Demons or Dogs? Who will the pre-Grand Final bye favour?

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UNCERTAINTY IS A big feature of the lead-up to any AFL Grand Final, as for two competing clubs six months' worth of hard work all goes on the line in the final four quarters of the season.

But it's an even bigger backdrop to the 2021 version still more than a week away for Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs.

The typical anxieties are heightened this year for the Demons and Dogs. There's the weight of expectation surrounding their historical lack of success, Melbourne without a premiership for 57 years, the Dogs having won just one in the past 67 years.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, there's also a degree of unfamiliarity present for both sides which wouldn't be the case were this game being played at the MCG and not a neutral venue interstate. But the biggest uncertainty might well be surrounding what is new territory for the entire game, not just the competing clubs. And that is the pre-Grand Final bye.

Just what impact will a wait of an extra week have on those people who aren't exactly devotees of the game and who may have all but switched off in the fortnight between the preliminary finals and Grand Final?

But far more importantly, what impact will the extended lead-up have on the two teams competing? Will Melbourne suffer through having only played one game in just on a month come next Saturday? And how costly might be the halt to momentum the Bulldogs have clearly built during their three finals in three weeks be?

They are questions we haven't had to ask previously in the AFL era (at least not of both clubs), and in a historical context, not at all since Carlton in 1993 moved straight into a Grand Final after winning a second semifinal against Adelaide under the old final six system.

The records of either the Dees or Dogs coming off extended breaks don't necessarily shed much light on the matter, either.

Since 2016, it's Melbourne with the slightly better record of the two coming off a bye, the Demons' record after a week off 5-3 compared to the Bulldogs' 4-5. Since 2000, the scoreline is Melbourne 8-7, the Dogs 6-9.

The Demons are batting 2-2 after a break this year, having accounted (only narrowly) for Essendon in Round 15 after a bye, and then far more emphatically in their brutal preliminary final demolition of Geelong after going straight through via a qualifying final win.

The Bulldogs are 0-1, but that defeat came only after the final siren down at Geelong in round 14 thanks to Cats' sharpshooter Gary Rohan, and in a performance which, despite the "L", was hardly unimpressive.

The pre-Grand Final bye isn't a phenomenon in which the AFL had much choice, of course, given the protocols surrounding quarantine in Perth. But like other innovations in the game, it carries its share of positives and potential drawbacks.

There is now more opportunity for preliminary final injuries (like Steven May's hamstring) to heal, or players who have been concussed the chance to take the mandatory 12-day exclusion from games and still be available

The most obvious positive, at least in my view, is the removal of the pre-finals bye, in place since 2016, and which the numbers increasingly proved was becoming a disadvantage to sides good enough to have finished the regular season top four then win a qualifying final.

That left too many of them sitting ducks, having played one game in up to 29 days (in the case of Collingwood in 2019) against an opponent which had been freshened up by a week's break before two finals in two weeks in the lead-up.

The figures were suitably damning. Prior to the introduction of the bye, 17 of the previous 18 qualifying final winners between 2007-15 had gone on to win their preliminary finals. From 2016 until last year, the figure, in stark contrast, was just four out of 10. Several of those qualifying final winners turned preliminary final losers had clearly been left at the starting gates by a more match-fit opponent, too, most notably Geelong against Sydney in 2016, Richmond against Collingwood in 2018, and the Pies themselves against GWS two years ago.

Those at the AFL who care the most about integrity would have been quietly grateful the pandemic and a Perth Grand Final stepped in to deal with that major issue if the league itself seemed unprepared to act.

But it also might have been quietly wishing for a Port Adelaide win last Saturday night, too. Because the Western Bulldogs' crushing victory has merely set up another match-up between two teams with uneven preparations, this time in the most important game of the season.

Like those qualifying final victors from 2016-20, Melbourne will head into the Grand Final with just one game under its belt in a month or so, 28 days to be precise. The Bulldogs in that same timeframe have at least played two in 27 days.

Should one extra game over that long a period make that much difference given both sides have had a fortnight to freshen up? Perhaps not. But if the Demons do end up getting rolled, particularly after a slow start, you can bet your life it will be presented as a potential cause. In this very different lead-up to the Grand Final, it's a whole new type of uncertainty. And that's one quality in which the 2021 premiership decider is already hardly lacking.

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