Grand Final History: A Look at Ladder Positions

Across the 111 Grand Finals in VFL/AFL history - excluding the two replays - only 18 of them, or about 1-in-6, has seen the team finishing 1st on the home-and-away ladder play the team finishing 3rd.

This year, of course, will be the nineteenth.

Far more common, as you'd expect, has been a matchup between the teams from 1st and 2nd on the ladder. This pairing accounts for 56 Grand Finals, which is a smidgeon over half, and has been so frequent partly because of the benefits accorded to teams finishing in these positions by the various finals systems that have been in use, and partly no doubt because these two teams have tended to be the best two teams.

2010 - Grand Final Results by Ladder Position.png

In the 18 Grand Finals to date that have involved the teams from 1st and 3rd, the minor premier has an 11-7 record, which represents a 61% success rate. This is only slightly better than the minor premiers' record against teams coming 2nd, which is 33-23 or about 59%.

Overall, the minor premiers have missed only 13 of the Grand Finals and have won 62% of those they've been in.

By comparison, teams finishing 2nd have appeared in 68 Grand Finals (61%) and won 44% of them. In only 12 of those 68 appearances have they faced a team from lower on the ladder; their record for these games is 7-5, or 58%.

Teams from 3rd and 4th positions have each made about the same number of appearances, winning a spot about 1 year in 4. Whilst their rates of appearance are very similar, their success rates are vastly different, with teams from 3rd winning 46% of the Grand Finals they've made, and those from 4th winning only 27% of them.

That means that teams from 3rd have a better record than teams from 2nd, largely because teams from 3rd have faced teams other than the minor premier in 25% of their Grand Final appearances whereas teams from 2nd have found themselves in this situation for only 18% of their Grand Final appearances.

Ladder positions 5 and 6 have provided only 6 Grand Finalists between them, and only 2 Flags. Surprisingly, both wins have been against minor premiers - in 1998, when 5th-placed Adelaide beat North Melbourne, and in 1900 when 6th-placed Melbourne defeated Fitzroy. (Note that the finals systems have, especially in the early days of footy, been fairly complex, so not all 6ths are created equal.)

One conclusion I'd draw from the table above is that ladder position is important, but only mildly so, in predicting the winner of the Grand Final. For example, only 69 of the 111 Grand Finals, or about 62%, have been won by the team finishing higher on the ladder.

It turns out that ladder position - or, more correctly, the difference in ladder position between the two grand finalists - is also a very poor predictor of the margin in the Grand Final.

2010 - Grand Final Results by Ladder Position - Chart.png

This chart shows that there is a slight increase in the difference between the expected number of points that the higher-placed team will score relative to the lower-placed team as the gap in their respective ladder positions increases, but it's only half a goal per ladder position.

What's more, this difference explains only about half of one percentage of the variability in that margin.

Perhaps, I thought, more recent history would show a stronger link between ladder position difference and margin.

2010 - Grand Final Results by Ladder Position - Chart 2.png

Quite the contrary, it transpires. Looking just at the last 20 years, an increase in the difference of 1 ladder position has been worth only 1.7 points in increased expected margin.

Come the Grand Final, it seems, some of your pedigree follows you onto the park, but much of it wanders off for a good bark and a long lie down.