Can the AFL’s recent improvers push into the next bracket?

We have two thirds of the the AFL regular season in the rear view mirror, and as the year has progressed, the fortunes and form of some clubs have waxed and waned. This week HPN will look at changes in HPN Team Ratings over the last few weeks to see if any teams are right on the cusp of new unexpected thresholds, or have definitely shown some real improvement.

First up, here’s the ratings as they sit after 15 of the 22 games of the regular season:

Geelong unsurprisingly sit out in front, still the best side at both bookends and with an okay balance of inside 50 opportunities provide by their midfield.

The Cats are followed by the plausibly premiership quality GWS, Collingwood and West Coast, each of whom have somewhat similar profiles to Geelong – good efficiency at both ends, while not especially top-end in terms of using the middle of the ground to dominate inside 50 entries. This may well reflect the dominant playstyles of the year, focused on intercept and rebound.

Sides rounding out the chasing pack show a wider variety of strength profiles, such as Essendon and Adelaide’s reliance on deep defence, Port and Richmond’s midfield territory dominance, and newly relevant North Melbourne’s mix of defensive frailty with power further upfield. It’s two of the surprise packets, Brisbane and North Melbourne, whose recent movements we want to focus on here.

Here come the Lions and Kangaroos (maybe)

These ratings are based on the whole season, so let’s isolate the last 6 weeks (5 games due to byes) and look at the movement overall.

North Melbourne have been the most improved side since Round 10, precisely when Rhyce Shaw took over. Their balance of inside 50s has improved markedly without any loss of offensive quality, and their defensive efficiency has sort of stabilised from “the actual worst” to merely “pretty bad”. North sit a game and percentage outside of finals and stand an 18% chance of making finals according to The Arc. It’s a narrow path, as they likely need 5 of 7 wins. This means they’ll probably need to beat three of Essendon, Brisbane, West Coast, Port Adelaide and Geelong. This trajectory of improvement, however, suggests they might be a chance.

Brisbane, meanwhile, have gotten better up forward and down back, while still being pretty reasonable through the middle. They sit 3rd for improvement in their last five games, sit 4th on the ladder, and now rate just a fraction outside the four strongest sides for the year. They’re also not that far off the 105.0 threshold rating which we’ve found historically suggests premiership contention. For whatever it’s worth, their NEAFL side is completely untouchable right now, fielding nearly all AFL-listed players, as the club has very few injuries. That’s probably a good place to be in for depth and senior form reasons.

Can the Lions they make top 4 and get a double chance and a final at the Gabba? They’re in the mix! The fact that they’re probably going to play finals if they can win two more games (perhaps vs the Hawks, Bulldogs or Suns) is already a big tick for their long rebuild.

Issues down back

Intriguingly, both North Melbourne and Brisbane have recently shored up their weakest areas of defensive efficiency, but both still look weakest in that part of the ground. It’s worth noting here that the HPN defensive rating is the line of the three measure which has the least correlation with winning of the three. We’re working on accounting for that in the near future, and just as a teaser, if we were to make an adjustment, it would likely improve both North and Brisbane’s overall standing in our ratings and forecasting and suggest they’re better placed than where we rate them.

Why have they has problems with defence? It’s always hard to tell how many goals are conceded through issues upfield, such as allowing quick rebounds and easy goals “out the back”, and how much is down to actual defensive frailties. One statistic that points to an issue with actual defenders is that a lot of the key defensive personnel at North and at Brisbane have surprisingly bad records in winning defensive 1v1 contests.

North bouncing back

Last year, a lot of what North was able to achieve was predicated on how they could stop teams scoring, while relying on a deliberately thin forward line to get over the top of their opponents. With the long underrated Robbie Tarrant, evergreen Scott Thompson and emerging Majak Daw leading their backline, it was commonly thought that if they could restock with better outside run, their backline could be one of the most effective in the league.

Unfortunately, it was quickly apparent that this wouldn’t happen. Summing up Majak Daw’s personal situation over the summer would be impossible to do in a sentence or two. Trying to do so would invariably miss the mark, so HPN won’t even try, but instead suggest you read up in full on it.

The second pillar, Scott Thompson, is finally (possibly) showing signs of age, with his Contested Defensive One On One (CDOOO) loss rate at 43% this year, after being at 23% last year. A good mark for KPDs sits around 20-25% – and only one main North defender is hitting that mark. Thompson’s performance has declined across the board, from intercepts to spoils to defensive half pressure acts and almost everything in between.

The remaining member of the trio, Robbie Tarrant, has picked up some of the slack, but not all of it. Instead, players like Luke McDonald, Jasper Pittard, Jamie MacMillan and Sam Durdin have had to pick up the slack – which has taken some time to do.

The absence of MacMillan since round 11 also somewhat coincides with their resurgence – despite his good year individually, perhaps the balance is better without him.

No North Melbourne player currently sits inside the top 35 for intercepts per game. There is no one focal point, but instead a committee approach used to wipe up loose ball and to stop key position forwards dominating their backline.

It’s not clear that what has been implemented is a long term fix, but it is improving recently.

The Lion’s roar is much quieter down back

Quick, name the top 10 for intercepts per game at the Lions this year. OK, Harris Andrews is a given, so who are the other nine?

Here’s a second to think…

Rank Name Games Average
1 Harris Andrews 13 7.23
2 Josh Walker 9 6.78
3 Daniel Rich 15 5.93
4 Darcy Gardiner 15 5.87
5 Luke Hodge 14 5.71
6 Ryan Lester 8 4.88
7 Noah Answerth 10 4.80
8 Lachie Neale 15 4.67
9 Nick Robertson 4 4.00
10 Mitch Robinson 15 3.73

(data from

Andrews is the only player in that list above in the top 20 across the league, and only just. Josh Walker was nearly out of the league not long ago, and Hodge actually retired. On paper, it’s not the deepest defence, and in practice it has been sieve-like at times.

Hodge has been getting a fair amount of praise this year for his role at Brisbane, and a lot of the time he has been sitting deep as a sweeper or as a spare man. That’s probably a safe move, because his CDOOO loss rate is pretty bad at 38%. Andrews CDOOO rate has slipped a little this year too, and it is at the worst level since 2015. It is worth noting that he has significantly picked up his intercept marking game, and rarely turns the ball over.

Unfortunately for Walker, his last game for the Lions came in round 10 – the time where their backline kicked up a gear. It appears that in his stead Darcy Gardiner has stepped up a gear, with others backfilling the role around him. Without Walker, the Lions have gone a little smaller down back, a move that has seemingly been working better.

Brisbane’s tenancy to gamble means that they are sometimes exploited running the other way, but this is a risk often worth taking. However, in certain match-ups it can leave them very exposed and vulnerable to upsets.

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