The AFL’s Biggest Pretenders 2017-21


Just before we kick off season 2022 in the AFL let’s take a look at the five teams that have promised the most over the past five years but delivered the least. Who has squandered their opportunities the most?

We’ll also look at the three teams who seized their chances when they arose.

So here they are, starting with the highest achievers across seasons 2017 to 2021.

1. Richmond

In the past five years the Tigers played finals footy four times, winning three flags from three Grand Final appearances (2017, 2019, 2020) and making the preliminary final in 2018. A minor premiership in ‘18 rounds out the Tigers resume.

Their 89-point trouncing of GWS in 2019 was the most one-sided grand final in years and in both 2017 and 2020 the Tigers overcame slow starts to run out convincing winners by 48 and 31 points respectively.

A disappointing, injury-plagued 2021 saw them miss the finals, but for the four years prior nobody made the most of their chances like Richmond.

Considering the Tigers hadn’t won a flag since 1980 it was a dramatic reversal of fortune for the yellow and black army.

Richmond’s 2020 grand final victory was their third in four years.

2. West Coast Eagles

Considered genuine contenders for most of the last half decade with four finals appearances, the Eagles won the flag in 2018 and made semi finals in 2017 and 2019. In 2020 they lost an elimination final to Collingwood by a point.

On their own, the repeated exits at the semi final stage might suggest a team failing to take the next step, but that argument falls flat considering those semi final losses bookend the clubs 4th premiership which came after a memorable comeback against the Pies.

2021 was a bleak disappointment but history shows the Eagles are rarely non-competitive for long and should be considered a danger side in 2022.

The Eagles ran down the Pies late to clinch the 2018 premiership.

3. Melbourne

The Demons only played finals footy in 2018 and 2021. ‘18 saw them reach the preliminary final seemingly out of nowhere before slipping out of the finals for the next few years.

In 2021 they recorded a resounding, drought-breaking Grand Final win over the Western Bulldogs. It was truly a case of making the most of good fortune, as almost everything fell into place for Melbourne throughout the season and they turned that early success into sustained confidence and form.

Both seasons saw the club record greater success than most would have predicted prior to round one, labelling the Demons as either over-achievers or an emerging power. Either way, their two finals appearances exceeded expectations and gave hope to a long-suffering fanbase.

The last five years have shown that the Demons are almost unbeatable at their best, but their worst is dismal.

It all went right for Melbourne in 2021, culminating in a drought-breaking premiership.

And now in reverse order, the great pretenders from the last five years of AFL footy:

5. GWS Giants

Multiple preliminary final appearances and a grand final in 2019 has added up to zero silverware for the Giants. Their 89-point thrashing at the hands of Richmond in 2019 saw GWS miss the finals entirely the year after.

In 2017 they lost the preliminary final to the Tigers but bounced back well, reaching the same stage in 2018 (losing to the Pies in a thriller) and reaching the decider in 2019.

A relatively young side on the rise, the Giants threatened greatness but never had the poise, consistency or big-game performances from their stars to deliver on that promise.

The 2019 grand final was a tough day at the office for the Giants, going down by 89 points to Richmond.

4. Collingwood

Their seventh place finish in 2021 was a flattering representation of where they’re currently at, bolstered by unexpectedly poor seasons from West Coast and Richmond. Middle of the road and dangerous on their day, but not genuine contenders anymore.

2018 was the closest the Pies came to another flag, but they were pipped by West Coast in the decider after destroying the ladder-leading defending premiers Richmond the week before.

Top four finishes in 2018 and 2019 were followed by an 8th place finish in 2020. After upsetting the Eagles by a point the Pies were thrashed by Geelong in their semi final.

Many would consider 2018 to be the one that got away for Collingwood after squandering a solid lead late in the grand final.

Their preliminary final clash with GWS in 2019 was an epic encounter but the Giants prevailed in a low-scoring thriller.

The “Colliwobbles” returned in the 2018 decider as the Eagles snatched victory late against the Pies.

3. Port Adelaide

Despite lean years in 2018 and 2019 the Power finished 5th in 2017 and recorded consecutive top-two finishes in 2020 and 2021. Those two seasons in particular they were considered genuine contenders.

Both years ended in preliminary final defeat, firstly in a low-scoring thriller against Richmond and then in a blowout against the Western Bulldogs. Both defeats also happened at Port’s home ground, adding extra fail factor.

Many have begun to doubt Port Adelaide after they lost a second straight preliminary final at home.

2. Brisbane Lions

For teams that promise a lot but deliver very little, it’s hard to beat Brisbane.

Multiple top four finishes have not even yielded a single grand final appearance. In 2020 they played almost the entire season at home due to Covid and still fell to Geelong in the preliminary final. It wasn’t the only home preliminary final they’ve lost in recent years, either.

Overall they’ve had a very good run with injuries and have set themselves up for finals success year after year. The addition of Joe Daniher in 2021 was supposed to make their forward line unbeatable, but that never eventuated.


For a team that has had so much fortune fall their way Brisbane has failed dismally to capitalise. With quality across the park, a good mix of youth and experience and a Brownlow medallist in the midfield, there are no excuses for the Lions.

Surprisingly they haven’t been tagged chokers yet, perhaps many instead consider them good but not quite good enough for premiership success.

Interestingly many Lions players often carry themselves with the arrogance of a premiership team yet they don’t have the silverware to back it up.

The Lions have lost 5 of 6 finals in the past three years, going out in straight sets twice.

1. Geelong Cats

A perennial contender, the Cats always seem to be in the race and often look unbeatable during the regular season. However, their inability to conquer the final few hurdles combined with the quality and depth of their list means Geelong are the biggest pretenders of the last five years.

No team has come closer to greatness more consistently than the Cats without reward. Their 2020 Grand Final loss to Richmond is compounded by three preliminary final exits in 2017, 2019 and 2021. With top four finishes across four of the five seasons (8th in 2018) the Cats have positioned themselves for success consistently but have not capitalised.

When you consider they led Richmond by 22 points in the second quarter of the 2020 decider only to concede 10 of the next 12 goals and lose by 31 points it is hard not to label the Cats as chokers.

Another year, another preliminary final loss. In 2021 it was the Demons ending the Cats season.

Their 2017 and 2019 preliminary final losses also came against the Tigers and they squandered leads in both suggesting Richmond might be their nemesis these days, however it is more likely that the star-studded but ageing Cats lack the legs and/or the ticker to get it done in September.

Their consistent competitiveness is to be commended but sadly for the Cats and their fans it has amounted to nothing but constant disappointment.

One of the all time greats: Gary Ablett was denied a fairytale finish to his career after the Cats were overrun in the second half by Richmond.

These last three of these teams are arguably under the greatest pressure to succeed in 2022. With the rise of Melbourne, the resurgence of the Bulldogs and other sides trending upwards these teams will find it harder to stay competitive. Their window of opportunity may be closing and they will need to strike quickly.

These teams have come very close to premiership success and will need to find another gear to avoid being consigned to history as pretenders or chokers.