Date: August 14 2012
IN AFL footy, they don't do an FA Cup-style rags-to-riches thing. No fairytale stories like West Ham's triumph in 1980 from second division.
Half-a-dozen teams in the AFL are locked in a battle for a spot down the bottom of the eight, but recent history strongly suggests they are no threat whatsoever to take away any silverware.
The final eight system was introduced in 1994. For six years, the league went with a system where the top team played eighth, second played seventh and so on. And for six straight years, the eighth-placed team bombed out.
It's true, there was a near miss. In 1995, Carlton (20 wins) confronted the Brisbane Bears (10 wins) in what threatened to be the most lopsided final in years. Until that day at the MCG when the Bears got a sniff of an upset and at one point in the last quarter big lumbering Roger Merrett wheeled around and bounced through a goal from 50 metres that gave Brisbane a chance.
I swear even the press box erupted at that moment, for everyone loves an underdog. Then reality bit, Carlton won by 13 points on its way to a premiership, and order was restored.
Meanwhile, the Bears had taken benefit from it. ''For us as a fledgling club it was just so exciting to be part of the big time,'' said Robert Walls, Bears coach at the time. ''It was that club's first taste of credibility. It had been a basket case, the 'Bad News Bears' and all that sort of stuff.
''It was worth so much to the confidence of the whole place. You had a young Michael Voss, Jason Akermanis, Nigel Lappin, Justin Leppitsch and a heap of them went on to be triple premiership players. It gave them a taste. Also I was really glad blokes like Merrett and [Michael] McLean, blokes who I rated, they got some reward for a tough journey.''
That system disappeared at the end of 1999 when it became apparent the eighth team had enough trouble on its hands to begin with, let alone having to play first in an elimination final. Plus you ran the risk of losing the best team if it had an off day.
The current - much better - system allows a double chance to the top four, with eighth playing fifth in an eliminator. In the 12 instances of this system since 2000, the eighth-placed team has won six times, most recently in 2008 when Collingwood knocked out Adelaide.
But having won, all six teams tumbled out in the second week. Hence the argument that you can't win a flag from outside the top four.
The last team to do that (Adelaide from fifth in 1998) used the old system, and the Crows were also the defending premiers.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying Essendon, Fremantle, St Kilda, Carlton and Richmond are almost certainly kidding themselves. Not that they will need any encouragement to dream the dream. That's football.
Eighth-placed Essendon (11-8) is the most vulnerable, and there is an argument it would be better off dropping out of the finals and writing off the season. Twice in the past three seasons the Bombers have limped into the eight and been humiliated - under Matthew Knights in 2009 when Adelaide annihilated them by 96 points, and under James Hird last year when they lost to Carlton by more than 10 goals.
Essendon's season has been coloured by the soft tissue injury epidemic and the conditioning program that has caused it. The club argues it will have longer-term benefits, but the results for this year are plain.
The Dons probably need to win two more games and, on form, it is hard to see one. ''If they fall in, they'll probably get hammered again,'' said Walls. ''You want teams in there who can present their best. They can't present their best because they've had too many blokes who've been knocked around.''
North Melbourne and Geelong (12-7) appear safe, and it is the Roos who will surely benefit most from playing at least one final. Brad Scott's team is cluttered with young players who have never been to September.
''It would mean more to them than it would to St Kilda or even Fremantle,'' said Walls. ''A lot of those young North players haven't played finals and it's just a good stepping stone. The truest test of any player - I was taught this by Ron Barassi who in turn took it from Norm Smith - is playing well in finals.''
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