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The AFL's pre-finals bye compromises the best teams and needs to go

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SUNDAY's CARLTON-COLLINGWOOD clash is one of the biggest home-and-away games the AFL era has seen.

Arguably the game's greatest rivalry is on show again for stakes as high as the Blues and Pies have contested since they met in a qualifying final 34 years ago, with Collingwood attempting to win a top four spot, and Carlton to secure a finals berth for the first time since 2013.

It's the second-last of 198 home-and-away games as the 2022 season which has built for five months moves towards its climax. It will be huge. And then?

Well, nothing ... for nearly two weeks, anyway. Thanks to the completely unnecessary and momentum-killing pre-finals bye, which after becoming the equally annoying pre-Grand Final bye last year, has for some inexplicable reason returned.

Even if the AFL schedule a Thursday night final to kick off this year's September campaign, there will have been a costly 11-day gap between games, neutralising what feverish anticipation may have been building among a supporter base increasingly perplexed by much of the league's decision-making.

It's a passion killer the result of (if you need reminding) the determination to crack a walnut with a sledgehammer. And it's one which, in my view, has left the game with a much more worrying issue even than making us wait far too long for the finals.

The walnut was Ross Lyon's Fremantle a couple of times and Brad Scott's North Melbourne once over the 2013-15 period resting up to half a senior team for the final round with their final ladder spots already locked in and finals looming the following week.

It's the sort of scenario with which the round ball game in Europe and its frantic schedule deals on a weekly basis without batting an eyelid.

But fears about the impact on betting and potential accompanying legal action spooked the AFL so much it decided to slot a week's break in the schedule between Round 23 and the first week of finals in order to give teams a break and prevent coaches pulling players out of effectively dead rubbers.

What it foolishly also didn't account for was the extent to which that extra week's rest changed the entire dynamic of the top eight right from the word go in 2016, the first year of the bye.

That, of course, was when the Western Bulldogs came from seventh to win four finals in a row on their way to the flag. The first of those was in Perth against West Coast, a game in which the Dogs, thanks to the extra recovery time, regained a clutch of key senior players who had been out injured, almost all of whom wouldn't have come up without the extra week.

Dogs fans get understandably annoyed by the suggestion the pre-finals bye "gifted" them a flag. Of course they still had to win another three knockout finals. They had also finished seventh with a record 15 wins, often enough to give teams a top four sport. They were worthy premiers.

My beef has always been far more with the penalty the extra week of ends up imposing on teams who finish in the top four then win their qualifying finals. It means that by the time they play in their preliminary finals, they have played just one game of football in around 27 days after having played every six or seven days for nearly half a year.

Has that change really had that much impact? Well, consider the following numbers.

Prior to the introduction of the pre-finals bye in 2016, 17 of the previous 18 preliminary finals (94%) from 2007-15 had been won by a team which had won its qualifying final, had a week off, then took on a more-fatigued opponent which had been playing every week for months.

In the five years of the pre-finals bye from 2016-20 (remember last year it shifted to pre-Grand Final) we had 10 preliminary finals. The record of qualifying final winners in them was 4-6. That winning strike rate fell from 94% to just 40.

That is a massive, unarguable shift. It underlines just how costly really is the interruption to momentum, hardly surprising when teams are going from playing every week to one game in 27-odd days.

Indeed, for Collingwood in 2019, it was just one game in 29 days, nearly a full month. Was it really any wonder the Pies finally "woke up" in the preliminary final they lost by a kick to GWS only at three-quarter time?

Just as Geelong was caught on the hop in the 2016 preliminary final when it conceded seven goals to nothing against Sydney, or Richmond in that famous preliminary final upset at the hands of Collingwood in 2018.

And who could seriously argue that two years ago, two relative finals "newbies" in Port Adelaide and Brisbane, weren't disadvantaged by their lack of routine against two far more experienced opponents in Richmond and Geelong when the Power and Lions both lost their prelims after winning the qualifying final?

This year, with Richmond lurking in the bottom half of the eight, there would have been as good a chance as we've seen of a battle-hardened, experienced team winning every week on its way to a flag without a break, let alone now with the aid of one.

Yes, the top eight this year is as even as it's ever been. But doesn't that just add to the argument that a team good enough to best that opposition and finish top four deserves any advantage it gets?

If teams who put in all that sweat and toil to finish top four, then win their first final, end up effectively penalised for their success, as that miserable 40% figure of qualifying final winners in preliminary finals under the pre-finals bye arrangement strongly indicates, what's the point of the effort?

I've said repeatedly the pre-finals bye was a bad idea. I'm struggling to comprehend any rationale for going back to it again in 2022. I don't think it's overly dramatic to suggest it compromises the credentials of the eventual premier.

And if we see another two qualifying final winners shot down on preliminary final day this season, hopefully more people will realise the extent to which we risk screwing up the very thing an entire football season is about.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.