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AFL rule changes are always a bone of contention

<em>The Age</em> on Wednesday.

The Age on Wednesday.

AFL football's endless contest of rules versus strategy is best summed up by a saying that dates back to ancient Greece, long before Andrew Demetriou thought the Swans were playing ugly: ''Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.''

For many - usually fans whose stake in the game is rooted firmly in a love of their team - the message for headquarters when it comes to tweaks of law or interpretation is a more rustic bar-room refrain: ''Leave the bloody game alone!''

This will forever force an uneasy dance - between the men on the Rules of the Game committee charged with making football better and safer, the coaches whose sole concern is winning, and fans whose bums on seats and TV subscriptions give them a compelling case to have a voice in how it is played.

The laws have been tweaked.

The laws have been tweaked.

Leigh Matthews' idea for reducing congestion has merit. Former coach and noted football thinker Robert Shaw likes the concept of dragging players away from stoppages by corralling them inside the 50-metre zones; it is doubtful that Ross Lyon, whose Fremantle team thrives on claustrophobic footy, would share the sentiment.

Yet for all the outrage that would doubtless ensue if the Matthews proposal was implemented, it would merely be another change to the game to be chipped away at over time by coaches hell-bent on bending the game to suit their needs.

''If you put up a rule, for every action there's a reaction,'' Shaw says. ''Put up a style of play and coaches will go away and come back with a reaction to it.''

To this end, Shaw would like to see a recent coach on the rule-making committee, of whom it could be asked: ''If we do this, take us into the match committee room and tell us what the coaches will come up with to negate it.''

Congestion might be ugly to the onlooking masses, but through a coach's eyes it brings to the box a sense as vital as air to lungs: control.

As another coach observes: ''It's too dangerous to work in an industry, trying to achieve success in what's generally a short career, without actually having control.''

For much of its history, Australian football evolved without significant interference from its custodians. Before 1990, most rule changes eliminated obvious flaws. More recently, change has come almost annually, often causing confusion and frustration (see the subjective hands-in-the-back and brushing of arms in marking contest interpretations).

Matthews' anti-congestion measure would impose another layer of legislation on the game, but at least it would be black and white - as long as the officials had scope to police it.

Rule change comes for two reasons: to make the game more attractive, and/or to make it safer.

Bumping an opponent's head was outlawed when it seemed Byron Pickett, among others, might seriously maim someone. Players responded by going low and taking the legs, prompting the arrival of the sliding rule. Taking the ball and using your head as a battering ram is the latest no-no, to be deemed a player's ''prior opportunity'' in 2014.

Rules will always prompt outrage. Former Laws of the Game committee member Luke Darcy last season bemoaned that they are changed too often ''without thought for the consequences''. Kevin Bartlett has said coaches don't have a single thought for the good of the game when the contest is there to be won.

Hawthorn had a big hand in the most significant ''zoning'' measure - the implementation of a centre diamond, soon changed to a square, to counter John Kennedy's teams crowding the bounce to leave full-forward Peter Hudson one-out.

It's hard to imagine the game now with unlimited numbers flocking to centre bounces, and if Matthews' idea got up, perhaps extending similar restriction to all stoppages would one day be viewed the same.

23 comments so far

  • The biggest problem with Australian Rules is simply that all those rules, unlike those in other football codes, are open to interpretation and consequently umpiring inconsistencies along with unfair penalty variations are the norm, much to the fury of AFL fans.
    Australian Rules equals Rafferty's Rules.

    Commenter
    Lushan
    Date and time
    January 30, 2014, 9:35AM
    • The AFL publishes umpiring videos that make it quite clear what the rules are and how they should be interpreted, it's far more scientific than you think. The problem isn't in the subjectivity of the umpire (which applies to any sport), it's in the instructions to the umpires.

      Regardless, every sport has elements of subjectivity in the rules and controversial umpiring. Pick any sports forum in the world and you will find people complaining about bad rules and bad umpiring.

