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AFL's conundrum: where have all the goals gone?


Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

View more articles from Greg Baum

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A week ago, as the world knows, Germany scored seven goals against Brazil in the World Cup. In AFL football on the weekends either side of that match, there were nine instances of teams scoring seven or fewer goals. Another team scored eight goals - and won.

The soccer result was a historical aberration. The AFL scores were not. Since 2000, the average AFL score has shrunk continuously, from more than 15 goals per team per game to barely 12.5 now. This is despite constant improvement in conditions at all grounds, and from 2001 the utility of a ground, now called Etihad Stadium, where conditions don't matter at all.

This year, the paucity is especially marked. Only Hawthorn and Port Adelaide are averaging more than 100 points a game. The bottom three teams - Melbourne, Brisbane and St Kilda - are all averaging fewer than 65 points. The Demons, Roos-ian goodwill notwithstanding - are scoring almost a goal a game less than last year and nearly two goals a game less than in 2012.

AFL operations manager Mark Evans says there are nuances within those numbers. Scoring has become sparser this year, he says, but anecdotally, the top teams are attacking more. Further, the margin in matches between top eight and bottom eight teams has narrowed, a pleasing development.

Nonetheless, it makes for an austere comparison with, say, the Malcolm Blight era at Geelong. In 1992, the Cats averaged nearly 140 points a game. Wooden spooner Sydney averaged more than 90. Blight's philosophy was that football should be fun and he could think of no more satisfying football fun than kicking goals. However many the opposition kicked, Geelong would kick more.

Robert Walls, who coached good teams and bad, advocated the kicking of goals, because in the dog days, they at least gave fans and players something to cherish. As recently as five years ago, Matthew Knights' plan at Essendon was to give the Bombers a feel for the licentious thrill of attack before teaching them the more prosaic business of defence.

But the game's mindset had long since changed. Somewhere along the way, goalkicking became a responsibility rather than a joy. Geelong under Blight never did win the premiership, though he would win two with Adelaide and a more cautious approach. Knights was practically run out of Windy Hill. In 2005, Sydney kicked fewer points per game than in any of the three successive wooden spoon years 1992-94 - and won the premiership. Its coach was Roos.

It was modern football in apotheosis. When David Parkin became coach of Carlton in 1981, he knew the Blues were the best attacking team in the competition. All he had to do, he said, was instil a little defence mesh, and they immediately won two premierships. Since, with rare exceptions, the best defensive team of the year has won the premiership.

This is true of most of what Parkin calls "invasion" sports. Parkin, still crucially involved as a mentor and educator of coaches, lucidly explains why it is truer than ever in AFL. It is not simply the all-ground press than has become so fashionable. It is about what happens when the ball changes hands.

When a team loses the ball, Parkin says, players are well drilled in what they should do next. It is comparatively easy to teach. Moreover, coaches pick players to suit. A player with no defensive game is unlikely to get a regular start. And, Parkin says, the era of three tall but immobile forwards already is over. Forwards have to be able to roam to the half-back line, and back again.

When a team gains the ball, Parkin says, they are also habituated in what to do next. But it is significantly harder for players to learn, and coaches to teach, because it depends on retaining possession. A turnover at any moment can wrong-foot an entire team and is immediately punished. Any fan of any team can think of half a dozen instances from last weekend alone. Consequently, coaches more than ever, play safety first.

Cross-pollinating conversations with coaches from others sports - basketball's Brian Goorjian, hockey's Ric Charlesworth, soccer's Ernie Merrick- affirm this truth to be universal. After THAT World Cup semi-final, the focus was as much on what Brazil got wrong as Germany did right. Even to untrained eyes, it was clear Brazil's defence collapsed. It won't like that again.

Evans says it is not possible to substantiate a link between decline in scoring and decline in crowds in AFL. Scoring has been atrophying for years, crowds only latterly. Nonetheless, he is watching closely.

Low-scoring games can be entertaining as long as they are close. And a high-scoring game can become merely a clinical test of accuracy. Received wisdom, Parkin says, is that 10-15 goals per team per game makes for an ideal contest, sustaining hope for both teams. More, and it can become a shoot-out. Less, and football becomes gruelling for players and fans alike.

