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It's staying home: AFL premier will almost certainly be a Victorian team

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IT WAS RICHMOND chief executive Brendon Gale who, moments after his side's Grand Final win last year tweeted: "The Hard Way", an apt summation of the challenges the Tigers faced to secure their third premiership in four seasons.

There were obstacles galore on the path to a flag, none more so than, along with their Victorian stablemates, having to live, train and play in Queensland for more than three months.

Twelve months on, we've come full circle, a relatively COVID-free Victoria right now effectively the base for several interstate teams. But that's not the only reason I think if a non-Victorian team is to end up winning the 2021 AFL premiership, "The Harder Way" might be an even more appropriate moniker.

You mightn't think that if you just glance at the current ladder, five of the top eight from outside Victoria. But more and more, even with six regular season games remaining, it seems a Victorian team is destined to win the flag for an eighth time in nine years. And that's not just about life in the pandemic.

It's not even that Melbourne, the Western Bulldogs and Geelong are occupying the top three spots on the ladder. It's more about the serious question marks over every one of the non-Victorians in a position to upset the apple cart.

Even Brisbane? Well, yes. It's a harsh call given the quality of some of the football the Lions have played this season, not to mention their run of seven straight wins. Even that loss to St Kilda last Saturday night could be dismissed as a glitch in isolation.

But the loss for the season of key forward Eric Hipwood is a massive blow, not only because he was contributing close to two goals per game, but for the lack of obvious replacements.

On Tuesday, Lions' coach Chris Fagan said Hipwood's likely fill-in was either three-gamer Connor Ballenden or six-gamer Tom Fullarton, both ruckmen who'd be pinch-hitting in the role. That's not really the sort of "pick and hope" proposition you want to be taking into a finals campaign.

My other big query on the Lions remains one which is routinely dismissed by coaches but in their case simply hasn't been answered. It's the MCG.

Even if Brisbane keeps its top four spot, it's still going to have to win a premiership at a ground with which it isn't at all familiar, and which also on the few occasions it does play there, continues to cause it grief.

The Lions haven't played at the "G" since Round 1 last year, now 16 months ago. Even without a hostile crowd (due to a lockout) against a team of which little was expected in Hawthorn, they lost that day. Indeed, Brisbane has lost its last nine games at the MCG (the last win in 2014) and 17 of its last 19. That's as compelling as history gets these days.

So what of the other non-Victorian candidates? Well, Port Adelaide's MCG record by comparison isn't bad at all, winning seven of 10 games there since 2016. The significant "but" is that only one of those seven wins (including Carlton and Collingwood this season) has come against a team which would be a finalist that season.

And, as we've heard (and witnessed) ad nauseam lately, the Power have big problems knocking over the best teams. They're 2-5 against the current top eight (both Fremantle and Sydney lower on the ladder), and not only 0-4 against the top four, but three of those four defeats (against the Bulldogs, Geelong and Melbourne) coming at home. So what chance of them beating any of that trio in Melbourne?

It's Sydney which seems as good a non-Victorian chance as any right now despite coming from the clouds this year, the Swans already having beaten three of the top four and losing to the other (Melbourne) by just nine points. That narrow defeat was at the MCG, where earlier this season they made a mess of Richmond.

The doubt is going to remain the rawness among their line-up. There's no shortage of experience at the top end, of course, with 15 100-game-plus players on the list, but what about the considerable army of kids?

You could argue that Joel Amartey, James Bell, Errol Gulden, Justin McInerney, Sam Wicks, Chad Warner and Braeden Campbell are all in Sydney's best 22. None have played even 25 AFL games, and just two even 20. They'll remain big "ifs" come September.

Which leaves the two Western Australian teams and GWS. And right now, would you have any sort of money on them staying in (or getting back in for the Giants) the final eight given the Eagles' present form, the Dockers' road unreliability and the Giants inconsistency?

It's not often you'll find a team sitting seventh on the ladder paying $81 for the premiership (Fremantle) while one occupying 12th spot is a far shorter $15 (Richmond). Indeed, even St Kilda and Essendon are a shorter price than the Dockers for the flag.

A final disclaimer here, too, for any misguided assumptions of Victorian bias in this hypothesis. If it's not my team, I don't give a flying fig who wins the premiership. I'd actually argue most Victorians would prefer an interstate side win the flag than a local rival.

And I reckon they'd all agree that in 2021, if a side from beyond their own state border is good enough to overcome those hurdles described and somehow grab the unlikeliest of AFL premierships, they will well and truly have earned it.

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