The heated annual debate about the AFL fixture is much like a knife fight over a five cent coin.
Having a fixture rather than a draw means some Melbourne-based clubs don’t accumulate enough frequent flyer points to leave their postcodes, while those in other states play at genuine home grounds rather than neutral venues.
Meanwhile, revenue raisers such as blockbuster games and repeat-derbies add to the notional inequality of a competition where not every team plays each other twice.
Yet for all the kvetching about supposed fixturing favouritism, over 22 rounds there has seldom, if ever, been a team that failed to make the finals because of a blatantly unfair schedule; let alone one that has been deprived of a premiership.
But these are — if you had not heard — unprecedented times and over the next three weeks the AFL fixture will have an obvious capacity to shape the finals race even if there was no warning on the packet.
When AFL fixture boss Travis Auld concocted rounds nine to twelve, he invoked the AFL’s version of emergency war time powers to justify squeezing four rounds into just 20 days.
The AFL was, Auld explained, “banking games” while hubs were operational and some borders open or exemptions available to hedge against the probability of a second COVID-19 wave in states other than Victoria.
Although typically, this crushed fixture was not announced as a grim imposition but instead promoted as a “festival of footy” to couch-bound Victorians for whom wall-to-wall games would be a welcome diversion from increasingly soulless Zoom meetings and dispiriting masked excursions to the outside world.
And with lockdown viewing deteriorating from The Last Dance to memes of maskless conspiracy theorists hassling hardware store staff, footy every night is most welcome, assuming you have unfettered access to the remote control.
The AFL can also continue to trial a rolling fixture with the most entertaining games and teams strategically placed in prime time. A benefit abandoned by the NRL, who have found themselves saddled with the now lamentable and low-rating Brisbane Broncos on Friday nights.
This carnival commences on Wednesday night when the Western Bulldogs “host” Richmond on the Gold Coast. We will then find out what impact this congested fixture has on the season’s already compromised integrity.
For now, the pressing question is not “who do we play” but “when do we play them?”.
In several games there is a stark disparity in the amount of rest teams will have, with some being asked to play on four-day breaks against opposition that has a six-day preparation, with contrasting travel demands compounding the inequality.
Aficionados of sports that typically play games on much shorter breaks might sniff at the preciousness of those AFL players concerned about taking the field after four days rest to play quarters that have been reduced from 20 to 16 minutes.
But you only need to compare the GPS tracking data of a rugby league hooker or a football striker to the aerobic beasts of the AFL midfield to understand why there is concern about a catastrophic — and potentially season altering — injury toll during this period.
Exacerbating those concerns is the reality a two-week injury might now mean a usually influential player misses up to four games — a large and even potentially ruinous portion of a 17-game season.
You might reasonably consider this period a test of comparative depth. But the rotation of star players would only further undermine the credibility of contests if the disparity in breaks between games means a team has to bench more players than its opposition.
The two canaries sent furthest down the fixturing mine shaft are Collingwood, who will play four games in three cities in 13 days — all of them against teams who will have at least one more days rest — and Geelong, who has four games in 14 days.
Collingwood’s tight schedule is supposedly made easier by the fact it plays four lower-placed teams during its enervating 13-day, four-game odyssey, although with a mounting injury toll the Pies could be more vulnerable against teams they would ordinarily beat.
Geelong has similar personnel problems with Gary Ablett’s departure from the team hub to be with his family compounding a growing injury list and subsequently testing their depth.
Conversely, on current form, this fixture block will enhance premiership favouritism rather than create it, with West Coast (after an unhappy stay in a Gold Coast hub) and Brisbane settling in for long spells at home — reward, their fans might argue, for years of arduous travel.
Consequently, the next fixturing squabble might be over whether the Eagles or Lions deserve a crack at a home ground grand final.
The AFL insists those given the toughest initial run of games will get priority in future scheduling. But there are no guarantees in this season of fixturing-on-the-run that Auld will have the capacity to iron out the wrinkles.
Of course this was never a standard season. The relocation to hubs, random “home ground” fixturing and vast disparity in travel means it resembles those in the war years when teams dropped out and schedules were truncated.
What we are about to find out is how greatly the competitive balance will be altered, or whether the multiple disparities can be washed through in a 17 game sprint as they always are in the standard 22 game home and away marathon.