AFL form guide goes out the window as the old rules no longer apply

The West Coast Eagles celebrate their victory over Adelaide at the Gabba last Saturday. After two wins on the trot, the Eagles are the bookies' second favourites for this year's premiership. Photo: Jono Searle/Getty Images.
The West Coast Eagles celebrate their victory over Adelaide at the Gabba last Saturday. After two wins on the trot, the Eagles are the bookies' second favourites for this year's premiership. Photo: Jono Searle/Getty Images.

One of the most intriguing parts of AFL season 2020, once the coronavirus began to wreak its trail of havoc, was always going to be the greater sense of the unknown.

A shortened season. A later grand final. Shorter quarters. Home teams playing away. Hubs. Compacted schedules.

Who knows what other modifications we could still be in for?

It's thrown out the normally meticulous planning all clubs do in advance of an AFL season.

It's thrown up obstacles the likes of which they couldn't have dreamed.

And it's certainly made normally reliable measuring sticks as to the progress of those teams all but redundant.

Even Champion Data, for more than two decades the super-reliable official provider of statistics to the AFL and its clubs, has had to do some recalibration.

With games around 20 minutes shorter than usual this year, even the most basic numbers like kicks, marks and handballs don't look anything like the tallies we're used to.

They've had to extrapolate this season's numbers to a theoretical conclusion had the games in 2020 been the standard four 20-minute quarters plus time-on.

And some popular rules of thumb?

One of my favourites over the years has been what's come to be known as the "Round 7 Rule".

In essence, it was a demarcation line for aspirants for the final eight.

Over a long period, history suggested that if you weren't in the top eight come the end of round seven, there was a pretty good chance you wouldn't be when September rolled around, either.

In 18 completed AFL seasons from 2001 until 2018, there had been a total of just 23 changes to the top eight as it stood at the conclusion of round seven and the start of the finals, an average of little more than one team per season.

Things changed dramatically last year, though, with four teams forcing their way inside the eight after the seventh round.

Indeed, one of them, Richmond, ended up winning the premiership.

The Round 7 Rule was already looking a little wobbly.

Of course now, with only a 17-round season to be played instead of the standard 23, it's next to meaningless, round five probably a better comparison given that seven of 23 rounds is 30.4 per cent of the season and five of 17 is 29.4 per cent.

So what are the implications if round five is the 2020 rule of thumb? That again, a long-established measuring stick is under assault.

At the end of round five, none of Richmond, Collingwood or Carlton were inside the top eight.

By the end of last weekend, all three were, replacing Gold Coast, GWS and the Western Bulldogs.

Form has been confounding

It goes without saying TV programmers would be at least one stakeholder hoping another (even adjusted) norm was to be shattered, given the box-office potential of the heavily supported Tigers, Pies and Blues compared to the teams which made way for them last weekend.

But who really knows what a norm is this season? Even were this a standard football year, the form thus far has been as confounding as any AFL season in memory.

Just three weeks ago, West Coast, stuck far from home in a Gold Coast hub, had lost their third game in a row, were 16th on the ladder and appeared to be teetering on the brink of disaster.

Only two wins later, the Eagles are level on points with two teams inside the top eight, have an extended spell at home looming, and are all of a sudden second favourites for the premiership with the bookies.

Ahead of them in the betting are only joint flag favourites Collingwood and GWS. But how well are those two teams travelling?

The Pies looked good last weekend but had dropped their previous two games.

And the Giants are outside the eight at a less-than-sparkling 3-3 and lost to Port Adelaide last start.

The Power? Well, they were impressive in that victory, but copped a decent sort of reality check the week before against Brisbane, who themselves were served one by Geelong in round six.

The Cats unleashed an ominous seven-goal burst in the third quarter to take control against the Lions last week.

They were imperious in their dismissal of Hawthorn earlier this season.

They've also lost to Carlton at home and just scraped over the line against Melbourne in one of the poorest-standard games of all time.

St Kilda have looked terrific at times, quick and entertaining, and likely improvers.

But the Saints themselves haven't won more than two games on end and last week let slip a huge lead over the previously struggling Fremantle.

The Western Bulldogs had won three impressive victories in a row before being promptly dispatched by Carlton last week. And so on, and so on.

With five fewer games for each club to play, the margins for recovering any lost ground are a lot slimmer.

Conversely, one or two wins can also, as West Coast have shown in the last fortnight, completely change the complexion of a year.

There's never been a greater air of uncertainty about what's going to happen over the remainder of an AFL season.

The certainty is that none of the old rules apply. Including that old favourite rule of thumb of mine.

This story Why the AFL form guide won't help you this season first appeared on The Canberra Times.