Dee-lightful — The 2021 AFL season in review
A Dee-lightful season
Melbourne has become the latest team to break a 67-year long premiership drought, capping off an incredible season with a stunning come-from-behind win over the Western Bulldogs in the 2021 AFL Grand Final.
The Demons' drought-breaking season is the sixth of the past 16 years, following on from Sydney, which broke a 72-year drought in 2005, Geelong (44 years, 2007), Collingwood (20 years, 2010), the Western Bulldogs (62 years, 2016) and Richmond (37 years, 2017). St Kilda is now the only team left with an extant drought of more than 30 years. The Saints last won a flag in 1966, 65 years ago. The next longest belongs to Fremantle, still flagless after 27 years, followed by Carlton which has now gone 26 years without a premiership.
What made Melbourne's premiership win all the more remarkable was that they did not even play finals in 2020, although they had made it to the preliminary final stage in 2019. The Demons and Bulldogs were the dominant sides for much of the year, but the Dogs had to make the Grand Final the hard way, tailing off at the end of the home-and-away season to finish fifth. Had the Dogs prevailed in the Grand Final, they would have repeated their 2016 effort of winning four consecutive finals to win the flag.
After a COVID-ravaged 2020 season which saw the season reduced to 17 rounds and quarters reduced to 18 minutes, the 2021 AFL season returned to some level of normality, with full-length 20-minute quarters and the traditional 22 games for each club. However, many games still had to be relocated and the entire finals series was played outside of Victoria.
March—April: Rounds 1 to 4
The season kicked off with the now traditional Thursday night encounter between Richmond and Carlton, and the Blues took the game right up to the reigning premiers for much of the night before the Tigers pulled away in the end. Most other Round 1 matches went according to predictions, although 2020 wooden-spooner Adelaide's win over Grand Finalist Geelong was a big shock. Sydney's win against Brisbane at the Lions' home ground the Gabba was also a bit of an upset. Other opening-round winners were the Western Bulldogs, Melbourne, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide, West Coast and St Kilda.
Five sides — Sydney, Port Adelaide, Richmond, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs — made it "two from two", with one of those — Sydney — clocking up a score of 100 before three-quarter time for the second week in a row. For any side to do this in consecutive weeks is unexpected but for it to be Sydney, a side with a history of dour defence, shocked many pundits. Geelong pipped Brisbane by a point in a thriller at Kardinia Park, Gold Coast thrashed North Melbourne at Carrara, and Fremantle condemned GWS to a 0-2 start with a 31-point win in Perth.
Sydney did it again, the Swans reaching the 100 mark by three-quarter time for the third week in a row, this time against the best possible opposition, reigning premier Richmond. That took the Swans to three wins from three games, and they were joined by Melbourne, who comfortably accounted for GWS, and the Western Bulldogs, who gave North Melbourne a 127-point hiding that will live on in the memories of those who witnessed it as the Good Friday Massacre. The Dogs' win included a rare double-figure goal haul, with Josh Bruce kicking 10 majors. On Easter Monday Geelong won another thriller, this time over Hawthorn by five points. Carlton, Essendon and Brisbane all notched up their first wins, the Lions doing so via a one-point Thursday night thriller over Collingwood. Adelaide and West Coast recorded their second wins, against Gold Coast and Port Adelaide respectively.
The three undefeated sides all won again, although Sydney did it the hard way, coming from behind the pip Essendon by three points. The Bulldogs and Melbourne had more comfortable wins, over 2020 finalists Brisbane and Geelong. Port Adelaide won a cracker against Richmond, avenging their preliminary final loss by just two points, while Adelaide's good early season form continued, the Crows beating North by 41. GWS broke through for their first victory, while St Kilda, Carlton and Fremantle were also winners. The Bulldogs headed the ladder four weeks in, ahead of Melbourne and Sydney on percentage. Port and Adelaide were fourth and fifth on three wins, with West Coast, Carlton and Richmond (two wins) making up the top eight.
April—May: Rounds 5 to 8
Richmond bounced back from two losses in a row to thrash St Kilda to the tune of 86 points at Docklands to open Round 5. The Bulldogs on Melbourne continued on their merry way, thrashing Gold Coast and Hawthorn respectively, but the Swans faltered for the first time, going down by two points against GWS, who sealed a dramatic win with a late major to Josh Kelly. North Melbourne lost again, this time to Geelong, as pundits started pondering the idea of a winless season. Other winners were West Coast, Port Adelaide, Brisbane and Fremantle.
