It has now been five seasons since the AFL introduced a pre-finals bye, giving the top eight teams a weekend off before commencing the four week run to Grand Final day.
Each year it has been a talking point for players, coaches, media and supporters – what impact does the bye have, and does it provide an advantage or disadvantage for certain teams?
The bye was introduced for the 2016 AFL season for a number of reasons, with Gillon McLachlan’s official statement reading:
“The AFL has introduced a bye week before the finals so that those clubs playing in September can have the best possible lead-in and preparation for the most important matches of our season,”
While player availability was a clear benefit, there were other reasons as well.
The AFLPA had pushed for a second in-season bye, as had occurred in 2014 when all teams had a bye between Rounds 8 and 10, and Round 18 was played over two weeks to create a second bye.
The end of season bye was seen as a compromise for the second bye.
The 2015 home-and-away season ended with two clubs, North Melbourne and Fremantle, resting more than a third of their team for their Round 23 fixture.
This raised questions of integrity around the end of the regular season, with the fixtured bye allowing all teams to play full squads right to the end of Round 23.
The AFL has long looked to emulate the NFL in many areas, and the pre-finals bye creates space in the fixture to introduce a Wildcard Weekend in the future. This could see teams finishing 7th-10th playing off for the last two places in the final 8.
In the meantime, the weekend off mirrors the NFL’s weekend off between the Conference Championship Games and the Super Bowl.
In examining the impact of the pre-finals Bye, all finals from 2000 onwards must be considered.
In 1994 the AFL introduced the final 8, and from 1994 to 1999, the first week of Finals were fixtured 1st vs 8th, 2nd vs 7th, 3rd vs 6th and 4th vs 5th.
This changed for the 2000 season, where the two Qualifying Finals were 1st vs 4th and 2nd vs 3rd, while the two Elimination Finals were 5th vs 8th and 6th vs 7th.
In the 16 seasons between 2000 and 2015, 28 of the 32 Qualifying Final winners went on to play in the Grand Final (87.5%).
The four teams to make the Grand Final via a Semi-Final were:
Brisbane in 2003 (Premiers, defeated Sydney in the Preliminary Final) Sydney in 2005 (Premiers, defeated St Kilda in the Preliminary Final) West Coast in 2006 (Premiers, defeated Adelaide in the Preliminary Final) Hawthorn in 2015 (Premiers, defeated Fremantle in the Preliminary Final)
Since the pre-finals bye was introduced in 2016, only 4 of the 10 Qualifying Final winners have gone on to make the Grand Final (40%).
In 2016 both Geelong and GWS lost home Preliminary Finals against interstate opposition.
In 2018 Richmond lost a neutral venue Preliminary Final to Collingwood.
In 2019 Collingwood lost a home Preliminary Final to GWS.
And last weekend both Port Adelaide and Brisbane lost home Preliminary Finals against interstate opposition (acknowledging that Geelong have played more games at the Gabba this year than they would in a normal season).
The biggest consideration for teams that win the Qualifying Final is that they only play one game in more than three weeks.
In recent years the breaks have varied between 24 days (Port Adelaide this year) and 28 days (Collingwood in 2019), with most being 25 or 26 days.
Many teams have struggled coming off the mid-season bye to immediately re-gain the intensity required at AFL level.
The week leading into a bye round will generally involve 2-3 days away from the club for players, before a light training “re-entry” run, into a more solid session 7-8 days before the next game.
The same format would then be repeated after winning a Qualifying Final, across the Semi-Final weekend.
From a physical stand point, the bye rounds have differing impacts depending on the age and maturity of the squad.
A younger team such as the Brisbane Lions would have a number of players whose bodies were screaming out for a break, whereas mature teams like Geelong and Richmond have bodies that are accustomed to a 25-26 week campaign.
A highly respected former High Performance Manager I spoke to emphasises the need for training intensity during the bye rounds.
“A common mistake is not doing enough (over the Bye weekend), winding right down and then the arousal levels and contact levels take time to reset on game day."
It is a difficult balance for coaches and High Performance staff to find the right level of intensity, contact and match practice in the bye weeks.
This year Brisbane lost Darcy Gardiner to a knee injury during match practice in training in the week between their Qualifying and Preliminary Final. This is the coaches biggest fear.
The High Performance Manager is an advocate for two byes during the season, to assist with recovery from the physical demands of AFL footy.
“We have the hardest, most physically demanding game in the world. When you look at the energy systems, high speed running, combativeness. Soccer guys run as hard as us and Rugby guys crash in as hard as us but we do both, over the biggest playing field, and over 120 minutes and 22 games."
A common trend across Preliminary Finals since the pre-finals bye was introduced has been slow starts for the team coming off the second week off.
In 2016 Geelong were down 0.5 to 7.2 at quarter time against the Swans at the MCG, while the Western Bulldogs kicked the first two goals in their epic battle with the GWS Giants in Sydney. The first quarter margin of 13 points was the second largest margin of the day.
In 2018 Richmond were jumped early by Collingwood, down 1.3 to 5.2 at quarter time and 10 goals to one by half time.
In 2019 Richmond were down at both quarter time and half time before running over the Cats, while this year the Lions conceded 15 of the first 20 inside 50s against the Cats, with Geelong only able to convert their dominance to the scoreboard after half time.
It is true to say that there have been the opposite results. Adelaide kicked six goals to one against the Cats in 2017 and West Coast led Melbourne 10 goals to zero at half time in 2018.
This is where the balance of rest and recovery against continuity comes in.
In a Preliminary Final, where the best are playing the best, being 5% off for the first 15 minutes can make an enormous difference to how the game is played.
There is certainly merit in a week off late in the season, to give players opportunity to recover and prepare for finals football.
The last five years have shown a clear disadvantage for teams that win the Qualifying Final, compared to the previous 15 years.
If the current pre-finals bye is to remain, clubs must do a better job of maintaining training intensity through the bye weeks, particularly during the Semi-Final bye week.
AFL players, like all professional athletes, are creates of habit and routine.
As little disruption from the routine of “play, recover, review, train, preview, play” as possible is preferable.
Personally, from my experiences over 12 years in the AFL system, I believe the players need two byes in-season.
I am an advocate for the 2014 model of six games per round from Round 8 to 10, then a split round over two weekends at Round 18, with no pre-finals bye.
I believe this provides the best balance of physical recovery, “war of attrition” of the long season, and not disrupting teams that win the Qualifying Final with one game in 25 days.