Here, the AFL must watch the canary in the coalmine. Ross Lyon, from the Roos line, is the anti-Blight. His St Kilda 2009-10 grand final teams averaged less than 94 points a game. Fremantle under him is averaging a little more than 92 points a game and is well-placed to reach its second successive grand final. However few goals his teams kick, he seems to say, the opposition will kick fewer. It nearly worked for Argentina.


  • Cannot watch the game anymore. Looks like a schoolyard scrum.Maybe the afl should watch some of the great games of the 90's such as the 93 Essendon v Geelong game, Ablett vs Salmon.Maybe then they can see how far this once great game has fallen.

    Date and time
    July 17, 2014, 8:27AM
    • Three others spring to mind.... Haw v Gee in 1989 at Princes Park (171 to 163) and two Ess v North games - the one in 99 (158 to 132, Carey 10, Lloyd 7), and that extraordinary game in 2001 (171 to 159).

      Don't think we'll ever see scoring like that ever again sadly.

      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 9:27AM
    • I'd recommend Round 1 1994 - Adelaide 22-18 to Carlton 13-6 with the spectacular marking T Modra kicking 13 on the full back of the century. In those days it was often Modra and the full back alone in the 50m arc.

      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 10:04AM
    • There was a good game on the weekend - Port v Richmond. Port play attacking, open footy; as a result they lost and probably won't win a grand final. Geelong and, to a lesser extent the Hawks, have played a good brand of footy for 10+ years now and been rewarded for it.

      Unfortunately, most successful teams play Roosball. This is an adaptation of defensive play in all sports. How's these for some stats

      - Argentina score 2 goals in 4 games (450 minutes of play) and nearly won the world cup

      - Last two rugby world cups 2 tries (that's in 160 minutes of rugby)

      - The last 3 soccer world cups have had 4 goals total

      - State of Origin had one try scored in the second game

      The AFL has been trending this way since 2004. Between 1990 and 2004 no premier had kicked less than 100 points in the GF. Since 2005, five of the 10 premiers have kicked less than 100 points with that 8 goals to 7 'win' for footy in 2005 being the start.

      This will only end when the interchange is reduced dramatically and two players are taken off the field (16 players). Watch the game transform overnight with no zones, rule changes or anything else required.

      wear the fox hat
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 10:11AM
    • @wearthefoxhat reckon you're getting pretty close. Tactics are only part of the story, as are rules.
      1) A huge factor is the fitness levels of modern players. Lists are now stacked with aerobic runners who are trained to be even more so. Like all football codes, this makes the field effectively smaller. Given the difficulty involved in making the field bigger, I agree with your notion of reducing the number of players. This would also help the problem of not enough elite players to go around. 16 good, 15 better.
      2) Rucks and mauls mainly lead to ball ups. Once concentrated it's hard to get player spread again. Pay more frees to clear the rucks. Coaches will have to station players a kick away at least to deal with this. Not easy, but the rules are already there. Just pay them.
      3) Teams hug the boundary to reduce the risk of an opposition rebound. Make it a certainty by reverting to Auskick rule. Whenever the ball goes out, the opposition takes a kick-in.
      To deal with this faster game, teams will actually need more rotations, not fewer, but that will help keep the speed of the game up. Get rid of the sub.
      Try it out in a country league for a season (properly compensated of course!).
      I still enjoy the footy but it can get pretty rugged at times.

      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 9:19PM
  • No idea what you do about it without tearing at the fabric of the game but at the moment any AFL game not involving Hawthorn (not my club) is a drag to watch.

    I would suggest a requirement of 2 players being "forwards" that can't leave the 50m arc. I'd also remove the concept of a mark for kicking backwards, and reduce free kicks for holding the ball to discourage to constant in close tackling. These are only thoughts and I am no expert.

    Ex fan
    Date and time
    July 17, 2014, 8:39AM
    • Reducing free kicks for holding the ball is the wrong option. It will only encourage teams to not take possession. Likewise kicking backwards. Both rules encourage players to handball, thus keeping the game tightly packed.