The two breakaway sides — the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne — continued on their merry way in Round 6, with six-goal wins against GWS and Richmond respectively. Sydney lost again — this time to Gold Coast — to slip out of the top four, while Port Adelaide moved into third place with a big win over St Kilda. Geelong also slipped into the top four on the back of a 97-point thrashing of West Coast. The round's other winners were Brisbane, Fremantle, Essendon and Hawthorn, who pipped Adelaide in a thriller at York Park in Launceston.
Just as fans were beginning to talk about the Bulldogs and Demons being both undefeated when they met in Round 11, the Dogs faltered, giving up a 19-point half-time lead to go down to Richmond by 22 points. On the back of a come-from-behind win against North Melbourne, Melbourne took over top place on the ladder from the Dogs. Geelong slipped back out of the four with a loss to Sydney, who replaced them, while Port held on to third place despite going down to Brisbane. St Kilda and GWS had 11-goal wins over Hawthorn and Adelaide, Gold Coast pushed towards the top eight with a win over Collingwood, while West Coast and Carlton also had wins.
May—June: Rounds 9 to 12
A first versus fourth clash between Melbourne and Sydney went the way of the Demons, who held firm in top place on the ladder. The Bulldogs rebounded with a scratchy win over Carlton, and third-placed Port won again, this time against Adelaide in a Showdown. The round's closest game came at the Sydney Showground where GWS just held out Essendon to win by two points. Other winners were Collingwood, West Coast, Brisbane and Geelong, who thrashed Richmond by 63 points, the loss sending the Tigers tumbling to eighth on the table. A third of the way through the season it was Melbourne leading the way with eight wins, followed by the Bulldogs with seven, Port with six and four teams — Geelong, Brisbane, Sydney and West Coast — all on five wins.
Having started the season 1-3, Brisbane moved into the top four after thrashing Gold Coast in the Q Clash. The Lions took Port Adelaide's spot in the four, the Power going down at home to the Western Bulldogs, who maintained their strong grip on second place. Melbourne won yet again, comfortably accounting for Carlton, while Geelong's 21-point win over St Kilda kept the Cats in third place. North Melboune finally broke through for a win, finishing seven points clear of Hawthorn at York Park. Sydney, Richmond, Essendon and West Coast were the other winners.
After going through nine rounds without a loss, Melbourne finally tasted defeat, surprisingly at hands of 15th-placed Adelaide in a one-point thriller at Adelaide Oval. The Demons' defeat and an absolute thrashing of St Kilda by 111 points by the Western Bulldogs saw the Dogs return to the head of the ladder by virtue of a massage percentage break. Geelong and Brisbane won again, against Gold Coast and Richnond, to shore up the other two places in the four. In the second one-point game of the round, Port Adelaide came from behind to snatch victory from Collingwood, while Fremantle and Sydney played a two-point thriller, the Dockers finishing ahead of the Swans. Carlton, Essendon and GWS were the other winners, with the Giants moving into the eight at Richmond's expense.
Leading into Round 11, the spectre of COVID once again sadly descended on Melbourne, with crowds banned from attending any matches. This was particularly disappointing for Western Bulldogs and Melbourne fans, who were expected to turn up in droves to see the two teams play off for top spot at Docklands in a Friday blockbuster. It wasn't to be, but Melbourne put any disappointment aside to defeat the Dogs and reclaim top place. The other matches were relatively one-sided, although Essendon came from behind to defeat West Coast in Perth and Geelong only beat Collingwood by 10 points having held the Pies goalless in the first half. Brisbane, St Kilda, Gold Coast, Richmond, Sydney and Port Adelaide all won their games, and the Tigers moved back into the eight, displacing GWS, who had done the same to them a week earlier.
