List manipulation is here to stay, so get used to it

For a competition which for 30 years now has proudly - and officially - declared itself national and likes to imagine itself as a player on the global sporting stage, the AFL has often still had a habit of appearing decidedly provincial.

Take, for example, the paranoia and hypocrisy which surrounds any remotely controversial utterance by a player and the alleged potential to motivate a rival.

Media bleat constantly about the scripted vanilla responses from today's AFL players, yet the moment one talks about an opposing team with anything less than glowing respect, no matter how obviously they're not deserving of it, the 'tut-tutting' about arrogance and irresponsibility will begin.

It's not just the media, though. There's plenty of collective pant-wetting from clubs and the AFL itself about a range of issues which in the grand scheme of things add up to not much at all.

In that sense, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been a reality check. In 2020, the AFL competition is dealing with logistics and possibilities unthinkable only a few months ago - a shortened season, shorter games, and now, a Grand Final played outside Victoria.

The extent to which the whirlwind of dramatic change carries over in a post-COVID football world is a fascinating prospect. But perhaps there's signs that this extraordinary season has at least hastened the maturing of attitudes towards some traditionally prickly topics. Like, for example, list management.

AFL clubs have faced challenges like never before on that score this season, having already negotiated one round of 33 games played across 20 consecutive days, and now another bout of 31 games spread over only 19 days.

We're seeing in brackets the word 'managed' as frequently as 'injured' or 'omitted' when line-ups are announced. Rotations of players in and out of the 22 as teams have faced blocks of up to four games over a two-week period have become the norm. Interestingly, though, we haven't (not yet, anyway) heard the word 'tanking'.

Such talk has long been a staple of late-season debate about selection order in the impending national draft. Perhaps we simply haven't had time in the recent rush to ponder fully the ramifications of down-the-ladder clubs fielding weakened sides.

But it crossed my mind watching North Melbourne playing Gold Coast last weekend, and seeing pictures of a long roll call of senior players including Ben Cunnington, Jack Ziebell, Ben Brown, Jared Polec and Jasper Pittard, that the continued non-selection of at least that last pair of names would normally have raised more eyebrows than it has.

Polec and Pittard were dropped for the Roos' Round 12 clash with Brisbane, one they nearly stole with a much less-seasoned line-up. They haven't played since. Brown has had a knee injury, and skipper Ziebell and Cunnington have been long-term casualties.

There's been precious little discussion about expediting the returns of any or hand-wringing about potential manipulation of draft picks. And refreshingly so, in my view.

North's 2020 has effectively been done for some time already. The Roos are looking to the future. And at least been able to invest a talent like Luke Davies-Uniacke with more responsibility, and pour more game time into the likes of Jack Mahony, Bailey Scott and Aiden Bonar.

Teams have been doing that since long before the VFL became the AFL. And for some time even after the draft was introduced in 1986.

It's only been in the 21st century the increasing focus on recruiting via the draft and trade table has simultaneously drawn microscopic focus on otherwise unremarkable moments in inconsequential games. All because a win or loss may for one club have been the difference between a fractionally earlier or later draft pick.

As the investigation into Melbourne's performances in 2009 and the ridiculous spectre of severe penalties being applied to a club found officially NOT to have tanked suggested, not to mention the repeated cases of early draft picks disappointing whilst other bargain basement pick-ups become stars, football can get its knickers in a knot an awful lot over stuff which ends up not mattering much.

And the AFL administration at times seems to specialise in it. Like its introduction of the pre-finals bye in 2016.

We shouldn't forget the fundamental motivation for that wasn't to freshen teams up for a September slog, but to prevent teams that had already qualified in a position of finals strength resting a tribe of players in effectively meaningless games, something which had happened on a handful of occasions in seasons comprising 198 matches.

It was I believed then, and still do, a massive overreaction. And actually threatened far more to impact on competition integrity given it consigned winners of qualifying finals to two week-long lay-offs after six months of having payed week in, week out.

Prior to the introduction of the pre-finals bye, 18 qualifying final winners had gone on to win 17 preliminary finals. In the bye's first year, both qualifying final winners lost preliminaries, and the overall record after four seasons is exactly 50-50.

Some would argue four years isn't nearly long enough to suggest extra rest was conspiring against those teams which finished top four and won first up. I'd say a strike rate of 94 percent from 2007-15 having become just 50 percent from 2016-19 was enough cause for concern.

And all because Fremantle under Ross Lyon and North Melbourne under Brad Scott rested some players one week in pursuit of loftier goals.

I wonder if either the Melbourne tanking investigation or the pre-finals bye would have eventuated had we been through the crash course in list management practices clubs have undergone in 2020.

There's not many plusses out of this terrible year, but in a football context, perhaps one is that we've learned there are bigger fish to fry.

Maybe we can actually get through a season without even hearing about tanking. Or, heaven forbid, hear a player say something remotely edgy without the game's self-appointed judges and juries wagging their fingers in reproach.

*You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at footyology.com.au