      The better option would be to pay MORE free kicks for throwing, which players regularly do now because they know they get away with it. This will give a player free possession and time to dispose of the footy (something Hawthorn are very good at) and let them cut open teams who cannot do it (Carlton, St Kilda).

      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 9:25AM
    • I could never stand the Malcolm Blight attack without defence mentality. Seeing a game where both teams score over 120 points to me is generally as dull as a game completely locked down in defence by a bottom team trying to limit the scoring of an opponent. I am a Swans supporter and I think that Fremantle's finals win over Sydney last season was the most perfect display of the football I like to watch that has ever been played.They did such a complete job of locking down a very good opponent that they were also able to score at will. I knew Sydney's game was over at half time, but I didn't want to miss a second of what I was seeing in the second half. I think all this talk about lack of scoring dropping crowds is ridiculous, there are a hell of a lot of people out there that like watching a good defensive game and great one on one contests, so don't tinker with anything. What I would like to see (and hear) is a much better educated (in the game) supporter for me to start going back. I stopped going because of the people that scream out 'ball' the moment their player touches an opposition player with the ball and spend the whole game looking for the next free kick. How can watching games be enjoyable for these people? Maybe if supporters in general were better educated in the game as a whole they would be able to get the joy out of a good defensive contest that I do. And one last thing, I see why you gave the soccer goal scoring example, but I think you will find that most people preferred the WC final as a spectacle.

      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 10:02AM
  • Do what Leigh Matthews suggested, develop play zones. Divide the ground in to fifths with white lines across the ground and designate them forward zone, half-forward zone, centre zone, half-back zone, and finally full-back zone. A player cannot move out of that zone without the ball. For example, a full-forward stays in the forward zone, and can only move out of that zone when attempting to get the ball, i.e. running down the field to attempt to take a mark in the centre zone or half-forward zone. If he hasn't got the ball or in close proximity to the ball, he cannot go past the centre zone or half-forward zone, perhaps.

    This will stop flooding, eliminate congestion and scragging, and also return a player on player kind of game, i.e. Hudson v Southby, Ablett(Snr) v Silvani, Franklin v Nobody, etc. Yes, umpires will be busier, but we can have more umpies, and Buddy Franklin will be kicking 15 goals a match! LOL!

    Blue boy
    Date and time
    July 17, 2014, 9:05AM
    • Yes and the game as we know it will be no more. The solution is far too radical and would not take footy back to the 80's and 90's. Instead it would provide something new and different again, then in ten years we'll all be back here saying how can we go abck to the 2000's when life was better?
      Get rid of the interchange, that is the best option. Have six or eight subs who can only change once. Take two players of the field and make it 16 a side, all these things would clear up the game better.