The first of the three 'bye' rounds saw all six matches played outside of Victoria due to the COVID lockdown. There were close gamed at the SCG and in Adelaide, with a last-minute goal from James Rowbottom giving the Swans a nine-point win over St Kilda and a late major from Jamie Elliott getting Collingwood over the line against the Crows. On Saturday night Perth hosted the Dreamtime Match for the first time, the traditional match between Essendon and Richmond going comfortably the way of the Tigers. Melbourne saw off third-placed Brisbane after a strong start from the Lions, an undermanned West Coast defeated Carlton at the SCG and the Bulldogs won away from home against Fremantle at Perth Stadium. The top eight at what was more or less the season's midpoint was Melbourne (11 wins), Western Bulldogs (10 wins), Geelong, Brisbane, Port Adelaide, Sydney (eight wins each), West Coast and Richmond (seven wins each).
BYES: Geelong, Gold Coast, GWS, Hawthorn, North Melbourne, Port Adelaide
June-July: Rounds 13 to 16
Round 13 featured three matches decided by under a goal, including the first drawn match of the season. At Bellerive Oval in Hobart, GWS overcame a 28-point three-quarter time deficit to finish level with North Melbourne, both sides scoring 14.10.94. Meanwhile, West Coast came from behind to defeat Richmond by four points and Adelaide, having failed to register a score in the first quarter, overcame the Saints by six points at Cazaly's Stadium. In the Queen's Birthday match on Monday, Collingwood scored a shock defeat over top side Melbourne. The match was a send-off for Magpie coach Nathan Buckley, who stepped away from the role after a decade at the helm. Geelong defeated Port Adelaide in a top four clash, Fremantle accounted for Gold Coast, and Hawthorn has a surprise win over Sydney.
BYES: Brisbane, Carlton, Essendon, Western Bulldogs
With eight sides having a bye, only five matches were played in Round 14. The closest of those came on Friday night at Kardinia Park where the Bulldogs had a chance to grab top spot and looked like doing so until a post-final siren goal from Gary Rohan got Geelong over the line by five points. Brisbane took a long time to shake off North Melbourne at Bellerive Oval, eventually winning by 23 points, Essendon reversed their Round 1 loss to Hawthorn, Port Adelaide easily defeated Gold Coast and GWS beat Carlton by six goals to stay in touch with the top eight.
BYES: Adelaide, Collingwood, Fremantle, Melbourne, Richmond, Sydney, St Kilda, West Coast
The season return to full nine-game rounds and five of those in Round 15 were decided by 12 points or fewer. Melbourne held off Essendon by 11 points at the MCG, Port Adelaide pipped Sydney by 10 in Adelaide, Carlton won by the same margin against Adelaide, North Melbourne beat Gold Coast by nine and Fremantle won away to Collingwood by 11 points. The biggest win of the round was the Bulldogs' 55-point thrashing of West Coast in Perth. Brisbane had a surprisingly easy win over Geelong at the Gabba, knocking the Cats out of the top four, and St Kilda's 40-point win over Richmond was probably even more surprising. This round saw games return to Melbourne with restricted crowd numbers in attendance due to the ongoing COVID pandemic.
The Western Bulldogs reclaimed top place on the ladder after Melbourne suffered a shock loss to GWS at the MCG. The Dogs defeated North Melbourne by 29 points, not quite the 127-hiding they'd given the 'Roos in Round 3. Brisbane, Port Adelaide and Geelong all recorded easy wins to retain their places in third, fourth and fifth on the ladder, while Richmond slipped out of the eight on the back of another shock loss, this time to Gold Coast. The Giants took their place. Sydney smashed West Coast by 92 points, Geelong had an easy win over Essendon, Carlton defeated Fremantle, and St Kilda beat Collingwood.
July—August: Rounds 17 to 20
For the second time this season, the Western Bulldogs gave up top spot the week after taking it. The Dogs suffered a slightly surprising loss to sixth-placed Sydney, and Melbourne's 31 point win over Port Adelaide allowed the Demons to move back to the top of the table. Brisbane had a chance to open up a gap ahead of fifth-placed Port, but we're thrashed by St Kilda in a big upset. The closest game of the round came at Eureka Stadium in Ballarat, where Gold Coast defeated GWS by a point in a match moved due to COVID restrictions. Richmond lost again, this time to Collingwood, and tumbled to 12th, while Fremantle's trashing of Hawthorn helped the Dockers into the eight. Essendon, Geelong and North Melbourne were the other winners.
