AFL follows bouncing ball
THE AFL has a lot to be proud of: a ground-breaking administrative model; evolution from a series of local competitions to a position of national pre-eminence; lucrative television deals; and use of its profile to powerful effect on some social issues.
A sports administration that has fared this well, you would assume, would be a particular master of its essential product: the game. Yet it is arguable the AFL has failed, over many years, to adequately manage what happens on the footy ground.
The sort of dog-chasing-its-tail announcement on rule changes, delivered by Andrew Demetriou and Adrian Anderson last Tuesday, stands as evidence. The league is a little like the sports drug testers, constantly playing catch-up but without the excuse of having teams of scientists in far-flung laboratories plotting against them.
And while it claims to simply be providing considered responses to a changing game, few other sports have the need to keep re-jigging their rules like this one. Either the laws were always fundamentally deficient or the AFL is failing to ensure their implementation so as to maintain a healthy equilibrium.
If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the current house special is a gelatinous blob that keeps sticking to one part of the plate.
The problem is packs, and endless ball-ups. Grand finals are the indicator of trends. Over 10 years until 2008, the average number of field bounces in season deciders was 27; in the past four years, it has risen to 47. This year, there were 51.
The dramatic growth in ball-ups has coincided with the exponential increase in interchange rotations and, no doubt, there is a connection between the ability of players to keep running to contests and the numbers that converge around the ball. But there is more to it than this, and it is time for the AFL to confront it.
The late Don Jolley, who umpired the fabled 1970 grand final, once told me he bounced the ball six times around the ground that day. While I can't immediately verify this astonishing claim because that figure is not recorded (and currently I don't have time to view the full replay), I accept that the number of ball-ups was many times lower than this year's 51.
And what was also dramatically different was the number of free kicks. In 1970, Jolley paid 90 (which may include frees for out of bounds on the full). In this year's grand final, 31 free kicks (not including ''out on the full'') were awarded in a game with indubitably more tackling than was the case 42 years ago. In the 1996 grand final, 19 free kicks - about one every six minutes - were awarded. Does anyone seriously believe the same standard of player protection was brought to that game as to the classic of 26 years earlier?
Apologists for today's relentless defensive, stoppage-oriented football argue that, in the past, too many inconsequential free kicks were paid. But Jolley and his peers did not just protect the ball player, they protected - and preserved - a particular form of the game.
Yet still the AFL football brains trust refuses to acknowledge liberal umpiring as a reason for the escalating problem of pack formation.
In the 1990s, the practice became entrenched of appointing a former AFL player or coach as umpires' boss. Never mind that such appointees had probably never given a moment's thought to the purpose of the rules, or to the matter of the preservation and nourishment of the code as a spectacle.
What they did know was that coaches liked tackling and defence, and that you did not want the umps giving free kicks in error or the clubs complaining during the week. Intervention by the man with the whistle thus became frowned upon. Umpiring would be done almost Colosseum-style, with ''Baaaalll!'' the big winner.
In recent times, sanity has at last been brought to the issue of ''Baaaalll!'' It has finally dawned that the playmaker was being monstered and that this flew in the face of the game's design.
But ''Baaaall'' had become the default method of pack-busting. So now, the packs are proliferating and, as a result, the bounce around the ground - a defining characteristic of the Australian game - will be scrapped to try and move things along.
There won't at this stage, though, be a second substitute. Mike Fitzpatrick's commission vetoed the recommendation of Anderson's rules committee - comprising six experts who average 320 games played or umpired - that the number of interchanges be capped at 80 rotations per match.
So the AFL keeps flailing away, but with little obvious indication it knows what it is doing. The football operations manager is a defamation lawyer, while - to the best of our knowledge - the umpires' director has never umpired a game. And now, the ultimate decision on rules has been taken by a board on which Linda Dessau, Paul Bassat, Richard Goyder, Bill Kelty and Sam Mostyn - talented people, no doubt, but not necessarily the nation's foremost football brains - form a 60 per cent majority. And shortly, the umpire will ball it up again …