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9. How the Finals Work

The AFL season consists of 23 rounds, with most games being played between Friday night and Sunday afternoon. At the end of the 23 weeks of season play, the top 8 teams in the standings face off in 3 weeks of “finals” matches. Finals are the term used in Australian football for post regular season matches and culminate in the Grand Final in Week 4.  The teams are seeded 1 thru 8 according to the order of their finish in the “minor premiership” or regular season. These finals are:

Week 1: The top two matches are called "Qualifying Finals": #1 hosts #4, and #2 hosts #3. Winners advance to week 3. Losers play in week 2.

The bottom two matches are called "Elimination Finals": #5 hosts #8 and #6 hosts #7. Losers are eliminated, winners play Week 2.

Week 2: The matches this week are known as Semi-Finals (the term confuses most Americans as they are not the matches preceding the championship): The higher seeded losers from Week 1 host the lower seeded winners from Week 1. The losers of this weekend are eliminated. The winners advance to week 3.

Week 3: This week is the Preliminary Finals: The top seeded winners from week 1 host the winners from week 2. Teams that met in week 1 can't meet again in this round requiring a "crossover" in some cases. The two winners from this week advance to the Grand Final.

Week 4: Grand Final. Winners from Week 3 meet at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) for the premiership (what Americans might call the championship). The game is always at the MCG regardless of the clubs involved.

For example, in 2016, the standings, or ladder as it is called in Australian Rules was:

Greater Western Sydney
West Coast
Western Bulldogs
North Melbourne

Therefore, the first week of finals was:

1st Elimination Final: Adelaide defeated North Melbourne, eliminating North Melbourne

2nd Elimination Final: Western Bulldogs defeated West Coast, eliminating West Coast

1st Qualifying Final: Geelong defeated Hawthorn, relegating Hawthorn to a semi-final and Geelong advanced to a Preliminary Final

2nd Qualifying Final: Greater Western Sydney defeated Sydney, relegating Sydney to a semi-final and Greater Western Sydney advanced to a Preliminary Final

The second week was the Semi-Finals:

1st Semi-Final: Western Bulldogs defeated Hawthorn, eliminating Hawthorn and advancing to a Preliminary Final against Greater Western Sydney

2nd Semi-Final: Sydney defeated Adelaide, eliminating Adelaide, advancing to a Preliminary Final against Geelong

The third week was the Preliminary Finals:

1st Preliminary Final: Sydney defeated Geelong, eliminating Geelong and advancing to the Grand Final

2nd Preliminary Final: Western Bulldogs defeated Greater Western Sydney, eliminating Greater Western Sydney and advancing to the Grand Final.

Week 4: Grand Final: Sydney and Western Bulldogs will battle for the “Premiership”, as the championship of the AFL is known.

The above system was introduced in 2000, and it is the last (to date) of many systems which were tried over the years, going back to the beginning in 1897. It heavily tilts the finals toward the higher seeded clubs. From 2007 to 2014 only the top two teams made it to the Grand Final and prior to 2015, no team seeded lower than fifth has made it to a Grand Final. That has now been changed with Western Bulldogs playing in the Grand Final having battled from 7th position in the 2016 season to advance to a Grand Final. 

Past systems include:

In 1897, the top 4 teams played off in a round robin series, with the best performed side - Essendon which won all 3 of its games - being declared the champion with no Grand Final.   From 1898-1900, a more complex system was played which allowed all 8 teams to participate. The top 4 and bottom 4 teams were then divided into two sections - A and B. The position of each team in each section determined who from Section A would play whom in Section B. At the end of the series, the top two from each Section would play off in a final. However, if the team who finished first prior to the finals series failed to earn a spot in the semi-final, it had the right of challenge, where by it could play in a Grand Final against the best-performed team of the round robin series. For example, in 1898, Essendon finished first but won only 2 of its 3 sectional games while Fitzroy and Collingwood won all 3 of their games. Fitzroy defeated Collingwood in the next finals match, but Essendon had the right of challenge to play Fitzroy in a Grand Final, with Fitzroy winning. 

From 1901-1906, the round robin series continued. At the end of the season, there was a preliminary ladder, which determined the matches of the round robin series. When that series was concluded, the top 4 teams would meet in semi-finals, with the winners advancing to the Grand Final. The round robin series was abandoned after 1906 and only the top 4 played off in semi-finals and a Grand Final.

