Weaker AFL teams showing their steel

This is a unique AFL season in so many ways. But if there is one emerging theme which is merely a continuation of a competition trend evident for a while now, it is the disappearance of the "basket case".

One initiative of the AFL era for which the league probably doesn't get enough credit is the effectiveness of its equalisation measures. They give every team a chance, if not now, then sooner than later.

The inevitable hyperbole which surrounds the coverage of the game these days may regularly lead you to think otherwise, of course.

Take Gold Coast, for example. It was less than a year ago, as the Suns crashed to an 18th consecutive defeat, that there was much speculation not only about the worth of a football side, but an entire club.

Sure, things superficially looked bleak. But more important than the mounting losses was the fact that Gold Coast for once managed to both stop the haemorrhaging of senior players to other destinations, and shore up the contracts of its leading future prospects.

It then added yet more elite junior talent with the first two picks in the national draft in Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson. And thus far in 2020, the Suns have been a completely different proposition altogether, more talented, more resilient, and at 4-4, at least some sort of finals chance.

That's a fair distance from having had the pundits calling upon the AFL to pull up stumps and shunt the whole operation off to Tasmania. And the improvement hasn't been so much about concessions as simply allowing list planning the necessary time to bear fruit.

It's hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel sometimes. Which might well be how a lot of Adelaide supporters are feeling right now, the Crows having fallen from a grand final to 0-7 and bottom of the ladder less than three seasons on. But in an on-field sense at least, are things necessarily that bad? I don't think so.

Given the way it dominated play in the final quarter of that three-point loss to Essendon last Sunday, another minute or two and more than likely Adelaide would have posted its first win of the season. That would have been portrayed as a major upset against a team now 5-2 and with a game in hand.

I'm not so sure it actually would have been. Full credit to the Dons for notching the wins thus far, but facts are three of them have been by less than a kick against teams all in the bottom five on the ladder, and another by 14 points against a team 17th with six straight losses.

Since two bonafide stinkers against Port Adelaide and Gold Coast in rounds two and three, the Crows have at least been consistently competitive.

Their best quarter of the season to that point in round four saw them edge within three goals of Brisbane at three-quarter time. And since then, they've held West Coast to four goals for a half and trailed St Kilda by single digits midway through the final term before coming oh-so-close against the Bombers.

That's without skipper Rory Sloane, and an important rebound defender in Wayne Milera, too.

North Melbourne, similarly, has been copping a critical caning since winning its first two games of the season.

Certainly, the last few weeks have shown just how reliant are the Roos on the likes of senior men Ben Cunnington and skipper Jack Ziebell, not to mention up forward Ben Brown in at least some sort of form.

Yet who knows how last Saturday's final term against Carlton might have panned out had Jasper Pittard not had a sizeable brain explosion, denying teammate Jared Polec the chance to give the Roos the lead at three-quarter time?

Of course, the focus in these cases will always be on the negative. And six defeats on end these days is a lot.

But consider also the following. North Melbourne did come from behind to beat St Kilda. It then upset last year's grand finalist GWS the following week. And while the Roos have been awful in a couple of this string of losses, four of them have come by no more than 14 points.

Fremantle, meanwhile, might just be the poster child for competitive losers. Monday night's loss to Geelong by 32 points the heaviest of the Dockers' six defeats.

That's been no mean feat considering their injury list, which numbered 14 on Tuesday, the names including Fyfe, Logue, Hogan, Hill, Pearce, Hamling, Cox and now potentially both Tucker and Walters. No team can afford not to have that amount of talent on the park, let alone the second youngest and second least-experienced list in the AFL.

And yet Fremantle continues to push every opponent, a couple of goals away from a record which could read 6-2 instead of 2-6.

If these truly are the worst teams in the competition, even the very best are going to have work pretty hard for every victory. That should be some sort of comfort as the Crows, Roos and Dockers resign themselves to another season without finals.

Adelaide in particular has discovered that a fall from grace in AFL football can be pretty quick. Fortunately, these days, so can a recovery.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at footyology.com.au