AFL: How often does the same line-up play together?

At the start of a season it’s natural for fans to pencil in their side’s “best 22” and then hope for that specific combination of 22 team-mates to actually play together fairly regularly. Sure, there’s injuries, and sometimes even pretty good players might get dropped, but you’d think  any given 22 players would still regularly go into battle alongside each other. But…it’s simply not the case.

The fact is, in the entire history of the VFL/AFL, spanning back to 1897, across more than 15,000 matches, the most times any unique line-up has played together is seven. Hard to believe isn’t it? I barely believed it myself when I first generated this data. Let’s have a look:

Any unique VFL/AFL line-up
To play together Likelihood Occurrences
Just once 92.54% 28,550
2 games together 6.20% 1,912
3 games together 0.92% 285
4 games together 0.05% 15
5 games together 0.02% 5
6 games together 0.01% 2
7 games together 0.003% 1
Current as of April 9, 2019

As can be seen in the table, when a combination plays together,  it will most likely be the only time that same combination ever plays together. There’s only a 6.20% chance of a line-up playing two games together – three games? Less than a 1% chance. Four times or more is exceedingly rare, and that seven times mentioned earlier has only happened once.

What about Grand Finals sides?

There has actually only been one occurrence where the same line-up has played in two grand finals, but this was in the same season. In the 1977 Grand Final, North Melbourne drew with Collingwood and then fielded exactly the same line-up the following week in the Grand Final replay – winning by 27 points to take the flag. No grand final side has ever ‘got the band back together’ in any match in any following seasons.

Ok, but has any unique line-up from any match appeared in more than one season?

No. It has actually never happened in any of the 121 VFL/AFL seasons to date. It seems that the combination of retirements, new recruits, and injuries from season-to-season makes this incredibly unlikely to occur. However, in many seasons, when enough players are retained on the list, there is a possibility of it occurring  – but it would require a situation with no new players picked in the side, and a remaining list featuring almost no injured players.

So which unique line-up holds that record of seven games together?

Roy Cazaly featured in the line-up that played the most games together

It was South Melbourne in 1924 and perhaps it’s quite fitting that the team was captained by possibly the most well-known name in Australian Rules Football – the legendary Roy “Up There” Cazaly. Here they are:

7 games together for South Melbourne- all in 1924 (3 were consecutive):

Bobby Allison, Martin Brown, Roy Cazaly (c), Bill Condon, Fred Fleiter, Arthur Hando, Ted Johnson, Tom Joyce, Frank Laird, Herb Matthews, Charles McDonald, Charlie Nicholls, Jack O'Connell, Joe Scanlan, Paddy Scanlan, Mark Tandy, Les Woodfield. (18 players)

So no other full combination has played more games together. Here are their results:

We can see this combination played four games at home and three away, including three consecutive games together in rounds five, six, and seven. They won five out of the seven, with the team-mates playing their last game together in a semi final – suffering a loss to Richmond at Windy Hill  – a game that happens to be the only final ever played at the venue.

It’s also important to note that in the competition pre-1930, there were only 18 players per side (with the exception of 1897-98 where there were 20). 1930-45 was 19 players per side, 1946-93 saw 20 players per side, 1994-97  was 21 players per side and 1998 until now is 22 players per side. This means these days, with 22 players per side, thus more possible combinations, there is even less chance of this record of ‘seven games together’ ever being broken.

What about the most consecutive games together?

"The Machine" of 1929 featured the most consecutive games played by the same line-up.

From rounds three to eight  in 1929, readers would have noticed “No change” next to Collingwood’s line-up in the newspaper – and there were no late changes either. Yes, for six weeks in a row, the same 18 players ran out for the Pies. This record is also equal-second on the list of most games played together:

6 games together for Collingwood- all in 1929 (all consecutive):

Jack Beveridge,	Harry Chesswas,	George Clayden,	Albert Collier,	Harry Collier, Gordon Coventry, Syd Coventry, Charlie Dibbs, George Gibbs, John Harris, Albert Lauder, Billy Libbis, Norm MacLeod,	Bob Makeham,	Frank Murphy, Len Murphy, Harold Rumney, Leo Wescott. (18 players)

Their results:

Perhaps this was the line-up of all line-ups during Collingwood’s rampaging era of 1927-30, which netted a record four premierships in succession. Led by the Coventry, Collier, and Murphy brothers, this group of 18 players were never beaten. They played together six times in a row for six wins, with their last outing together being a narrow win against St Kilda at the Junction Oval in round eight.  It mattered not that this particular combination never re-united on-field, for ‘The Machine’ were well on their way to a third straight flag under Jock McHale.

In the 22-player era

The most games played together in 22-man sides is five – this is jointly-held by Sydney in 2005 and Adelaide in 2016.

In summary

So this has illustrated how rare it is for a club to field exactly the same line-up in multiple games. It also highlights the importance of having depth on a club’s list.

So, enjoy that “best 22” when they do finally run out together because, chances are, that same line-up may never feature again!

Cheers,

Paul P Mark