Everyone loves a finals series. 9 of the best games of football you will ever see, all jam packed into one month of action where that’s all everyone wants to talk about.
However, it hasn’t always remained with this current final 8 series. And I’m ready and raring to walk you through the history of VFL/AFL Finals Series!
Australian football effectively invented the concept of a championship game in 1862, with the Challenge Cup to decide the best Aussie Rules team in the world. The inaugural game, between University and Melbourne, was won by the boys from Melbourne Uni. That was the main competition until 1877, with the formation of the VFA (now the VFL).
The VFA, however, had a notable lack of a grand final. Like European soccer tournaments, the team that had the fewest losses would become the champion. All that changed for 1896. Collingwood, a newly formed club out of the inner suburb, and South Melbourne, established powerhouses, both had 14 wins and a draw out of their 18 matches. A final would be needed, which Collingwood won 6 goals to 5*.
The teams then broke ranks, as both Collingwood and South Melbourne jumped over to the newly formed VFL, along with Geelong, Essendon, Melbourne, Fitzroy, Carlton, and St Kilda. The VFL’s system, in the beginning, wasn’t very good.
In 1897, the top four teams (Geelong, Essendon, Melbourne, and Collingwood) each played in a round-robin finals competition, the team with the most wins** being crowned champion. In the end, Essendon won all three of their games, including the infamous 1.8 to 0.8 victory over Melbourne.
1898 signalled the start of one of the worst rules in history throughout any sport: the right of challenge. It came out of innocent means, but it made finals series a nightmare to follow.
From 1898-1900, after the 14-round home and away season, the eight teams were split into two divisions, Division A containing teams 1, 3, 5, and 7, while Division B contained 2, 4, 6, and 8th (which was always St Kilda). Each division would be a round robin, and the winners would play off in the Grand Final…unless the minor premier had failed to win their group. In that case, the game between the two group winners would be a preliminary final, and the game between the winner of that and the minor premier would be the grand final. But, the minor premier could only challenge if they’d won at least two of their round robin series games. Phew, there’s a mouthful.
The disgraceful end to the 1900 season*** meant that a new system had to be found, and a quick fix was instigated for 1901. The results from the sectional stage would be added to the home and away season results. On that ladder, 1st would play 3rd and 2nd would play 4th in a semi final, with the winner going through to the Grand Final. (Fortunately, there was no right of challenge in this season).
1902 bought the start of a new system: the Argus system, named after a prominent newspaper in Melbourne at the time. 1st would play 3rd, and 2nd would play 4th, and the winners would play off in the Final…but if the minor premier lost either one of their matches, they could challenge the winners of the Final in a Grand Final…if they had a better percentage than the (rightful) premiers did. The percentage requirement was dropped in 1907, leaving a ridiculous format that people could understand, but was biased way too much to the minor premiers. And to make matters worse, in 1924 they had the round robin system again, with the minor premiers being able to challenge did they not win.
Finally, in 1931, we were left with an intelligent system: the Page-McIntyre system. In Week 1, 1st would play 2nd and 3rd would play 4th. The winner of 1st v 2nd would qualify straight to the Grand Final, while the loser of that would play the winner of 3rd v 4th in the preliminary final. There was no right of challenge, thank god.
Part 2 will be up soon.
*In the VFA, only goals were counted towards the score.
**Percentage wasn’t considered a viable option.
***Melbourne had finished sixth, but then went on to finish first in their section and win the premiership. It was then noticed that if you combined the two sections for the season, and the win-loss records, Melbourne would have missed finals! You can see why this system wasn’t working.