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Magpies draw short straw

For the second year in a row, Collingwood has ended up with the toughest schedule of all AFL teams – even tougher than it appeared when the 2013 fixture was released.

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Of all the variables in AFL football, the fixture for each season seems to cause as much angst and debate as any.

Indeed, there can barely be a person associated with the game in a professional sense who hasn't at some stage received correspondence or at least an ear-bashing from someone with a supposedly foolproof scheme for making the draw fairer.

Some make sense and are easy enough to understand. Others require little short of a PhD in mathematics just to read, let alone comprehend. But all fail to take on board one certainty: that one AFL season will be very different to the next.

And it's that element of chance that keeps an uneven draw – in which 18 teams play a dozen opponents once and only five twice – at least workable. To prove it, we bring you the following.

We thought this week, with the finals looming, would be as good a time as any to assess the 2013 fixture compared with when it was released last October.

Do so and what becomes apparent is that as much as the AFL attempts to seed teams according to their abilities, no one can predict just how form will fluctuate from one season to the next.


Which means that, even in a year such as 2013, in which there seems to be fewer surprise packets at the top end of the ladder, there's plenty of clubs that, in a football sense, would now be viewing the hand they were dealt nine months ago quite differently.

Fremantle, in particular, still very much in the race for the top four, wouldn't have been nearly as happy then as it must be now. The Dockers were drawn to play West Coast, Richmond, Adelaide, Melbourne and St Kilda twice. Among that group are two 2012 finalists and the ninth-placed Saints.

It's the improved Richmond that has ended up causing them the most trouble. Fremantle has already dispensed of 2012 finalists the Eagles and Crows twice each, and as it battles it out with Essendon and Sydney for a top-four berth, is still to have a second crack at the lowly Demons and Saints.

In contrast, Greater Western Sydney, aiming to finally break the ice against Melbourne on Saturday, has in hindsight more excuses for its winless season than it would have been able to muster when the draw came out.

Playing Port Adelaide, Sydney, Essendon, Melbourne and Gold Coast twice wouldn't have seemed that bad a deal, just one 2012 finalist (albeit the premier) among them. That, of course, didn't allow for the Power's sizeable improvement, ditto for Essendon and the Suns.

Our system for ranking each club's draw last year took into account not only what sides were played twice, but allocating points for the number of road trips, games in home state against an interstate team, and numbers of consecutive six-day breaks, which are regarded by clubs as a big factor.

The updated version adjusts only the “play twice” category (determined by simply adding the reversed ladder positions of those five opponents, the lower the score the better) using positions to the end of round 18.

If you accepted the premise that the best-performed teams getting the tougher draws was fair enough, the fixture for this year was a pretty decent effort, with seven of the 2012 top eight ending up with the seven hardest draws.

The exception was Adelaide, which despite finishing only a kick away from a grand final, still received a fixture we rated the seventh easiest. Come August, it's still mid-table. So while the Crows can look at the departure of Kurt Tippett and early-season loss of Taylor Walker as key elements of their 2013 demise, they certainly can't blame their draw.

The Western Bulldogs are behind only Fremantle in terms of teams whose draw has turned out much more favourable than first appeared, when two games against Adelaide and West Coast seemed more than likely to produce a 0-4 score line.

The Dogs squared the ledger with the Eagles last Sunday, and in their improved form would have to be a reasonable chance to do so against the Crows as well at Etihad Stadium in a fortnight.

But in fairness to Brendan McCartney's side, it has also scored a win over a likely alternative finalist to the Crows and Eagles in Port Adelaide, and fixed up the Brisbane Lions in round one when they had just come off a pre-season competition win.

Carlton's season, meanwhile, looks a little better in retrospect than it might have in October if you had told fans the Blues would be 9-8 and a game outside the eight at this stage.

Playing Richmond and Port Adelaide twice then would have appealed. Not so much as it has transpired, with the second meeting with each in the final three rounds likely to determine Carlton's finals fate.

There was no doubt Hawthorn was handed the toughest ask, playing the other seven finalists in the first seven rounds. The Hawks coped brilliantly, setting up their season by coming through that phase 6-1. And the reality has proved a little less daunting too, with two wins over the disappointing West Coast, and an out-of-contention North Melbourne ripe for a second beating in round 22.

It's Collingwood that, by our measure, has ended up having the toughest draw of 2013. Not that the Magpies didn't already have a challenging fixture, ranked fourth-hardest in October.

But that's become tougher still thanks almost solely to the improvement of one of the Pies' double-header opponents, Essendon, which beat the Magpies for the first time in eight attempts on Anzac Day, and could put Collingwood's finals chances in serious doubt if it manages a repeat on Sunday.

Collingwood's allegedly soft draws have become even more of a myth over the past couple of years. The Magpies were dealt the toughest fixture of 2012 too. The tailing off of their traditionally strong showings on the road hasn't helped, either. The Pies are 1-3 so far with the spectre of the Swans at ANZ Stadium next round.

A side that had batted 15-3 on road trips in the previous four seasons wouldn't have counted on that. Just as those teams that drew Port Adelaide twice last October probably didn't count on having to tackle a prospective finalist rather than a cellar-dweller.

It's called football's glorious uncertainty. And while there's been perhaps less of it this year than usual, it's still enough to make each year's AFL fixture, including what we've seen in 2013, far less of a handicap than many would have us believe.