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AFL follows bouncing ball

Date

Tim Lane

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 …

65 comments so far

  • The AFL's constant fiddling with the rules has become a joke. The AFL has only itself to blame for the current dilemma regarding interchanges. After the Swans won the flag in 2005, the powers that be in Melbourne were so keen to punish the "Ugly Swans" and their game plan, that they introduced several changes to supposedly "speed the game up", which were seen as disadvantaging Sydney. These included reducing the time after a mark from 15 seconds to 8, and allowing kick-ins after a behind without waiting for the flags. But of course the Swans, and other teams, adapted quickly, and the 2006 grand final was between the same 2 teams as 2005 (incidentally voted the most popular grand finals by Channel 7 viewers, funny that). Smart coaches like Roos, Worsfold and Malthouse quickly adapted, by increased use of interchanges. So of course the powers that be then wanted to cap interchanges, but instead they first decided on the ludicrous "sub rule". Now we are told we have to "slow the game down"! Go figure! . But seriously, how can any sporting code consider rules changes to deliberately create more fatigue in players? This is outrageous, and in any case won't work in reducing congestion. It will in fact cause more injuries, not fewer, as desperate players strive to get to the next contest. Leave the game alone!

    Commenter
    Chris H
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    October 21, 2012, 12:43AM
    • The AFL should think outside the square. There is no one in the AFL knowledgeable enough about the game to make good of a bad situation. Something has to be done about the gross amount of interchanges and I have the answer. Go back to the 4 interchange players (since the sub simply does not work) then restrict interchanges to one per player per quarter and no less than five minutes. This will automatically reduce the number of interchanges dramatically per quarter. There are five 5 min periods per quarter with 4 interchange players, so used to the max there approx 20 changes per quarter. The system will allow the team and AFL to easily monitor the interchanges. If a player has a niggling injury that needs to tended to after he has had an interchange, there is the "Blood Bin" (for want of a better name) idea that sees them out for 10 mins (not the blood rule which stays the same). A workable and positive system that would end all this crap the AFL is serving up at present.

      Commenter
      Pat
      Location
      Ballarat
      Date and time
      October 21, 2012, 1:19AM
      • Pat you are spot on, they do need to think outside the square. Essentially the problem that they are facing here is that the fundamentals of the game were set up to be played by blokes who smoked and drank and didn't train much, so they got tired quickly and basically stayed (roughly) in their position on the field. This meant that effectively there was more space on the field. Modern players have olympic level conditioning and can run all day, effectively making it seem like there are more players on the field. So the basic problem is that modern conditioning means that there are too many blokes on the field. Constantly stuffing about with rule tweaks will not change that fundamental problem. The only real and lasting solution to this is to take some blokes off the field. Change team numbers from 18 to 17 or even 16 and the game will automatically and permanently open up again. Mind you I love the game as it is (what a grand final!) and the only problem as far as I can see is incessant interference of those who want to "manage what happens on the ground".

        Commenter
        Mark
        Location
        ACT
        Date and time
        October 22, 2012, 12:44PM
    • i agree that it's chasing its tail with the tinkering and no doubt the laws committee feels obligation bound to come up with various new tinkers every year - there's a simple beauty to the game, give it a decent chance to work itself out without reacting every five minutes.
      But apart from that, i am not sure that the game really has become such a congested ugly spectacle (unless you're a Port supporter). I saw the grandfinal with all it's ball-ups and low free kick count but still thought it was an amazing game.

      Commenter
      dulan
      Date and time
      October 21, 2012, 1:32AM
      • It's time that the rules be taken out of the hands of the AFL. The AFL do NOT own the game. Believing that they do, they have become too arrogant. An independent rules body needs to be developed that all leagues answer to.This will keep the AFL humble and accountable.

        Commenter
        Paul
        Date and time
        October 21, 2012, 2:14AM
        • The people making decisions don't seem to appreciate the importance of what they are doing. It seems like the main consideration is the economic bottom line. This is the only thing the AFL care about. The only thing. And those in power at the AFL appoint themselves and then are effectively dictators, unable to be ousted from their position, and able to manipulate our great game at their will.

          Commenter
          Jack
          Date and time
          October 21, 2012, 2:19AM
          • Tim, This article, and the one earlier in the week by Rohan Connolly, ought to be compulsory reading for the AFL Commission, the Rules Committee and the rest of the Docklands bureaucracy, followed by a quiz to ensure they actually understood it. You would think three field umpires would be able to see more infringements than one, but either they are ignoring the obvious because of poor training and footy background, or they are under instruction. My money's on the latter.
            Kevin Sheedy was the "brains" behind the interchange rule but did anyone ever seriously ask what benefits it would provide to the game? All that's happened is more congestion at the ball. The simplest thing would be to penalise the third man in on any tackle on the ground - that would allow the ball to come out, or a free to be paid which is fair, rather than the idiotic "genuine attempt" rule currently being applied.
            If he AFL were accountable, they would hold a public hearing, like the Senate, inviting and considering commissions from all interested parties, including the people who actually pay for the game either through memberships or buying the products of the sponsors.
            That's not going to happen though, because power corrupts impartial decision-making and the AFL has absolute power.

            Commenter
            Doug Foskett
            Location
            Canberra
            Date and time
            October 21, 2012, 3:41AM
            • Tim, thank you so much for this article and for bringing to attention an issue which I have been constantly bringing up in comments relating to other articles about the game.
              For too long the issue of how the game is umpired has been brushed away with a simple "It's a hard game to umpire." End of story.
              Well why is it a hard game to umpire? There are rules after all. Pay free kicks when the rules are broken. With nearly every pack that forms the third, fourth, fifth player etc., in gives away a free kick. Too high or in the back. But the umpires rarely pay them. If they did a lot of the scrums now developing would probably not form because if players were wary of blindly charging in the ball has a good chance to be cleared by the first players contesting the ball.
              What really irks fans is that Anderson and Geischen seem to have decided that there should not be so many frees paid in the game as there used to be. Well what right do they have to change the game in that manner. Ironically the one rule that has seen an increase in the number of times it is paid is the deliberate out of bound rule and there is no doubt this has been paid on occasions when it would have been impossible, absolutely impossible, for the umpire to conclude that the players intention was to deliberately kick the ball out of bounds. Instead of constantly changing the rules perhaps the AFL should be trying harder, through competent coaching and instruction, to ensure that the rules that are already in place are adjudicated on properly.

              Commenter
              Jeff
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              October 21, 2012, 4:01AM
              • Funny isnt it, they instruct the umpires to pay less free kicks, and are surprised it results in more packs / ball ups / congestion. There seems to be very little congestion when frees are paid, and its not about picking out silly ones but as you say, and in my post below, pay the high tackle, in the back infringements that create the packs in the first place. As fans we will accept it if they are CONSISTENT. Seems too obvious for all but the damn rules committee. Gotta protect their jobs I suppose

                Commenter
                hawker of hobart
                Date and time
                October 22, 2012, 11:39AM
            • Yes, sadly this is seen in business as well. In my former company all the decisions and all the power lay with those who had seldom started in the trenches and had little understanding of the areas they were allowed to lord over. This naturally caused chaos in the field resulting in many good people being lost. Pity the AFL seems hell bent on the same flawed model. No wounder crowd numbers are down.

              Commenter
              Roj Blake
              Date and time
              October 21, 2012, 6:03AM

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