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HAWTHORN remains flag favourite, yet is outside the eight after St Kilda's upset win over Carlton concluded a tumultuous seventh round. Whereas the field is supposed to be narrowed at this stage, results only widened it further.

As Andrew Demetriou observed, no team stands apart. This season of uncertainty is welcomed by the AFL chief, who had thought Carlton ideally placed. ''I was really liking Carlton,'' said Demetriou, who no longer has a premiership fancy. ''I don't know,'' he said when asked for his favourite.

Demetriou said there had not been a season like it under his watch. Many observers harked back to 1997, when the top team won 15 games and 13 teams won 10 or more, as the last time there appeared to be such an open field. Adelaide won the flag from fourth.

The other statistically ''open'' flag was 1993, in a ladder so compacted that the top side and premier, Essendon, won 13½ of 20 games, only one game and a draw clear of Geelong, in ninth place.

''We were talking about it this morning,'' said Demetriou. ''We haven't any teams standing out so far for the flag. There's maybe 12-13 teams that could make the eight. It's very even.

''It's the uncertainty of who's going to win that is a really good thing for the competition … That's the best outcome we could have asked for.''

Four teams - Collingwood, Carlton, Hawthorn and Geelong - have taken turns at flavour-of-the-week favouritism. West Coast had been a clear-cut second; now Essendon and Adelaide are surging, with six wins each, and have claims. Sydney, unbeaten after five rounds and briefly in vogue, suddenly doesn't have the Goodes. The unfashionable Saints are back in the eight.

Demetriou said to predict that last year's premier Geelong and Hawthorn, would both be outside the eight at round seven ''you would have to say you were Nostradamus''.

Hawthorn's favouritism ($4), according to TAB Sportsbet's Adam Hamilton, is based on weight of money, more than an objective assessment of its chances. Carlton is second ($5.50) for largely the same reason. ''Hawthorn is easily best backed, then Carlton,'' he said.

Collingwood and the Eagles ($7 each) are next in line to the precarious betting throne, followed by Geelong and Essendon ($9). ''By the halfway mark of the season, any of five or six teams could be favourite for the flag,'' Hamilton said.

Demetriou's own pre-season prediction had Essendon as a major

mover, with the AFL head praising the Bombers' coaching tandem as instrumental in their rise.

Demetriou also praised Richmond for backing coach Damien Hardwick, saying the improvement of the long dormant Tigers was ''fantastic for the competition''.

''They have a terrific supporter group who have been very patient. You can see the excitement,'' he said.

But the AFL wants other stragglers to show more. ''You'd like to see something happen for Port, Brisbane and Melbourne,'' said Demetriou, calling Melbourne's struggles ''the surprise packet''.

While the Lions' situation appears dire, he expressed optimism. ''I don't think Brisbane is very far off being a very competitive football team.''

Premierships have never been easy to win and Demetriou believes ''it's going to be harder than it's ever been to win the flag now''. This was not simply caused by the expansion to 18 teams, but because ''it's just a really competitive industry''.

The expansion teams were always expected to struggle this year and their issues are seen in that context by the league, which says it could not be happier with Kevin Sheedy's impact at Greater Western Sydney, though Demetriou said the decision on whether Sheedy continued was a decision for the club's board. ''Kevin has done everything we asked him to do,'' he said.

Other than the four or five teams in the basement, clubs feel they have a crack at finals, and a fair portion will fancy that, given the usual caveats of injuries and luck, they could be a contender. After the dominance of Geelong and Hawthorn, then Geelong and St Kilda, and Collingwood and Geelong, the AFL has the competition it always wanted.