Sydney's Matt Spangher and Hawthorn's Ryan Schoenmakers battle it out in last year's finals. This season the teams have contrasting draws. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
HAWTHORN can't afford to lose today. Sydney can. That doesn't mean the Swans won't be as desperate as the Hawks. It's just that in the premiership race, Hawthorn is among the backmarkers and is already behind, while Sydney was given a two-metre start over today's opponent.
To be on level terms or better on the final home-and-away ladder, the Hawks will need to be as much as two games superior to the Swans.
Not because Luke Hodge has been injured, or their premier ruckman Max Bailey is gone for half a season - Shane Mumford is hurt, too, and Gary Rohan's season ended when Lindsay Thomas slid under him. Sydney hasn't fared any better on the injury front.
No, the difference lies in each team's fixture. This year, more than ever, the premiership is more akin to the Melbourne Cup than the set weights of a Victoria Derby. Some teams are carrying more weight.
Hawthorn is 2-2, Sydney 4-0. Some would contend that the Swans have been better than the Hawks to date. More likely, they've been the beneficiaries of a kinder schedule.
The Hawks have already faced Collingwood, Geelong and West Coast in Perth (plus Adelaide); the Swans have played Greater Western Sydney and Port Adelaide (away), with their hardest assignments against Fremantle and North on home soil at the SCG.
While the Hawks will soon have some easier games and Sydney tougher ones, the handicapper has put more weight on the brown and gold.
The Hawks play the (other three) top-four teams from last year twice, Sydney gets only Hawthorn and Geelong. More crucially, the Swans have been fixed to play GWS twice.
That's a gift of an extra win, plus percentage. They also have the bottoming-out Bulldogs twice, while the Hawks' softest double-up is an improved Port Adelaide.
In 2012, the arrangement euphemistically known as the AFL ''draw'' (the league calls it ''the fixture'') threatens to influence the outcome of the premiership. The fixture has reached a tipping point, in which the cocktail of commercial considerations, contractual requirements and expansion have skewed the competition.
The finals system rewards the top four sides and, for the most part, the best four sides tend to qualify highest.
Unfortunately, this year offers the very real possibility that the fourth-placed team might be the fifth or sixth best, and that one of the best could end up fifth, giving it little hope of winning the flag. The AFL doesn't agree - it reckons the best four teams invariably fill those slots. One can only hope the league is correct and that this column's fears are unfounded.
As a historical rule, the fixture hasn't exerted undue influence on the premiership. The best teams tend to rise above taxing schedules and make the top four.
Injuries have had a far greater bearing than who and where teams play. Morever, the presence of outstanding teams - from Essendon in 2000, to the Brisbane Lions from 2001-2003 and more recently Geelong and Collingwood - have protected the AFL from a draw-driven final outcome.
The whims of the draw become relevant when a) the top six or seven teams are close and b) there's a major disparity in who plays who.
This year, due in part to the struggling new teams, we may well see a blanket finish from 1-6 or 2-7 on the ladder in which the handicapper's handiwork is decisive.
At this stage, there isn't a team that stands apart. West Coast and Carlton could prove outstanding. Alternatively, we could be headed for a year like 1997, when the flag was up for grabs between five or six teams.
When clubs talk about a helpful or poor draw, they could be referring to either ''football'' or the box office. Like Hawthorn, Collingwood has a nasty footy draw (top four plus Carlton and Essendon twice) that is designed to make money for it, other teams and the broadcasters.
North has a soft footy draw - two games each against the new teams and the Dogs - that won't be overly lucrative, though Tassie helps.
Essendon has a far harder draw than North, which finished one spot beneath it last year, or the Saints, who were one spot higher.
To a degree, Collingwood, Essendon and increasingly Hawthorn - suddenly drawn to play the Cats twice a year - are hoist on their own blockbuster petard.
Carlton has been handed a finger-licking fixture that is both footy-friendly - it gets only Collingwood twice from the top four - and financially helpful, with Richmond added to the annual blockbuster circuit.
The AFL saw to it that the top five teams from last year didn't play GWS or Gold Coast twice. Sydney was sixth and will be required to play the Giants twice every year, on the same principle that sees Perth derbies, showdowns and the Carlton-Collingwood-Essendon merry-go-round of blockbusters.
Hawthorn president Andrew Newbold, who belongs firmly to the ''if we're good enough, it won't matter'' school, has suggested that the advantage conferred on teams that play the expansion clubs twice should be removed next year. The new teams have highlighted the extent of fixturing inequality.
What this column would like to see is for the fixture's fixers to give more emphasis to a level football field, at the slight expense of marketing.
The very notion that the draw should be handicapped is questionable enough.
The draft and salary cap ought to equalise, not the fixture.
If showdowns and derbies can't be touched and contracts must be honoured, then is it necessary for Melbourne's big three to always play one another twice every year? Surely, three out of four would suffice.
Similarly, do the Swans really have to play GWS twice in the new team's infancy?
To ensure fairness, the fixture should be a little less fixed.