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Drawn together

Swan Rhyce Shaw with the 2012 cup.

Swan Rhyce Shaw with the 2012 cup. Photo: Paul Rovere

FOOTBALL debates tend to be a bit like fashion, the same subjects are flavour of the month for a while then slip from public consciousness, only to be revived down the track with some minor adjustments.

The uneven AFL draw is a good example. It was a hot topic when the competition went from 12 teams to 16 over the space of a 10-season period between 1986-95, then seemed to go the way flares and platform heels did in the 1980s, save for the odd flurry of retro cool.

That's all changed again since 16 became 18 with the admission over the past two years of Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney, the entry of two (for now) relative easybeats upping the ante on who each club plays twice in the five return bouts they get in a 22-game season.

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This year, it was Adelaide and North Melbourne who received the largesse of playing the Suns and Giants twice each, the fact both clubs performed well and made the final eight turning up the volume on the ''unfair'' cries.

Obviously, we're never going to have a 34-game season, so the popular refrain now, pumped up again by Richmond president Gary March during the week, is a reduction to 17 games with perhaps an extended finals series, and breaks for marquee games such as the old state-of-origin format.

It sounds logical enough from a ''wear-and-tear'' perspective, though the shortfall in revenue both from the gate and in terms of a broadcasting rights deal that guarantees a lot more football than that is just as obvious a hurdle.

But does an uneven draw actually have as big an impact on how the AFL season pans out, as many critics would have us believe? I'm far from convinced.

Let's start with a look at the 2012 fixture based on 17 games, removing all those rematches in the second half of the season and adjusting wins, losses and percentage accordingly. How far would Adelaide and North, those clubs with supposedly the biggest free kicks, have come back to the field? Not that much, as it turns out.

The Crows finished the regular season second with 17 wins, five losses, and a percentage of 132. Take away their return clashes with Port Adelaide, Geelong, Fremantle and those two ''gimmes'' against the Suns and Giants, and they still would have finished fourth with a 13-4 record and a percentage of 122.

North wound up eighth this season with a 14-8 record and a percentage of 112. Remove the Roos' second games against West Coast, the Bulldogs, Essendon and the Suns and Giants, and it becomes 10-7 and a percentage of 108.7, still good enough to finish in exactly the same position.

The biggest beneficiaries of a 17-game 2012 on this basis would in fact have been Collingwood, which on an adjusted ladder, would have finished one game clear on top instead of fourth, and the Bombers, for whom the season did indeed run six or seven weeks too long. Essendon would have finished seventh instead of 11th, avoiding return losses against North, Carlton, Richmond and Collingwood.

Of course, playing five teams twice and a dozen once isn't ideal, but 22 games are still enough clearly to sort the wheat from the chaff. And as long and draining as the season is, was anyone complaining about the standard of one of the greatest grand finals we've seen, or a ripping preliminary final which preceded it?

If Adelaide was in the eight under false pretences, would it really have been able to finish within a kick of a grand final berth, running a warm flag favourite in Hawthorn to the last seconds on preliminary final night? And were the September claims of the likes of also-rans St Kilda, Carlton, Essendon and Richmond really any stronger than North's?

Just by the by, does every team playing each other only once guarantee complete evenness anyway? For instance, some Victorian teams are still going to have to travel to Perth twice in a season while others go just once. That might even out over a few seasons, but you can argue exactly the same with the current format.

And while the AFL's various tweaks to rules have been over-the-top at times, its adjustments to the fixture continue to make it that little bit closer to as fair as is possible in a 22-game season.

Next year, for example, only two absolute strugglers from season 2012, Melbourne and Port Adelaide, play both Gold Coast and GWS twice. And in 2013 as a rule, so will the top teams of this year be playing the bottom teams less and each other more.

Then there's the season that starts in September. Even those who simply can't abide the concept of 18 teams into a 22-game season, fearing the prospect of an unworthy premier, would have to admit the current final eight system is a more than effective safeguard against the luck of the draw playing a big part in a flag win.

Since the revamp in 2000, we've had 26 preliminary finals contested by 52 teams, 50 of whom had finished the regular season in the top four. Not one of them, nor for that matter the two exceptions, could have been called anything but worthy by the time they got there.

We've had some of the best grand finals of our generation in the past decade, contested by not only the best-qualified, but also the most capable teams of each particular year. And none have needed to get there via the free kick of an easy draw that seems to be inspiring so much concern.

The sort of hand-wringing that's pretty fashionable right now - until, of course, some other alleged crisis rears its head again.

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