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AFL Round Table: Should eight teams be playing finals football? Has the 2021 sub rule been a success?

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Our AFL experts tackle some of the burning questions ahead of Round 21.

Is eight teams the right number for finals?

Rohan Connolly: I think it is. Obviously, this year seventh and eighth don't look like firing a shot in finals, but eighth did beat fifth last year (Collingwood against West Coast in Perth) and you can't ignore the Western Bulldogs coming from seventh to win the flag in 2016. As long as we have the pre-finals bye I also think teams in the lower half of the eight (wrongly) will have a better chance of winning a flag or at least getting to a Grand Final than they did. While we're stuck with that, you might as well have eight teams qualify in my view.

Jake Michaels: Look, I think eight is the right number, but are there really eight teams who can genuinely win the flag? Absolutely not. This year it's a two-horse race (Bulldogs and Cats) and more than a couple are just making up the numbers. If the AFL was ever going to trial a new finals system, this would be the perfect time to do it. But we know they won't. After all, fewer games means less dollars.

Matt Walsh: I don't think so. It seems like every year there's one or two clubs making up the numbers who get spanked in the first week of finals. If anything, six is probably the number, but unless the AFL could come up with a way to keep the same number of finals (after all, the broadcasters want value for their money), then a wildcard top 10 is more likely!

Jarryd Barca: I think it is. Eight is already less than half the competition, with more teams to inevitably join the league down the track. In 2021? There's clearly a top six and bottom 12 the way that I -- and probably most pundits -- see it. What this season puts to bed though is the argument for a wildcard weekend; after 20 rounds there are five teams with no more than eight wins next to their name, and a win this week can see either of them jump into eighth spot. Now that's rewarding mediocrity. Compare this to a recent season like 2018 where four teams finished with a 12-10 record and all missed the eight, or 2012 when the eighth best team finished the home-and-away season 14-8, and clearly eight teams featuring in September is justified.

Has the 2021 substitute rule been a success?

RC: I wouldn't necessarily call it a success or failure. It was and remains something hastily introduced clearly as a protective mechanism to deal with potential legal actions over concussions, and expanded to all serious injuries at the last minute. It was clunky in its execution and remains clunky in operation, none the least with regards to players filling the substitute role who have already played, who aren't properly prepared to play, or even who have senior games counted when they haven't in fact played one.

JM: In some aspects it has as it's allowed for an injured player to be replaced, and I'm all for that. But in order to prevent 'tactical subsitutions' the AFL should make it mandatory that any player subbed out of a game cannot play the following week. Also, as Rohan pointed out, how stupid is it that an unused sub is still credited with a game!?

MW: I think it has, but probably not in the way it was expected. Initially it was meant to be a concussion sub, but was broadened, and I think it has been a success in the sense that it hasn't damaged the game in any way. And if it means clubs err on the side of caution for injuries, I'm all for it.

JB: I was sceptical when it was introduced and I still believe that coaches should be in control of when and how they use substitutes, as opposed to solely replacing an injured or concussed player. From the very start of the season we've seen clubs manipulate the rule by utilising their medical subs for a player with a very minor issue, only for him to play again the following week. There are too many ways for coaches to rort this to give their team a fresh pair of legs and until we see that controversy in a cut-throat final, we probably won't understand how needless the specific regulations are with the medical sub.

Has Alastair Clarkson's legacy been tarnished by the events of the past week?

RC: I think the only legacy at Hawthorn in danger of being tarnished by what has happened is that of the president, Jeff Kennett. It's become clearer that Clarkson was treated shabbily, not given the respect his record demanded, and a hastily-prepared succession "plan" unbecoming in its expectations of him. For all that, he was still prepared to see it through until a dignified exit was engineered. He will remain as large a figure in Hawthorn's history as predecessors John Kennedy and Allan Jeans.

JM: His legacy will remain in tact but I'm more interested to see what happens to it when he inevitably takes the reigns at another club. Is Clarkson the master coach everyone seems to think? His record at the Hawks over the past six seasons is 63-2-63, under 50 percent, so I wouldn't exactly say he's lit it up. I'm looking forward to discovering whether he's a great coach or someone who benefitted from a plethora of talent.

MW: Absolutely not, and I think some of his legacy is yet to be written. He's said he won't coach next year, but I'll believe that on Dec. 31, 2022. In fairness, I think he'd be an interesting special comments guy on TV and/or radio, but I can't see him being out of the coaching caper for too long. When just about half the league's head coaches have been students of Clarko at one point or another, I think your legacy is fine.

JB: While the way the Hawks handled the succession plan and the repugnant news bleeding out from board level was poor, in no way is Clarko's legacy tarnished. He has led them to four premierships, including a three-peat, and will leave the club as the most successful coach in its history. It's as sure as night follows day that we'll see Clarko coach again to build on said legacy.

Which retro guernsey needs to be brought back full time?

RC: Honourable mention to Fremantle's original strip, as I always liked the anchor and think green is a colour not used in sporting club colours nearly often enough. But I really like Sydney's heritage strip worn against Essendon on Sunday, far more than I like their regulation jumper. I mean, the Swans have now been in Sydney for 40 years, do we really need that etch of the Opera House on the yoke to remind us? Not only is the alternate strip a lot more striking, I reckon, but pays suitable homage to the club's history as South Melbourne.

JM: Can it really be anything other than the great Fitzroy strip? I think not.

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MW: Is it too cheeky to say the prison bars? Seriously, probably the Saints' cross guernsey. I always thought that looked pretty good, and if they need a clash version, just pull out the Pura milk yellow one! Other good ones I'd like to see return are the Power's lightning bolt number, and the Bulldogs' one with the dog's head on the front.

JB: After seeing Freo's green, red and purple jumper with the thick white anchor make its little season 2021 cameo on the weekend, definitely not that one - it's a shocker. One of the best guernseys I've seen is North Melbourne's away/clash guernsey worn between 1996-2002; the blue kangaroo sitting underneath the short-stopped stripes is basic but equally striking. Also a fan of Sydney's red 'V' on the white top that they've been rocking of late.