      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 9:28AM

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AFL 2016

Round 1
Thu, 24 MarTimes shown AEDT
RIC vs CAR 19:20MCG
Sat, 26 MarTimes shown AEDT
MEL vs GWS 13:40MCG
GCF vs ESS 16:35MS
NTH vs ADE 19:25ES
SYD vs COL 19:25ANZ
Sun, 27 MarTimes shown AEDT
WBU vs FRE 13:10ES
PTA vs STK 15:20Adelaide Oval
WCE vs BRI 19:40Domain Stadium
Mon, 28 MarTimes shown AEDT
GEE vs HAW 15:20MCG
View All Fixtures
Round 2
Fri, 01 AprTimes shown AEDT
COL vs RIC 19:50MCG
Sat, 02 AprTimes shown AEDT
ADE vs PTA 13:45Adelaide Oval
ESS vs MEL 14:10MCG
BRI vs NTH 16:35G
STK vs WBU 19:25ES
FRE vs GCF 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 03 AprTimes shown AEST
GWS vs GEE 13:10SO
HAW vs WCE 15:20MCG
CAR vs SYD 16:40ES
View All Fixtures
Round 3
Fri, 08 AprTimes shown AEST
PTA vs ESS 19:50Adelaide Oval
Sat, 09 AprTimes shown AEST
STK vs COL 13:45MCG
RIC vs ADE 14:10ES
SYD vs GWS 16:35SCG
GCF vs CAR 19:25MS
WCE vs FRE 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 10 AprTimes shown AEST
NTH vs MEL 13:10BA
WBU vs HAW 15:20ES
GEE vs BRI 16:40SS
View All Fixtures
Round 4
Fri, 15 AprTimes shown AEST
WCE vs RIC 20:10Domain Stadium
Sat, 16 AprTimes shown AEST
ESS vs GEE 13:45MCG
HAW vs STK 14:10AS
BRI vs GCF 16:35G
CAR vs WBU 19:25ES
ADE vs SYD 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 17 AprTimes shown AEST
GWS vs PTA 13:10SO
COL vs MEL 15:20MCG
NTH vs FRE 16:40ES
View All Fixtures
Round 5
Fri, 22 AprTimes shown AEST
HAW vs ADE 19:50MCG
Sat, 23 AprTimes shown AEST
SYD vs WCE 13:40SCG
GCF vs NTH 16:35MS
WBU vs BRI 19:25ES
PTA vs GEE 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 24 AprTimes shown AEST
STK vs GWS 13:10ES
FRE vs CAR 16:10Domain Stadium
MEL vs RIC 19:10MCG
Mon, 25 AprTimes shown AEST
COL vs ESS 15:20MCG
View All Fixtures
Round 6
Fri, 29 AprTimes shown AEST
NTH vs WBU 19:50ES
Sat, 30 AprTimes shown AEST
MEL vs STK 13:45ES
ADE vs FRE 14:10Adelaide Oval
GWS vs HAW 16:35Spotless Stadium
RIC vs PTA 19:25MCG
GEE vs GCF 19:25SS
Sun, 01 MayTimes shown AEST
BRI vs SYD 13:10G
CAR vs ESS 15:20MCG
WCE vs COL 16:40Domain Stadium
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Round 7
Fri, 06 MayTimes shown AEST
RIC vs HAW 19:50MCG
Sat, 07 MayTimes shown AEST
COL vs CAR 13:45MCG
GEE vs WCE 14:10SS
SYD vs ESS 16:35ANZ
GCF vs MEL 17:10MS
WBU vs ADE 19:40ES
FRE vs GWS 20:10Domain Stadium
Sun, 08 MayTimes shown AEST
STK vs NTH 15:20ES
PTA vs BRI 16:40Adelaide Oval
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Round 8
Fri, 13 MayTimes shown AEST
ADE vs GEE 19:50Adelaide Oval
Sat, 14 MayTimes shown AEST
ESS vs NTH 13:45ES
HAW vs FRE 14:10AS
GWS vs GCF 16:35Spotless Stadium
BRI vs COL 19:25G
RIC vs SYD 19:25MCG
Sun, 15 MayTimes shown AEST
CAR vs PTA 13:10ES
MEL vs WBU 15:20MCG
WCE vs STK 16:40Domain Stadium
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Round 9
Fri, 20 MayTimes shown AEST
HAW vs SYD 19:50MCG
Sat, 21 MayTimes shown AEST
COL vs GEE 13:45MCG
GCF vs ADE 14:10MS
PTA vs WCE 16:35Adelaide Oval
NTH vs CAR 19:25ES
FRE vs RIC 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 22 MayTimes shown AEST
MEL vs BRI 13:10MCG
GWS vs WBU 15:20Spotless Stadium
STK vs ESS 16:40ES
View All Fixtures
Round 10
Fri, 27 MayTimes shown AEST
SYD vs NTH 19:50SCG
Sat, 28 MayTimes shown AEST
BRI vs HAW 13:45G
