Tough luck: Hawthorn's chances in the 2012 grand final were not helped by having one day less to prepare. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
Hawthorn copped what could have been a significant disadvantage in its grand final preparation last year with good grace. The Hawks won't be so polite if they cop the short end of the straw again this September. And nor should they.
While there's still two rounds to go and plenty of different finals permutations on the table, one of the more likely is that in week one of the finals series Melbourne will host all four matches.
That means Etihad Stadium will need to be used for one of them. And it's entirely possible the Hawks, despite finishing on top of the ladder, will be forced to play their first final not at their MCG home but under the roof at Docklands.
If the ladder remains unchanged, that's probably what will happen, with Hawthorn drawn to play Fremantle likely to attract fewer fans than Sydney and Port Adelaide, who would be drawn to play Geelong and Richmond respectively. The AFL won't be discussing finals fixturing until there's a clearer indication of just who the match-ups will be.
But sources have already indicated that the criteria of potential crowd numbers will take precedence over ladder positions. And that's just wrong.
Consider for a moment the possibility of the Hawks finishing four, perhaps five games clear of Richmond on the ladder, yet being forced to play their final not at their preferred venue, but at Etihad, while the Tigers get a game on their home ground.
It wouldn't say much for the integrity of a competition that has already taken a battering on several fronts this year via the Essendon supplements scandal. Indeed, it would throw into doubt the whole point of striving to finish on top.
Hawthorn is well aware of the potential issue. And while the Hawks right now don't want to be seen as getting ahead of themselves, given two challenging assignments against North Melbourne and Sydney to come, they've vowed they wouldn't take such an insult without registering some pretty vocal protests.
"I think any team that finishes first or second on the ladder should expect to be playing a final on their home ground," Hawthorn president Andrew Newbold said on Monday. "Imagine if you said to Fremantle: 'Yes, you finished second, but you're not going to play your final at home because we think we might get more people at the MCG'. Why do we play our guts out to finish in the highest possible position, if they're going to arbitrarily take that advantage away? That's wrong."
And wrong for Hawthorn for a second year in a row. Last year, the Hawks finished on top, a game clear of Sydney, yet because of a fixturing clash with the NRL at ANZ Stadium, and the redevelopment of the SCG, came into the grand final on the back of one less day's preparation than the Swans.
Not wanting to be seen as being distracted from the main task at hand, Hawthorn made a point of not quibbling.
But while the AFL could argue then that its hand was forced by circumstances beyond its control, it can't do so this time. In 2013, consigning a top-placed team to host a final at a venue at which it would prefer not to play would be a clear choice of putting revenue ahead of reward for effort.
Of course, a Collingwood-Essendon final (if the Dons keep their points) or a Richmond-Carlton final (if the Blues make it) are going to draw plenty more fans than would the Hawks against the Dockers. But frankly, so what?
Far more important is to enshrine the advantage that should go with winning more games than your opponents. The top four teams get a double chance. And the top two should (and almost inevitably do) get to play at home.
Hawthorn's record at Etihad Stadium is good, having won its last eight games there. But that's not the point. It's a venue at which it will have played five games this season compared to nine at the MCG. Over the past two seasons, it's seven at Etihad and 25 at the 'G, the ground at which the flag will have to be won.
In an age where fixturing is already the cause of increasingly vocal complaints about revenue taking precedence over fairness, this is a perfect opportunity for the AFL to show that when it comes to the point of the entire football season, it values the latter more.
And if it can't, for once, sacrifice a few extra dollars at the turnstiles to give Hawthorn what its efforts during the season have earned, I reckon the Hawks have every right to be screaming at the top of their lungs about another finals injustice.