The 2020 asterisk: what will the AFL’s top honours be worth? | Sport


Among music journalists, pub quiz enthusiasts and other friendless pedants, there is a phrase for the hoary fact which everybody knows, but which is nevertheless occasionally floated as a dazzling revelation by some gormless neophyte. The phrase is ‘Frank Beard’, in honour of ZZ Top’s drummer, the only member of the trio who chooses to go bare-chinned, very ironic, do you see, etcetera.

Australian football’s Frank Beard is Fitzroy’s 1916 season. The then VFL was reduced to four teams by World War I, so everybody made the final four, however terrible they were. Fitzroy were indeed terrible, and duly finished a truncated season’s twelve home-and-away rounds a long last, with just two wins and a draw, and all of those in the first three weeks. The Maroons then tapped a hitherto concealed reservoir of form in time for the finals, which they cruised inexplicably through to become premiers and wooden spooners in the same year.

Two questions have hovered ever since over Fitzroy’s bizarre 1916. The first – “How was any of that possible?” – probably does not have a short answer. The second – “What was the title actually worth?” – is one that is going to be revisited when the 2020 season ends, wherever and whenever that happens (on current form, the gravel oval in Queenstown, circa Australia Day 2021). Whichever club is crowned premiers, whichever individuals are decorated with the Brownlow and Coleman medals, and other baubles, will have won them in a shortened season of shortened games, played in mostly empty stadiums. They will be haunted forever by an asterisk.

We’re now six rounds into the 2020 experiment: theoretically, at least, over a third of the way into the regular season. We should, by now, have some idea of what this season is going to be worth, when measured against its predecessors.

If one was only looking at the ladder, one could easily mistake 2020 for normality: it may be that few observers were expecting Carlton to be quite this good, or Adelaide to be quite this bad, but there is nothing occurring that seems especially implausible. Indeed, in some respects, it’s even encouraging. Port Adelaide have been sporadically threatening to blossom for some time, and if Ken Hinkley can turn them into contenders, Port’s stylish brand of swashbuckle may have a generally invigorating effect on the competition.

Which, needless to whine, would be a welcome tonic. It is indisputably the case that too many of 2020’s games have meandered over to the wrong side of the line that divides the grimly compelling attritional struggle from unwatchable garbage. On Sunday, a Richmond team equipped with such potent offensive weaponry as Jack Riewoldt, Tom Lynch and Dustin Martin floundered to kick four goals against an indifferent Sydney vintage. The imprecations seethed and sighed at the Tigers and Swans by the harshest of couchbound critic were matched by the winning coach afterwards. “Horrendous,” said Damien Hardwick, also throwing in “horrible” and “farcical in nature”. The Tigers’ 4.10 was their equal lowest winning score since joining the VFL, alongside the 5.4 which was enough to beat Fitzroy by a point at Brunswick Street in 1908, Richmond’s first season in the League.

There appear to be two reasons why 2020’s shorter games are duller: there is less time in which to score, and more energy available to maintain extreme defensive pressure. It seems certain that whoever wins this year’s premiership will have won some desperately ugly games en route. At which point, 2020’s premiers will be entitled to retort that the flag is not awarded for artistic impression – and, indeed, that they have had to overcome obstacles singular to this peculiar year, spending long stretches cloistered in hubs, deprived of the encouragement of home fans, muddling through a fog of fear and uncertainty. A case could be made that the 2020 asterisk will be more akin to a bar on a military decoration, at least where the premiership is concerned.

On the individual prizes, the 2020 asterisk might be harder to erase. At end-of-round-six pace, Sydney’s Tom Papley could win the Coleman medal with 39 goals, also a figure evocative of the League’s primordial era – and when Melbourne’s Vin Coutie led the VFL’s goalkicking with 39 goals in 1904, he racked it up in 17 games. Those who bewail the modern defanging of full-forwards would also bemoan the fact Jason Dunstall kicked fully 100 more goals than that to win the same prize in 1992. And a 17-round Brownlow medal triumph would, in a normal season, be hugely impressive; in a season which fans might want to mostly forget, it may well be duly forgotten.



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