      Commenter
      jamie
      Date and time
      January 30, 2014, 10:47AM
    • I imagine the penalty paid against Lucas Neill in the 2006 World Cup was also open to interpretation...the volume of rules is the problem

      Commenter
      Ruck Rover
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 30, 2014, 1:53PM
    • Soccer - with so few goals scored - has the problem of one big ref decision (good or bad) very often costing the game. Rugby Union can be similar especilly in a low scoring game.

      Commenter
      JRM
      Date and time
      February 01, 2014, 11:50AM
  • Inch by inch they're destroying the game.

    No offside thanks, and can we please have illegal disposal back? Think that will cause too many ballups? Tighten rules on tackling, like no additional tackling of a player on the ground, no adding to tackles when the carrier is already very clearly in a tackle, with benefit of doubt to the tackler. That should give more chance for clean disposal.

    The relaxation of illegal disposal is one of the key reasons we have these stupid ugly mauls. Another reason being that players can cover more ground these days.

    The natural solution to the maul is to reduce the number of players on the field. It would save money, and increase the standard of the competition, but for some bizarre reason the AFL seems extremely resistant to common sense.

    Commenter
    Nick
    Date and time
    January 30, 2014, 9:38AM
    • Yup, I suggested this too. Policing off side rules, with an umpire waving a flag when someone steps over a painted line will result in all sorts of horror decisions, slow the game, end up with video reviews, etc (imagine a Grand Final going sour on a bad off side decision, no thanks) - but take two players off the field and play with 16 means more space, less congestion, better quality teams - all win win. Trial it in pre season, see what happens.

      Commenter
      BB
      Date and time
      January 30, 2014, 11:47AM
  • Whilst Leigh Matthews input is always worthwhile a game plan usually comes undone when opposition teams apply winning tactics to negate their opponents plan. Take hawthorn in 2008 with their 'grid' plan. It won them a premiership but the game plan was useless next year because other teams had worked out tactics to negate the Hawks plan. Now it is up to smart teams to negate Fremantle's defensive scrum. Longer kicks and better skills would be welcome.
    I believe rule changes should be in the interest of player health and welfare, not so much about style. I look forward to Fremantle's game plan being disabled by good opposition tactics rather than playing into their hands..

    Commenter
    vivian13
    Location
    Berwick
    Date and time
    January 30, 2014, 9:50AM
    • I have a suggestion to ease the congestion tactics of some coaches. Bring in an offside rule.
      it would work like this -
      At any point in the game a minimum of four players from each team must be in either half of the ground. Those eight players can not go passed the centre line. If there is a turnover at the other end the eight players cannot leadup and cross the centre line. If one of the eight crosses then the game is stopped and a ballup occurs where the ball was at the time of infringement. It does not have to be the same eight as long as there is four from each team at anytime of the game. Umpire numbers may have to be reviewed to ensure offside infringements are picked up. I think we would see the skills more on display and it would assist players rotations within the new interchange restrictions.
      What do you think?

      Commenter
      Tom Routledge
      Date and time
      January 30, 2014, 10:05AM
      • I like this one, but why not make it simpler? Have the 3 forwards (across the full forward line) and their opposite numbers be restricted to their half of the ground. It would be easier to police by a 3rd (off field) umpire as you know who they are and the player in that position is aware he has to stay i his own forward/back half. Juniors today are taught to 'hold' their positions so the concept wouldn't be foreign to the players.

        If you want to cycle a player into one of these positions then it could be done through the interchange and the 3rd umpire informed

        Commenter
        Couldn't Resist
        Date and time
        January 30, 2014, 12:55PM
      • I don't think many people would support offside. And the ball up part wouldn't work because teams would deliberately encroach to cause a stoppage or slow the game. Alternative is a free kick...which has the potential to seriously impact the game. No thanks.

        Matthews suggestion is ok, fewer players on field is also interesting. Would definitely need to be trailed but due to field positions meaning so little now, it should work. Matthews' suggestion is also good though because, along with the interchange cap and players resting forward, it might force traditional positions to reemerge (somewhat).

        Commenter
        Andy
        Date and time
        January 30, 2014, 7:00PM

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