AFL needs less shuttlecockups
IT WILL be a relief to the AFL to know it isn't alone in facing the reality that its rules might, under certain circumstances, encourage manufactured under-performance; or "tanking" in the vernacular.
The events of the London Olympic Games have been timely in revealing that many short tournaments leave themselves wide open to such strategy.
Badminton has been scandalised, with eight players sent home from London and a Chinese world champion quitting the sport as a result. But it hasn't been the only competition touched by the blight. Australian women's basketball coach, Carrie Graf, has admitted it's not uncommon in her sport, saying: "European teams look at the cross-overs and play strategic games … I don't think it undermines the tournament at all."
Unfortunately for the practitioners of badminton tanking, a string of unforced errors can give off an easily detectable aroma. The smell within a combative team game is more easily deodorised.
Meanwhile, the coach of the Japanese women's soccer team openly admitted his team played for a draw against South Africa. This was to avoid having to travel to Scotland for a quarter final.
Cricket, as we know, has had major match-fixing issues, but one of its Australian icons worked a minor rort of the system at the 1999 World Cup. In a match at Old Trafford, Steve Waugh's team sought, for strategic purposes, to give the West Indies a leg-up in relation to New Zealand. With easy victory in sight against the Windies, Australia deliberately slowed its own scoring to a crawl, thus reducing the game to farce for about half-an-hour. Although there clearly was contrivance on his part, Waugh remained defiant. As captain, he said, he had a responsibility to serve the interests of his team's progress in the competition. It was hard to argue.
These events all occurred in shorter tournaments in which competitors play fewer games and the impact of each result is magnified. Administrators of a season-long sport like the AFL have far less excuse for anomalies which invite manipulation.
It's apparent from the above incidents that the circumstances and methods of tanking can vary. Such "tricks" aren't all able to be put into one basket. Amid football's debate on tanking, thought must be given to where the line can be drawn on unconscionable behaviour. At what point does reasonable strategy become corrupt practice? That's not as clear as might immediately be presumed.
For example, does every club have an obligation to ensure its very best performance each week? The knee-jerk answer is yes, but in practical terms this patently isn't what happens. It's increasingly common practice for teams to rest good players in the interests of their long term objective. This almost certainly involves the team performing at below full capacity at times, but no one complains.
So, does every club - as opposed to team - have an obligation to do all it can to achieve victory in every game the team plays?
Well, of course it does, doesn't it? Yet Richmond didn't do this in electing to play the Gold Coast in Cairns recently. But this - we were told - was okay because the club needed the money and the decision of its board to put the future ahead of the present was a responsible one.
The Richmond administration wilfully jeopardised what were four gilt-edged premiership points for thirty pieces of silver. They didn't intend to come away from the transaction without the points, but they sure as hell put their team in harm's way when no harm need have existed.
So what constitutes tanking in football? Clearly the dividing line between the permissible and the proscribed is drawn on the basis of intent; but even that can be nebulous. It is, after all, highly unlikely that an administrative decision to deliberately lose late-season games would be passed to the players as an instruction. Such a decision would more likely be conveyed to the coach so that some metaphorical lead might be placed in the team's saddle-bags via the employment of a sub-optimal strategy or three.
But if we imagine for a moment that this happened at Melbourne three seasons ago, it's apparent that it can't be guaranteed to work. Unless genuine match-fixing is involved, players will always be trying to win. Had Jordan McMahon's after-the-siren shot for goal in that notorious 2009 game missed, the Demons would have beaten Richmond. Melbourne's players were trying alright. Just like Richmond's players were trying recently in Cairns. It's just that both were doing so against the flow of administrative intervention.
It's not easy to establish when it's reasonable for a club to relocate any of its home games. After all, Hawthorn does it and clearly derives an advantage on the field as well as off it. In other cases though, such as Richmond playing in Cairns or, a few years ago, Melbourne playing home games against Brisbane at the Gabba, the on-field downside is way too great.
The AFL should act to ensure that its weaker entities aren't drawn into such compromises in the future. Just as it now has an unavoidable responsibility to re-write its draft rules to ensure the suspicion of tanking never again arises.