The Weekend Preview is a blog that aims to provide a different angle on the narrative of an upcoming sporting event.

AFL Round 1: Carlton vs. Richmond

AFL Round 1: Carlton vs. Richmond

Thursday Night, 23rd March 2017 at the MCG

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Welcome to the 2017 AFL premiership season – Carlton versus Richmond. Although this season opening fixture often fails to live up to expectation (even Darryl Braithwaite failed to turn up with actual horses last year for the pre-match entertainment), the importance of the fixture for both teams is more than the four points on offer, in fact, it can be season defining.

Round 1 has become synonymous with this fixture (if you can ignore the 2014 aberration where the game was pushed back to Round 2 due to the unavailability of the MCG), yet it was only introduced in 2007 and with the Thursday Night time slot since 2008. And in only a decade the fixture has become such a critical game for both teams, with a loss or poor performance having reverberations deep into the season, just ask Terry Wallace or Mick Malthouse. In fact, in the 10 years of the fixture, neither team has made the top 8 at the end of the home and away season after losing this game (Carlton in 2013 finished 9th, but played finals after Essendon were kicked out due to their “experimental, inappropriate, and inadequately vetted and controlled” supplements program [1]).

Despite the importance of the match result, the narrative leading into this game is often dominated by individuals. Whether it be the unveiling of the big recruits (Chris Judd, Ben Cousins) or a first look at top draft picks (Bryce Gibbs, Dustin Martin, Jacob Weitering), or the heat on a talented but wayward full forward (Brendan Fevola urinating in public, remember that?). This year is no different, how will Prestia and Caddy fit in? Will the Carlton fans be welcoming to Gibbs despite wanting out in the trade period? Is this the last season with Dusty in Yellow and Black?

Of all the historic narratives, the Chris Judd homecoming was particularly fascinating, for two reasons. The first was the manner in which he was able to choose his destiny – he interviewed the clubs when he chose to leave Perth and the West Coast Eagles and move back to Melbourne. A form of Free Agency before there was Free Agency. And the second was the level of expectation Judd needed to carry on his shoulders to lead Carlton forward into an era of success. In the modern game is it possible that one player can make such a difference? Parallels to Ron Barassi crossing over to Carlton there may be, but this isn’t the 1960’s anymore. So in Round 1 2008, opening night of the season, Carlton versus Richmond, the AFL world was transfixed on Chris Judd in a Blues jumper. In is own words, Judd reflects on this night [2]:

I was bloody excited, and nervous as I hadn’t played a full AFL game for a while. It was Easter Thursday night at the MCG, the first game of the new AFL season, the raising of the curtain. The crowd was more than 72,000. We were up against the Tigers. This was what I’d come home for, to play for a big Melbourne club in a blockbuster on the MCG. As a younger man, I might have taken that opportunity for granted, but no longer. The interruptions and frustrations of the previous season had renewed my appreciation for the game I played and the stage I was on. I was jumping out of my skin. 

The match didn’t go so well. We led at half-time, but the Tigers overran us. I had two touches in the first few seconds, and 22 for the night, but I didn’t play a great game. Lack of match fitness told. And it struck me for the first time how little I knew about my teammates as footballers. When you play with a group of blokes week in-week out for years, you grow to know them intimately as players. You know how they move, which way they turn and when, their peculiarities. If it is true that you play your best football when your mind is blank – and I think it is – then this unthinking familiarity with your teammates is vital. You don’t have to try to figure out what they might do next; your mind subconsciously reads the cues, and the play links together seamlessly. Because I’d barely played a practice match, the Carlton boys effectively were strangers to me in a football sense.

So the game was a disappointment for Judd, and even for the greatest players their natural talent does not overcome the need for a bedding in period with your new teammates. Although admittedly the lack of a pre-season didn’t help him. There are obviously exceptions, eventual 2016 Brownlow Medalist Patrick Dangerfield’s incredible debut performance in Round 1 last year as the Cats overcame the reigning premiers in Hawthorn, the most obvious example. But surely what applies to superstars such as Judd, applies to the general player. The first gamer or even the fringe player coming in and out of the side needs time to adjust into his role in the team.

