Is Consistency Required To Win The AFL Flag?

Is Consistency Required To Win The AFL Flag?

Each year the AFL world repeats the cliché of the need to show up every week. Coaches state it after a game, players repeat it in their day to day training and the media loves to criticise clubs if they ‘fail to show up’. What we don’t ever hear asked though is if being consistent is actually required to win the premiership.

Unlike some other sporting competitions around the world, the AFL premiership is decided entirely on the back of a top 8 finals series. This means the team that wins the flag can have in theory lost more games than they won throughout the season, provided they still finish 8th or higher. Such a system rewards the best team on specific days, not necessarily those who can win any time of the year.

Is Consistency Required To Win The AFL Flag?

The Western Bulldogs’ incredible run from 7th place can be seen to be the perfect example of this system in action, and it was the first time any club had won the flag from outside the top 4. The Bulldogs were far from the most consistent side all year but when September arrived they played 4 of their best games in a row and were the best team when it mattered.

The Bulldogs clearly had the potential to beat any side all year but were performing less consistently than the other top sides for some unknown reason. In an effort to quantify the difference and significance of this inconsistency a ranking of each team’s performance has been constructed and can be seen below.

This has been done by observing each team’s losses and judging how good the sides that beat them were based on the number of games that team won throughout the season. This shows which teams have consistently performed at a high level and hence required a strong side to beat them or whether a weak team got them on a particularly bad day.

The table below has been ordered by the average wins of the teams that beat each side. The top 8 have been highlighted for reference of the top teams.

Average Wins of Opposition Median Wins of Opposition Team
15.80 16.5 North Melbourne
15.67 16.5 Adelaide
15.20 16 Hawthorn
15.17 16.5 West Coast
14.40 16 Sydney
14.17 16 GWS
14.00 15.5 Richmond
13.92 16 Port Adelaide
13.70 15.5 St Kilda
13.57 16 Western Bulldogs
13.00 13.5 Melbourne
12.89 15.5 Fremantle
12.69 12 Collingwood
12.37 12 Brisbane Lions
12.20 12 Geelong
12.19 13.5 Gold Coast
11.93 12 Carlton
11.68 12 Essendon


The first thing to take from this consistency ranking that the top 8 all lost predominantly to the top sides of the competition. It also reflects well on Richmond that they averaged losses to teams with 14 wins despite losing 14 games, meaning they were consistently better than bottom teams but reliably worse than top sides. The same can be said about North Melbourne but with a higher standard level of play.

The Bulldogs and Geelong stand out as top sides who dropped games to lower teams. The Bulldogs’ median column of 16 shows that while they slumped badly, most of the time their losses came to quality opposition. They did however drop games to much worse sides than them as reflected in their low average.

This was not the case for Geelong however. Geelong’s losses came to teams further down the ladder and not so much to the top sides (only 2 of their 5 losses were to top 8 teams). They were inconsistent and yet managed to end the season 2nd on the ladder and make it to a preliminary final. Surely this would not happen if consistency was as big a deal as we are told?

Well not quite. If Geelong’s normal standard of play wasn’t good enough to beat other top sides then dropping those games could have had heavy consequences. Geelong’s results actually speak for how good the team was against top 8 sides and not just how badly they performed in some games.

What we can take from this is that how badly you play on your bad days doesn’t actually matter as long as your normal standard is good enough. The entire Geelong team could have taken the week off for each of the 3 games they lost to bottom 10 sides in 2016 and it would have at worst harmed their percentage.

So in a year where it seems that every team is capable of winning on their day, sides should be striving to improve their potential as much as their consistency. The ladder doesn’t care who your wins (or losses) were against or how you got them, all that matters is how many you end up with. After all despite what coaches may say there’s no need to be consistent to make finals and once you’re there it’s a whole new ballgame.

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