Ever since the AFL evolved from a suburban Melbourne league to a national sporting behemoth, football fans have argued about the competition inequalities: The draw, the draft, the money, the travel.
And, in grand final week, the thorny issue of home ground advantage.
It’s a given that no matter who’s playing, the showpiece match will be held at the MCG, the spiritual home of Australian Football.
And will be for some time. The AFL has a deal to stage the match at the MCG until 2057.
This year that Home Ground Advantage (HGA) has been given to Collingwood, despite the Pies finishing below West Coast on the ladder and losing to them in the finals series.
It’s been the same story in each of the past four grand finals: a lower-ranked Melbourne side facing the higher-ranked team from inter-state — and on all of those four occasions, the local team won.
Despite that history, West Coast remain confident that the travel to “host” in a home away from home this year won’t prove decisive — after all, they’re the experts on the road.
“I think the guys would fly to the moon if they had to play in an AFL Grand Final,” said West Coast’s assistant coach and former Eagles and North Melbourne star, Drew Petrie.
And yet, the case against playing at the MCG has some merit, especially when the numbers are crunched.
“In terms of fairness, I think the argument from the maths of it would be that it’s probably not fair to the interstate teams,” Sports data analyst Darren O’Shaughnessy said.
|AFL Grand Finals (winners in bold)|
|2014||Sydney Swans (1st)||Hawthorn (2nd)|
|2015||West Coast Eagles (2nd)||Hawthorn (3rd)|
|2016||Sydney Swans (1st)||Western Bulldogs (7th)|
|2017||Adelaide Crows (1st)||Richmond (3rd)|
|2018||West Coast Eagles (2nd)||Collingwood (3rd)|
Research conducted by O’Shaughnessy and his peers on HGA has unearthed some interesting statistics.
Home teams win in the AFL more than 58 per cent of the time during the regular season.
He concludes that 35 per cent of HGA is due to the effect on umpiring, “which is actually less than in other sports,” said O’Shaughnessy, “but it’s still significant.”
That equates to approximately 1.5 to 2 free kicks per game in favour of the home team against an interstate side — or up to three or four points of a total ten-point home ground advantage.
Then there are the intangibles.
Footballers are beasts of routine and one thing that can disrupt that is playing away from home, particularly when it involves a change in time zone.
Creature comforts play a role too: waking up in your bed, drinking out of your coffee cup, following that same path on your morning stroll.
Right down to the hallowed MCG turf, they can all have an impact on grand final day.
“The former Australian Rules footballer and 1970 grand final hero Ted Hopkins always said the foreign turf and soil conditions were significant,” O’Shaughnessy said.
“The breeze is different; the grass is a different length — all those things come into it.”
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