Is finishing in the top four now actually a disadvantage?

In this most unusual of AFL seasons, there's little left to surprise or raise eyebrows anymore. So the changes, and potential changes, keep coming apace with barely time to draw breath before the next is being considered.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan, speaking to Fox Footy, blithely breezed through several more the other day.

There were suggestions about more rule changes to ease congestion. Quarters now running 18 rather than 20 or 16 minutes. More mid-week games, packed schedules and 'Footy Fests'. And the pre-finals bye? Yep, said the chief, here to stay.

McLachlan said the league had polled the top 10 teams about the bye. Eight of them apparently liked the idea. He didn't elaborate as to why the other eight teams, who presumably may also one day play finals, weren't asked.

Not asked, and those who were asked only after the goalposts in the debate had been shifted once again. Personally, I'm tired of that. And of the downplaying of a change which has had a more profound impact on the destination of each premiership than just about any I can remember. And for what?

The only real reason the bye ever happened in the first place was because of so-called integrity issues (read gambling), after Fremantle on a couple of occasions and North Melbourne in 2015 with finishing positions locked in took the opportunity to rest a score of senior players in their final home and away games.

In any other football code, such goings on would be seen simply as managing player resources in pursuit of larger goals. We were talking, after all, about one or two games in a schedule of 198.

But not for the first time, the AFL overreacted and decided to crack a walnut with a sledgehammer. The result? In my view, a situation which has actually proved a bigger compromising of the big picture of an entire AFL season than en masse restings of players for a single game ever was.

The upshot is that the lure of a top-four spot, providing not just a double chance but an opportunity for a week's break before a preliminary final, has been significantly diminished.

There was always a danger that a week off followed by a game followed by another week off might leave teams winning qualifying finals underdone for their preliminary finals. I think that's pretty much how it's panned out. And it's not just supposition.

Look at the numbers. Prior to 2016, 17 of the previous 18 preliminary finals had been won by a team which had won its qualifying final, had a week off, then took on a more-fatigued opponent which had been playing every week for months.

Since the introduction of the pre-finals bye, there's been eight preliminary finals. And the record of qualifying final winners in them is just 4-4. That's a winning strike rate which has fallen from 94 percent to just 50.

That's dramatic in anyone's language. And a dramatic upending of the considerable advantages spending all season winning a top four spot was supposed to confer.

Qualifying final winners have gone from having a distinct advantage in fresher legs against a tired opponent, to conceding ground to a lower-ranked opponent with momentum while it has played just one game in the space of around 27 days (and in Collingwood's case last year one game in 29 days).

Let's look at how those four qualifying final winners who have lost preliminary finals since 2016 have done so.

That first year of the bye, Geelong clearly was caught on the hop against Sydney, the Cats goalless by quarter-time while the Swans had slammed on seven to effectively end the contest then and there. Greater Western Sydney also lost its preliminary final after having won a qualifying final, though the Giants were at least neck and neck with the Western Bulldogs all game.

In 2018, Richmond was the hottest of hot favourites against Collingwood, having finished two games clear on top of the ladder, brushed aside Hawthorn in its first final, and beating the Pies by 43 and 28 points in their two home and away clashes.

But like the Cats, the Tigers, after just one game over a 27-day block, slept through their alarm. With big Mason Cox on fire, Collingwood had the game shot to ribbons by half-time with 10 goals on the board to Richmond's miserable two-goal tally.

Last year, the Pies themselves took three quarters to shake off their lethargy against GWS, falling 33 points behind the Giants early in the final term before slamming on four of their seven goals for the game and nearly stealing the win.

That's three times out of four in which the team with just one game in more than three weeks, having lost its rhythm and routine, has failed to find sufficient spark even for the second-most important game of the season.

Those who endorse the pre-finals bye argue it freshens teams up, and with players fitter and less fatigued allows more to play closer to their best football.

It certainly gives the lower half of the eight more of a chance of surviving a weekly game of sudden death, and was clearly significant to Western Bulldogs' triumph in 2016 (the Bulldogs regaining a clutch of key players for an away final in the Perth first-up) and the Giants reaching a Grand Final from sixth last year.

From an aesthetic, theatre-going point of view, that's great. Personally, I think it's more important that the biggest four weeks of the season at least reflect to an extent the 85 percent of the season which has come beforehand.

If the advantages that come with all that sweat and toil expended to qualify in a position of strength are to be chipped away at, what's the point of all the hard work?

It's for that reason there still remains considerable opposition to the brain farts about finals wildcards of those U.S. sport fan boys dagging around Australian football in increasingly annoying numbers.

Unlike that hypothetical, however, the pre-finals bye is about to impact on how the finals pan out for a fifth season. Why is the opposition becoming ever more muted?

Will it take both qualifying final winners falling on preliminary final day again, which would leave the record 4-6 in favour of lower-ranked preliminary finalists since the introduction?

Or are we simply now at a stage where there has been so much change so regularly that there's not enough consistency of process or rules or regulations to be able to accurately determine what indeed is the norm and what is the exception?

One thing you can definitely say about this season is that it has given the AFL (not to mention its broadcasters) sufficient leeway to pull just about anything with next to no justification or explanation. The seeming permanency now of the pre-finals bye is just another.

It has, though, at least given us one of the better jokes of 2020. What is it? Simply, the proposition that after 24 October we may still revert back to playing the Grand Final in the afternoon.

If you've had any experience of AFL football's decision-making processes at all, and again this week, you can't have heard that line and not p---ed yourself laughing.

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