Taking this a step further for Carlton and Richmond, two teams that have been in general mediocre over the past decade and with a lack of depth in talent on their list, could the level of experience within either team be the greatest indicator of success in a match between these two teams? This is probably particularly true in Round 1 of a season where perhaps the intended coaching game plan has not yet been mastered. As a crude estimation of this level of experience, Table-1 below presents the median number of games played by both teams leading into this Round 1 fixture [3][4]. The median was chosen over the average so as not to be overly swayed by a handful of very experienced players and for it to be representative of the mid-level players (in terms of experience) within the respective playing groups. For comparison, Table-1 also presents the result of each fixture. Figure-1 presents graphically the statistics presented in Table-1.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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  Table-1: Carlton vs. Richmond Match Statistics: Opening Fixture 2007-2016

Table-1: Carlton vs. Richmond Match Statistics: Opening Fixture 2007-2016

   
  
 
  
    
  
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  Figure-1: Carlton vs. Richmond: Median Number of Games and Match Score Differential (Opening Fixture 2007-2016)

Figure-1: Carlton vs. Richmond: Median Number of Games and Match Score Differential (Opening Fixture 2007-2016)

As is evident above, the median number of games played per team has been an excellent indicator as to who will win this fixture for the past 7 seasons. The notable exceptions came in 2007 and 2009 when Richmond despite all their experience were comfortably beaten by Carlton, in fact smashed by 83 points in 2009. This proved to be the beginning of the end for Terry Wallace, with pressure and scrutiny building week on week he was gone by mid-season. Perhaps, Matthew Richardson described it best when in late 2009 he reflected on the club’s handling of that period and the eventual departure of Wallace [5]:

There was pressure on even before the end of last season, people were talking then. There were obviously huge expectations this year, everyone talking finals. Terry had said it, and the club had said if we didn’t make finals then there probably wouldn’t be a contract at the end of that year.

So the media from Round 1 built up every single week. Every time you turned up for training there were cameras there. There was another article every two days after every game and when it got to the point where finals were totally out of the question, I think it was best for Terry and for the footy club.

2009 proved also to be the end of the road for Matthew Richardson, indeed it signaled the end of an era for the Tigers, with players such as Joel Bowden and Nathan Brown also joining Richo in retirement. Are there parallels between the Terry Wallace of 2009 and the Damien Hardwick of 2017? Brendan Gale and the board do appear very supportive, but I probably wouldn’t want to be in Hardwick’s shoes if the Tigers were to suffer a few early round losses.

And the 2007 anomaly? Well Richmond would go on to win the wooden spoon that year. In some cases experience doesn’t count for much.

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Post Match Comments:

Final Score: Carlton 14.5.89, Richmond 20.12.132
Median Level of Experience: Carlton 71 games, Richmond 88 games

So the comfortable 43 point victory for the Tigers meant that for 8 consecutive years the winner of the match has been the team with the higher median number of games played. For both teams the median number of games played was a big jump on last year. Interestingly for Richmond, it was their highest value for this fixture over the decade. A promising sign of things to come for Richmond in 2017? Do they now have the requisite amount of mid-level experience to bounce back up the ladder? As for the Blues, based on the precedent from losing this game, it looks like no Finals appearance for them again this year.

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[1] In the words of the then AFL Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick in a statement following the Essendon FC Hearing, 27th August 2013. http://www.afl.com.au/news/2013-08-27/statement-from-afl-chairman-mike-fitzpatrick

[2] Judd, C. (2015). “Inside: The Autobiography”. Allen & Unwin, NSW, Australia.

[3] Median Number of Games: To determine the median number of games played for each team, order all 22 players by number of games played prior to the fixture from most experienced to least experienced. The median number of games would then be the average of the 11th and 12th players in the ordered list.

[4] Data sourced from AFL Tables website: http://afltables.com/afl/afl_index.html

[5] Sheahan, M. (2013), “Open Mike”, Excerpt of Interview with Matthew Richardson. The Slattery Media Group, Victoria, Australia.

AFL Round 2: Bulldogs vs. Sydney

AFL Round 2: Bulldogs vs. Sydney