Hawthorn threw a cat among the pigeons at the top of the ladder, finishing level with Melbourne in the season's second draw. The Bulldogs defeated Gold Coast but remained in second place, half a game behind the Demons. Richmond bounced back into contention with a 20-point win over Brisbane, who slipped out of the top four. They were replaced by Port Adelaide who defeated St Kilda in front of an empty Docklands stadium after crowds were once again banned. Other winners included Geelong, who took a stranglehold on third place, Essendon, who replaced Fremantle in the eight, West Coast, Carlton and Sydney.
For the second time in the year, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs met in a 'blockbuster' top-of-the-table clash in front of an empty stadium. The Dogs reversed the earlier result and once again took top spot from the Demons, who were relegated to third after Geelong's 38-point win over Richmond moved the Cats up to second. Port kept a hold on fourth by defeating Collingwood, with Brisbane and Sydney pushing hard up against them courtesy of wins over Gold Coast and Fremantle respectively. The closest match of the round was at Perth Stadium where the Eagles defeated the Saints by eight points. North Melbourne beat Carlton but remained on the bottom, while Adelaide beat Hawthorn and GWS defeated Essendon to take the Bombers' place in the eight.
The top four sides all had wins and remained in order — Western Bulldogs, Geelong, Melbourne, Port Adelaide — at the head of the ladder, but fifth-placed Brisbane slipped up against Hawthorn in a surprise at York Park. The Swans replaced them in fifth, courtesy of a win over Essendon at the MCG. The "musical chairs" game for eighth place continues, with Fremantle taking a turn there after defeating Richmond in a four-point thriller in Perth. Back at the MCG, Collingwood had a surprisingly easy win over West Coast. After the 20 rounds the top eight in order comprised: Dogs, Cats, Demons, Power, Swans, Lions, Eagles and Dockers, with the Giants half a game outside the eight.
August: Rounds 21 to 23
The Western Bulldogs headed into the final three rounds atop the ladder and one of the flag favourites but suffered an an expected loss to Essendon, who still had designs on a place in the eight. Melbourne eagerly took the Dogs' place on top, defeating West Coast in a close game in Perth. Geelong fell to GWS, whose when kept the Dons out of the eight, but held on to third place, while Port escaped with a four-point win over Adelaide to retain fourth place. Brisbane moved up to fifth with a big win over Fremantle, overtaking the Swans who had an unexpected loss to St Kilda. Hawthorn defeated Collingwood, Gold Coast beat Carlton and Richmond stayed in touch with the eight with a win over North.
Top four sides Melbourne, Geelong and Port Adelaide all had wins, and occupied the top three places after the Bulldogs suffered another shock loss, this time to Hawthorn. The loss left them fourth and in danger of slipping out of the top four. Brisbane kept the pressure on them by thrashing Collingwood, Sydney and GWS both won and Essendon moved into the eight with a win over Gold Coast, taking the place of West Coast who lost the Western Derby to Fremantle. With a round to go, seventh and eighth place were still up for grabs, with GES, Essendon, West Coast and Fremantle all in the running.
The Western Bulldogs, with one final chance to hold on to a place in the top four, led for almost the entire match against Port Adelaide before succumbing in the final moments to leave fourth place open to Brisbane. The Lions needed to win by 31 points or more against West Coast to claim it, and did so courtesy of a very late goal to Charlie Cameron. Geelong could have claimed top spot with a win over Melbourne, and looked like doing so until a withering burst from the Demons saw them run down a 44-point deficit to win by four. Sydney, GWS and Essendon claimed the final three places in the eight with wins over Gold Coast, Carlton and Collingwood. In the other games St Kilda beat Fremantle, Adelaide beat North and Alastair Clarkson ended his coaching career at Hawthorn with a thrilling draw against Richmond.
So, after 23 weeks, eight sides remained in contention. Melbourne topped the ladder with 17.5 wins, ahead of Port on 17 wins and Geelong on. In fourth, fifth and sixth on 15 wins each were Brisbane, the Western Bulldogs and Sydney, with the Lions in the top four by virtue of superior percentage. GWS finished seventh, a full three and a half games behind the Swans, with the Bombers sneaking into eighth place.
