You know that feeling when you finally get past that impossible part of a video game, but not without the help of some online walkthroughs and a couple of cheat codes?
Or when you run out of patience with that tricky DIY job and have to call in the professionals to put the finishing touches on it?
The satisfaction is there, maybe even a little joy at a task conquered. But nagging in the back of your mind is a thought that you didn’t quite do it properly, not in the way you imagined you would.
According to some, that’s what Brisbane or Port Adelaide are in for should they be the last team standing on grand final night a week from this Saturday.
The idea of the dreaded asterisk hanging over this season’s premiers weighed heaviest at the time of the season’s restart in June, when it was awfully hard to see how sport could be taken seriously in 2020.
But then everyone kinda just got over it. The season was weird, but it was weird for everyone. Any perceived advantage was offset by any number of perceived disadvantages, and the games were coming that quickly there was always something new and more exciting to complain about.
If that’s how it started and how it’s now going, what’s about to happen is going to be far more interesting. Because that pesky asterisk is right there, one shift-8 away from making a dramatic and all-encompassing reappearance.
Make no mistake, if the Power and Lions win this weekend and make it to the grand final, some people will dismiss their respective accomplishments. Not everyone, but enough to generate some headlines and to keep the idea alive.
No real winners in 2020
Of course it goes without saying that it is a ridiculous notion, disrespectful to those two teams, ignorant of history and a misunderstanding of what’s actually gone on this season.
The theoretically valid argument is that because they got to play more games at their home grounds than almost any other team, Brisbane and Port Adelaide had easier runs this season.
There’s no doubt the Lions will have been delighted to have been able to play at the Gabba as often as they did, just as Port Adelaide has benefited from the boost a vocal Adelaide Oval crowd has given them.
But in the mix-and-match, on-the-fly frenzy that the 2020 fixture became, so much more was at play than just “home vs away”.
What became apparent throughout the season was that the length of rest between games was just as pivotal, both in avoiding injury and maintaining some sort of freshness in-game. Teams were forced to back up off regular four-day breaks, which lead to some prohibitive injury lists and lethargic performances.
Neither Brisbane or Port suffered particularly badly from this — teams like Hawthorn, GWS, and, in the back end of the season, West Coast were the real losers — but by far the biggest winner in this space was Richmond.
According to analysis done by The Age, there were five times in 2020 that Richmond played a game with at least two days’ more rest than their opponents — more than any other — and on no occasion did the reverse occur.
It’s worth stressing at this point that this doesn’t mean Richmond’s 2020 achievements should be tarnished either. They can only play according to the fixture the AFL gives them, and they’ve been away from home and in a hub basically all season.
But it illustrates that there are grey areas to this, winners and losers across many factors, the individual values of which could be debated forever. The Tigers have played at seven different grounds this year and Geelong eight, while Port have played at only three — is travel more influential than the accumulation of rest?
Some things never change
Also easily forgotten is that, incredibly, this isn’t actually an unprecedented event. Teams are helped and hindered by fixtures every year, and any attempt to suggest that a Victorian premier has been unfairly aided by a lengthy homestand and a “home” grand final is generally met with scorn and derision.
The cream, we are told, rises to the top anyway. And you know what? They might be right.
The best four teams from this season are in the preliminary finals. The best two have earned the right to play at home. Whoever qualifies for the grand final will unquestionably have earned it.
Brisbane was a top-two team last year, remember, and has improved in almost every metric since 2019. Port Adelaide’s rise had threatened for years, and with Charlie Dixon finally fit and some key young players on the improve, a surge up the ladder was not unexpected.
They have made the most of the benefits this weird season threw up and — unlike the Eagles, Suns, Dockers and Crows — overcame the many obstacles when they arrived.
And still nothing is guaranteed. We are just as likely to end up with an all-Victorian, all-feline grand final as we are a battle of the hub hosts.
At its business end, this season could hardly be any more tantalisingly poised. 2020 has enough asterisks and disclaimers attached to it, this footy season certainly doesn’t need one.