AFL: Why it's too early to discount these experienced sides

Geelong's 2020 side looks as good as any the Cats have had in recent years. Picture: MATT ROBERTS/GETTY IMAGES
Geelong's 2020 side looks as good as any the Cats have had in recent years. Picture: MATT ROBERTS/GETTY IMAGES

Different varieties of team rankings often produce top-to-bottom standings which look pretty similar to each other.

There's a couple of important sets, however, which right now present a striking contrast. They are the official AFL ladder compared to the AFL premiership odds. Some upstarts continue to reside at or near the top of the ladder. Port Adelaide leads the way. Brisbane is second. St Kilda is fifth.

Two of those three sides didn't reach the final eight last year, and the other was making its first appearance in a finals campaign for 10 years.

Current premiership betting, meanwhile, paints a far more predictable picture. West Coast is a narrow favourite from Richmond, Geelong only a little further back in third. Understandable, too, given form and the fact the Tigers and Eagles have won the last two flags, while the Cats have reached a preliminary final two of the past three seasons.

Does experience and consistency count for what it used to, though, when it comes to the business of winning premierships or at least reaching a grand final?

Recent history has seen enough breaking of that mould. In 2016, the Western Bulldogs managed to not only win their first flag for 62 years, but do so after having finished the regular season seventh on the ladder - the lowest from which the pennant has ever been won.

The next year, Richmond broke a 37-year drought, most of its triumphant 22 having only experienced a handful of losing elimination finals prior to a finals campaign in which they emphatically swept aside three opponents by 51, 36 and 48 points. Of course, the bookmakers can't be expected to frame their flag futures markets on mere hunches. But there's some cautionary tales there, not to mention the fact that whoever ends up winning the 2020 premiership will have done so in extraordinary circumstances.

Right now, I still most fancy a grand final featuring Richmond and West Coast. But two sides have me at best guarded about that prospect - namely Geelong and Greater Western Sydney, whose recent histories, when it comes to consistency, are in some ways a complete contrast.

You've got to give the Cats credit for continuing to front up season after season despite not having gone all the way, or even reached a grand final, since 2011. Four times since then they've come unstuck only in a preliminary final, and only once in eight seasons have missed finals altogether. In 2013, they were just a kick away from another grand final. Last year, they led the eventual premier by 21 points at half-time of the same game.

In 2016, they went into another preliminary final against Sydney an overwhelming favourite, were asleep at the start and effectively out of the contest by quarter-time after conceding seven goals to nil.

That's all it can take to blow an otherwise faultless season, a lesson Geelong had already learned in the harshest possible fashion back in 2008 when they dropped just one game of 24 before famously losing the 25th to underdog Hawthorn.

Geelong's capacity to keep buttering up week in, week out is actually unmatched over the entire post-1990 AFL era - the Cats having won more games than any other club.

Their 2020 lineup looks as strong, if not stronger, than any of their recent models, and their form in recent 10-goal demolitions of St Kilda and Port Adelaide ominous indeed. And yet even this season, they have still exhibited a tendency to fall asleep on the job, demonstrated in a home loss to Carlton and a narrow scrape against a Melbourne in far worse shape than the Demons are now.

Don't get me wrong. I think Geelong is every chance of securing another flag. But if I was asked to rank my three sides most likely to deliver the requisite three finals-winning performances it will take to do so, I'd still have them behind Richmond and West Coast.

So what's the relevance of GWS to this discussion? That the Giants are in performance terms almost Geelong's antithesis. Yet, unlike the Cats, they've at least been on the grand final stage of late. Right now, after a miserable drubbing at the hands of lowly Sydney, 6-5 and outside the top eight in ninth spot, GWS is at $23 to win the 2020 premiership, well behind six other rivals.

The Giants' best is still impressive. But there's less evenness about them these days, a greater reliance upon the injured Toby Greene, and a greater tendency to have an off day which results in shockers like against the Swans, or at best a last-gasp win over the likes of Essendon. People expect more of a grand finalist from last year. But are they at the same time forgetting that this was a team which, but for three weeks in a row last September when it mattered, hardly set the world on fire then, either?

Not only did GWS go into last year's finals placed sixth, but a week out from the most important month of the season had been belted for a second game on end, both times goalless for an entire half in the process.

The Giants' transformation from that abject low to the team which ran out on to the MCG for a grand final was remarkable, but proof you don't have to be great for six months to earn a shot at the title.

And yet another reminder that while we base our opinions on teams' prospects over a long journey, provided they land one of the qualifying spots the little trip at the end is the only one which matters. On that basis, while few would give GWS any sort of flag chance at the moment, it's worth keeping in mind how quickly things can change.

That should provide some encouragement. And Geelong? Well, surely by now the Cats don't need any more reminding that while current form is good for bragging rights, superlative form sustained for at least three weeks this October is all that will really matter.