Finals: Weeks 1 to 3
Port Adelaide and Geelong kicked off the finals series with a Friday night qualifying final at Adelaide Oval. Port started slight favourites and franked that favouritism with a four-quarter performance that finished with a 43-point win and a preliminary final berth for the Power. The thriller of the weekend came at York Park where Sydney outscored GWS 2.7 to 0.1 in the final term to finish one point adrift of the Giants. Melbourne and Brisbane played the other qualifying final, with the Demons getting the job done by 33 points to move a step closer to a Grand Final. The last match of the first week of finals saw the Dogs "host" Essendon at York Park, where they managed to put three miserable weeks behind them and defeat the Dons by 49 points.
Geelong rebounded from its loss to Port Adelaide with a comfortable win over the Giants. The Cats won all four quarters of the match at Perth Stadium, prevailing in the end by 35 points to move into yet another preliminary final. The following night Brisbane started short-priced favourites against the Bulldogs and, with three early goals to Charlie Cameron, broke out to a two-goal lead. A strong second term from the Dogs had the two sides virtually level at half time, but the Lions again slipped away in the third quarter and headed into the final break with a 10-point lead. The Dogs started the final term with three quick goals and looked winners but the Lions fought back again with a goal to Zac Bailey levelling the scores at the 32-minute mark. A late behind via a snap from Laitham Vandermeer gave the Dogs a one-point lead and they held on to win by that margin, condemning the Lions to a straight sets exit.
Both preliminary finals ended in thrashings, one not totally unexpected, the other a shock to all those who witnessed it. On Friday night Melbourne started strongly against Geelong, consolidated in the second quarter, and then blew the Cats away after half time. The final margin was 83 points, as the Demons powered their way to their first Grand Final since 2000. The following night at Adelaide Oval Port Adelaide were warm favourites to make their first Grand Final in 15 years but the hopes were in tatters within 15 minutes. The Dogs kicked five goals to zero in that period and had seven on the board by quarter time. By half time the Dogs were ahead by 58 and they cruised to a 71-point final margin.
And so a Grand Final between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, predicted for much of the year but then seemingly highly unlikely after the Dogs' late-season collapse, would be played in 2021, 67 years after the two sides first met in a decider. In 1954 it was at the MCG, but in 2021 it would be at Perth Stadium, the first AFL Grand Final to be played in Western Australia.
Grand Final day begin on a sad note with news coming through that Greg Parke, who had played for both Grand Final clubs in the 1960s and 1970s, had died on the morning of the game. Parke had played 156 games for the two clubs, and another 15 for Fitzroy in 1977.
The Grand Final itself was played as a twilight match in Perth, prime time in the Eastern states. Melbourne were the first team to settle when play got under way, with early goals to Christian Petracca and Bayley Fritsch. Roarke Smith got the Dogs on the board but further majors to Spargo and Fritsch took the Demons to a 21-point lead at the first break.
When play resumed in the second quarter the match took a sudden turn. Adam Treloar goaled within the first minute and added another three minutes later. Aaron Naughton then kicked his first and the Dogs were suddenly within four points. Ben Brown halted the Bulldogs' charge with his first but three more goals to the Dogs, two to skipper Marcus Bontempelli and one to Lachie Hunter, had them by ahead by eight points at the long break.
A quick centre break to the Demons as soon as the second half began had Fritsch kicking for goal within seconds but his shot was astray. Two minutes later Jason Johannisen marked and goaled to give the Bulldogs a 13-point lead. The next 10 minutes were dour, tense and scoreless. The drought was broken by Bontempelli's third goal. At that point the Dogs were 19 points ahead and looking like a premiership team.
What followed from that moment was later described by Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge as a "bomb going off". It was a fair description. Bayley Fritsch kicked off a burst of three goals in three minutes and another to Angus Brayshaw six minutes later put the Demons back in the lead. With three minutes left in the third quarter, Melbourne broke away from three consecutive centre bounces and scored three goals in as many minutes. Suddenly, as the three-quarter time siren sounded, Melbourne was four goals ahead.
Any thought of a Bulldog comeback was snuffed out when Ben Brown goaled within a minute of the start of the final quarter. The Demons were 30 points ahead and on a roll. They added another four goals before Treloar got a consolation goal, and then added four more, the last one coming with a kick after the siren from Tom McDonald. Melbourne, which has gone into time-on in the third quarter trailing, had won the Grand Final by 74 points.
Christian Petracca dominated the match, his 39 touches and two goals making him a worthy Norm Smith medallist.
A 57-year premiership drought has been broken, and a new era of Demon dominance may be about to begin.