In 1931, a new finals system was introduced. It was suggested by Richmond secretary Percy Page and developed by Ken McIntryre who worked as a solicitor, teacher, and historian. The Page-McIntyre finals system is still used in a modified form today. From 1931-1971, it was still a top 4 system:

First semi-final: 3rd vs. 4th, loser eliminated

Second semi-final: 1st vs. 2nd

Preliminary final: loser of 2nd semi-final vs. winner of 1st semi-final, loser eliminated

Grand Final: 2nd semi-final winner vs. preliminary final winner

In 1972, a final 5 was introduced and Ken McIntyre again worked out the details, resulting in the introduction of an elimination final and a qualifying final as well the semi-finals, preliminary finals, and the Grand Final. The structure was:

Elimination Final: 4th vs. 5th. Loser eliminated

Qualifying Final: 2nd vs. 3rd

First Semi-Final: QF loser vs. EF winner, loser eliminated

Second Semi-Final: Minor premier (first place at end of season) vs. QF winner, winner to Grand Final

Preliminary Final: 2nd SF loser vs. 1st semi-final winner, loser eliminated, winner to Grand Final

Mr. McIntyre was called upon yet again at the end of 1990 to work out a Final 6 for 1991. A second elimination final was introduced and so it became:

First EF: 5th vs. 6th, loser eliminated, winner advances to semi-final

Second EF: 3rd vs. 4th, loser eliminated, winner advances to semi-final

QF: 1st vs. 2nd, with result determining which team played in which semi-final

1st SF: QF winner vs. winner of 1st EF, loser eliminated

2nd SF: QF loser vs. 2nd EF winner, winner advances to GF, loser to PF

PF: winner to Grand Final, loser eliminated

The final 6 lasted only a few years as the league introduced the Final 8 in 1994, but it was a bit different from the current model. The top 4 had a “double chance” meaning they could lose once and still eventually make the Grand Final, but with 8 teams came the need to determine which of the bottom 4 would be eliminated and who would advance. In 1999, the final year of this particular model, the standings at the end of the season were:

Western Bulldogs
West Coast
Port Adelaide

Under this original Final 8 system, it was 1st vs. 8th, 2nd vs. 7th, 3rd vs. 6th, and 4th vs. 5th.

From the results of the Qualifying Finals in Week 1, a revised seeding of the final 8 standings was determined and this, in turn, determined who progressed straight to the Preliminary Finals, who had to play in the Week 2 Semi-Finals, and who was eliminated. 

So the first week of finals in 1999 was:

Essendon vs. Sydney - Essendon won

Kangaroos vs. Port Adelaide - Kangaroos won

Brisbane vs. Carlton - Brisbane won

West Coast vs. Western Bulldogs - West Coast won

This made the final 8 standings:


West Coast


Western Bulldogs
Port Adelaide

Had Essendon, the first placed team at the end of the 22 rounds lost, they would have become the top ranked loser and would have gone to the Semi-Finals, with the other 3 teams below them moving up a rung and Sydney, despite losing would have become the 4th ranked winner. The Bulldogs, Eagles, and Brisbane would then have been below Essendon on the “Losers’ ladder. This would have made the Kangaroos and Brisbane the top 2 winners, allowing them to advance to the Preliminary Finals in Week 3 without having to play in the Week 2 Semi-Finals.

However, as it was, Port and Sydney were eliminated, while Carlton (6th) had a second chance with their win over Brisbane. Essendon and the Kangaroos, by virtue of being the top two teams at the end of the season and winning their first finals, advanced to the preliminary finals without having to play a semi-final in Week 2. Because the 5th placed West Coast defeated the 4th placed Bulldogs, they moved up a rung compared to the end of season standings. But because the Bulldogs finished 4th and Brisbane 3rd at the end of the season, they still had another chance in the semi-finals. As a result, the Semi-Finals games of Week 2 were:

Carlton vs. West Coast

Brisbane vs. Western Bulldogs

Carlton and Brisbane won those games, eliminating West Coast and the Bulldogs, which made the Preliminary Finals:

Carlton vs. Essendon - Carlton won

Kangaroos vs. Brisbane - Kangaroos won

The Grand Final was then contested between Carlton and the Kangaroos with the Kangaroos winning the premiership.

However, there was a huge storm of controversy afterward with many believing that the West Coast Eagles had gotten a raw deal, by being forced to travel to Melbourne to face Carlton when, by all rights they, as the higher ranking and winning team, should have hosted the final at their home ground. Part of this was due to the AFL’s contract with the MCG, which stipulated that at least one final per week had to be at the ground, regardless of the teams involved. The MCC Trust was totally implacable on this point and had the law on their side since the contract was agreed to by the AFL.  

As a result, the AFL revised the Final 8 structure for 2000, which is the current model. Instead of 1st vs 8th, 2nd vs 7th, and so on, the structure became 1st vs 4th, 2nd vs 3rd, 5th vs 8th and 6th vs 7th. This allowed for more equitable matches to give the lower teams a better chance of advancing. Instead of four Qualifying Finals, there are now two Qualifying Finals between the top four teams and two Elimination Finals between the next four teams. As in the past, the winners of the Qualifying Finals get the second week off and advance directly to the Preliminary Finals. The losers of the Elimination Finals are out while the winners face the Qualifying Finals losers in the Week Two Semi-Finals. Again, the losers are eliminated while the winners go to the Preliminary Finals. The two winners of those Preliminary Finals face off in the Grand Final. The goal of getting lower seeded teams into the third and fourth week of finals hasn't been achieved as in only a couple of cases has a team seeded 5th or lower reached the third week of finals and none have won the Grand Final.

