"Andrew Gaff - who probably shouldn't be playing AFL football, with all due respect... he finished seventh in their best and fairest."
The last two weeks of the AFL’s home and away season are usually only consequential for teams battling for finals position. But rather uniquely, this season they were also important for teams at the other end of the ladder.
Both West Coast in Round 23 and North Melbourne in Round 24 confounded expectations by winning when the punditry suggested they needed to keep losing to improve their draft hand. All confirming one key lesson: we need to stop talking about tanking.
For many years, this has been a key topic of discussion on talkback radio and TV analysis shows. The chatter and the dissatisfaction with teams not going all out to win every single game eventually had an effect on the AFL schedule and rules around the AFL Draft.
For a long time, winning five games or fewer in a season entitled you to an additional draft pick before the first round. On the surface an active incentive to not win games. To many this was unacceptable, and the exhibition of Carlton and Melbourne playing each other but neither going that hard in the last game of the 2007 home and away was unedifying.
On the other hand, during the decade from 2000-2009, every team played in a preliminary final at least once. Teams climbed up the ladder quickly.
At the end of the decade, the automatic priority pick was abolished. Since 2010, Carlton, Essendon and St Kilda have not made a preliminary final. In addition to two more teams, climbing up the ladder became obviously more difficult.
However, football people are still committed to winning, ably demonstrated by West Coast and North Melbourne recently. Perhaps it’s no accident both are coached by men who have a premiership under their belts. They realise how important a winning culture is. On the other hand, the difference between a pick 1 and a pick 2 remains marginal at best.
Before the pre-finals bye was introduced, under the current final eight system, no team finishing 5th-8th made a Grand Final. Since then, it’s happened two out of five years (there was no bye in 2020, and in 2021 the bye was before the Grand Final).
Again, the solution outweighed the problem, which really wasn’t a problem at all.
For a long time, AFL pundits have displayed a level of immaturity that does not befit the status of the league. The fixture is unfair (so is the NFL’s in the US, but no one complains about it over there), and tanking is a problem that cannot be tolerated.
Those who still think tanking must be stopped at any price look to the US as well as to the NBA where they have a draft lottery. Teams still tank egregiously despite only getting an increased chance of a better pick – and the NBA remains as popular as ever.
In brief, the AFL has more important pressing issues to deal with than worrying about a tanking issue which is rare in regularity and not terribly important either. Elite sportspeople still want to win. In the end, tanking is still in the aid of winning.
It’s not the end of the world when it does happen. So let’s stop talking about it so damn much.