grand final was in 1978 (discounting the 1997 Super League season).
If they were to lose in the prelim, well, that’s what they do. The half-full glass is always half-empty. Getting to test whether the premiership cup (with apologies to the NRL and its iconic trophy) is half-full is a whole different matter.