The fight with the MCC continued for several years, especially with the emergence of clubs based outside of Melbourne such as Brisbane and Adelaide as regular finals contenders.The AFL and MCC finally resolved the matter, with the AFL being allowed to “bank” finals over a period of 5 years, which allowed it more flexibility and the ability to grant home finals to interstate teams who earned the right to do so. The higher the ladder position and winning the first week of finals virtually guarantees a home final.

Time To Be Added for Finals and Grand Final Tie

In the 120 years of league football, there have been only six tied finals games and just three tied Grand Finals, all of which meant replays the following week. Most of these tied games came before interstate teams joined the competition. The last final which had to be replayed was in 1990 at Waverley between Collingwood and West Coast, who had entered the newly-named AFL (changed from the VFL) in 1987. This meant the Perth-based Eagles had to fly to and from Melbourne twice in two weeks. It was after this in 1991, when the league realized the disadvantage ahead of a Grand Final, that they decided to add two five-minute halves if scores were level at the final siren. However, this new ruling did not apply to Grand Finals since there had only been two drawn Grand Finals up to that time, both of which involved teams based in Melbourne.

After Collingwood and St Kilda played in just the third drawn Grand Final in league history in 2010 - with Collingwood prevailing in the replay - there was much discussion over the next six years of whether or not extra time should be added to Grand Finals if scores are tied. It is not only the teams that are affected by having to replay the match. There are the fans, the media, ticketing for the replay, a second AFL Grand Final Record to be published and, not the least, the travel factor for teams and fans should an interstate team be one those involved. All of which has to be done in seven days. Of course, a second Grand Final did mean an unexpected revenue windfall for the league. On the flip side was the expense for the teams and league to stage a replay.

At its April 2016 meeting, the AFL Commission approved a recommendation from the AFL Executive that extra time would now be played for all finals, including the Toyota AFL Grand Final. From 2016 to 2019 these rules were applied (see below for a note on further changes in 2020): 

The playing conditions in the event of a draw at the end of normal time are now the same for all finals matches except the Grand Final and apply as follows:

- If scores are tied at the end of normal time, there will be two periods of additional time played of five minutes each way, plus time-on. Teams will have a new rotation cap of 15 interchanges.

- If scores remain tied at the end of additional time, the siren will NOT be sounded and play will continue until the next score has been confirmed. The siren will then immediately sound to end the match.

AFL General Manager Football Operations Mark Evans said the AFL had also detailed the scenario to clubs that could apply in the rare situation if a player had a set shot after additional time had concluded, that then tied the scores - a player scoring a behind with one point the difference or a scoring a goal with six points the difference.

'If the circumstances were ever to apply that scores were tied after extra time with a post-siren shot at goal, with the siren having sounded, in this circumstance the ball would immediately be returned to the centre square with no break and play would immediately resume with a centre bounce. The players would be told the next score wins the game and the siren would sound immediately after confirmation of the next score," he said.

For the record, the drawn games have been in order: 1928 Semi-Final between Collingwood and Melbourne (won by Collingwood), 1946 Semi-Final between Collingwood and Essendon (won by Essendon), 1948 Grand Final between Essendon and Melbourne (won by Melbourne),1962 Preliminary Final between Carlton and Geelong (won by Carlton), 1972 Semi-Final between Richmond and Carlton (won by Richmond), 1977 Grand Final between Collingwood and North Melbourne (won by North Melbourne), the aforementioned 1990 Qualifying Final, the 2007 Semi-Final between Collingwood and West Coast (in Perth and the first final to use extra time to determine a winner) and finally the aforementioned 2010 Grand Final which will certainly qualify for a trivia question in the future as the last tied Grand Final to be replayed the following week.

The rules for tied Finals matches and tied Grand Finals have again been amended for 2020 and beyond for both the AFL and AFLW. In the event of a tie, an additional time period of 2 x 3 minutes plus time on will be played until the deadlock is broken. In the event of a tied Finals match, the following procedure shall apply:

Goal umpires confirm scores are tied. This will be followed by a six-minute break for the AFL and six and a half minutes for the AFLW. The teams will change ends for the recommencement of play which will last three minutes plus time on. At the end of the first period, the siren will sound and teams will again change ends without a break. The second period will then commence. The siren will sound after three minutes, and the team with the highest score is declared the winner. If scores are still tied, the process will be repeated until a final result is determined. 

The starting positions of players in a 6-6-6 distribution across the ground (introduced in 2019) will apply for the extra time periods. Clubs will be allowed an extra 10 interchanges for each extra time period. This does not apply to the AFLW which has no interchange cap. Leftover interchanges from one period will not be carried over to the next. 

Article last changed on Wednesday, October 28, 2020 - 5:45 PM EDT

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