How about a mercy rule? Eagles’ plight casts shadow over AFL season

On Saturday night, the AFL will forsake one of the principles on which its equalised competition was founded, that on a given day, any team can beat any other. Every tipster in the land can put themselves down for at least one point now. The only reason to tune in to Brisbane-West Coast will be ghoulish intrigue.

The AFL says all clubs agreed that this season would proceed without interruption no matter who was hit by COVID-19 and how hard and how often. They reiterated this when a severely depleted West Coast lost narrowly to North Melbourne in round two. The Eagles grimaced and bore it then.

Eagles coach Adam Simpson: sidelined.Credit:AFL Photos/Getty Images

But as the weeks pass and decimation of West Coast grows more acute, the integrity of the competition comes squarely into question. Last week, the Eagles were crushed at home by Richmond, who fattened their percentage by a whopping 19 points.

This week, West Coast have lost eight more from their footy program, including coach Adam Simpson, leaving them with a bare minimum of 22 listed players, included top-ups from the WAFL, and a locum coach. Their WAFL team have had to postpone this week.

In round two, the Eagles’ met North Melbourne, this year’s probable wooden spooner. On Saturday, they are up against the Brisbane Lions, the likeliest challengers to Melbourne for the 2022 premiership, in form, in their Gabba fortress. It is a macabre prospect. Even Commodus, blood-thirstiest of the Roman emperors, would have called off this one.

The AFL says that to postpone games would be to kick the problem down the road, since no-one can know when and where and how severely COVID-19 will strike next.

West Coast: more changes.Credit:Getty Images

But by prevailing on the Eagles to play on, it is kicking the integrity issue down the road. For as long as the Eagles can field only skeleton teams, a random selection of other clubs will get an artificial boost by playing them. That will skew the ladder.

Yes, Essendon were barely competitive in 2016, but that was their own doing. West Coast are innocents.

Then there is the matter of what to do at season’s end. After a turbulent off-season, and with an ageing list, no-one expected West Coast to be in premiership contention this year. But nor were they in calculations about the wooden spoon, with its attendant draft largesse. How is that to be distributed?

This is not schadenfreude concerning West Coast. It could have been anyone. It still might be. The Eagles’ plight is no good for them, not really any good for Brisbane, not good for the spectacle and not at all good for the validity of the competition.

Brisbane Lions: flying high.Credit:AFL Photos via Getty Images

We know the AFL doesn’t change their mind. But we also know they’re not averse to an overnight rule change. So, if postponement is not an option, how about a mercy rule?

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