MEL vs PTA 14:10TIO Traeger Park
STK vs FRE 16:35ES
ESS vs RIC 19:25MCG
ADE vs GWS 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 29 MayTimes shown AEST
CAR vs GEE 13:10ES
COL vs WBU 15:20MCG
WCE vs GCF 16:40Domain Stadium
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Round 11
Fri, 03 JunTimes shown AEST
NTH vs RIC 19:50BA
Sat, 04 JunTimes shown AEST
HAW vs MEL 13:45MCG
CAR vs BRI 14:10ES
GEE vs GWS 16:35SS
GCF vs SYD 19:25MS
FRE vs ESS 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 05 JunTimes shown AEST
COL vs PTA 13:10MCG
WBU vs WCE 15:20ES
ADE vs STK 16:40Adelaide Oval
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Round 12
Fri, 10 JunTimes shown AEST
ESS vs HAW 19:50ES
Sat, 11 JunTimes shown AEST
PTA vs WBU 13:40Adelaide Oval
BRI vs FRE 16:35G
GEE vs NTH 19:25ES
WCE vs ADE 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 12 JunTimes shown AEST
STK vs CAR 13:10ES
RIC vs GCF 15:20MCG
GWS vs SYD 16:40Spotless Stadium
Mon, 13 JunTimes shown AEST
MEL vs COL 15:20MCG
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Round 13
Fri, 17 JunTimes shown AEST
NTH vs HAW 19:50ES
Sat, 18 JunTimes shown AEST
BRI vs WCE 13:40G
FRE vs PTA 16:35Domain Stadium
WBU vs GEE 19:25ES
Sun, 19 JunTimes shown AEST
SYD vs MEL 13:10SCG
ESS vs GWS 16:40ES
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Round 14
Thu, 23 JunTimes shown AEST
ADE vs NTH 19:50Adelaide Oval
Fri, 24 JunTimes shown AEST
COL vs FRE 19:50MCG
Sat, 25 JunTimes shown AEST
RIC vs BRI 13:40MCG
GWS vs CAR 16:35Spotless Stadium
STK vs GEE 19:25ES
Sun, 26 JunTimes shown AEST
HAW vs GCF 15:20AS
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Round 15
Thu, 30 JunTimes shown AEST
WCE vs ESS 20:10Domain Stadium
Fri, 01 JulTimes shown AEST
PTA vs RIC 19:50Adelaide Oval
Sat, 02 JulTimes shown AEST
GCF vs STK 13:40MS
SYD vs WBU 16:35SCG
CAR vs COL 19:25MCG
Sun, 03 JulTimes shown AEST
MEL vs ADE 15:20MCG
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Round 16
Thu, 07 JulTimes shown AEST
PTA vs HAW 19:50Adelaide Oval
Fri, 08 JulTimes shown AEST
GEE vs SYD 19:50SS
Sat, 09 JulTimes shown AEST
GWS vs COL 13:40Spotless Stadium
GCF vs BRI 16:35MS
WBU vs RIC 19:25ES
MEL vs FRE 19:40TIO
Sun, 10 JulTimes shown AEST
CAR vs ADE 13:10MCG
WCE vs NTH 15:20Domain Stadium
ESS vs STK 16:40ES
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Round 17
Thu, 14 JulTimes shown AEST
SYD vs HAW 19:20SCG
Fri, 15 JulTimes shown AEST
FRE vs GEE 20:10Domain Stadium
Sat, 16 JulTimes shown AEST
RIC vs ESS 13:40MCG
NTH vs PTA 16:35ES
WBU vs GCF 19:25CAZ
ADE vs COL 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 17 JulTimes shown AEST
CAR vs WCE 13:10MCG
STK vs MEL 15:20ES
BRI vs GWS 16:40G
View All Fixtures
Round 18
Fri, 22 JulTimes shown AEST
COL vs NTH 19:50ES
Sat, 23 JulTimes shown AEST
SYD vs CAR 13:45ANZ
GCF vs FRE 14:10MS
WCE vs MEL 16:35Domain Stadium
WBU vs STK 19:25ES
GEE vs ADE 19:25SS
Sun, 24 JulTimes shown AEST
ESS vs BRI 13:10ES
HAW vs RIC 15:20MCG
PTA vs GWS 16:40Adelaide Oval
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Round 19
Fri, 29 JulTimes shown AEST
GEE vs WBU 19:50SS
Sat, 30 JulTimes shown AEST
GWS vs RIC 13:45SO
HAW vs CAR 14:10AS
COL vs WCE 16:35MCG
BRI vs PTA 19:25G
NTH vs STK 19:25ES
Sun, 31 JulTimes shown AEST
MEL vs GCF 13:10MCG
FRE vs SYD 15:20Domain Stadium
ADE vs ESS 16:40Adelaide Oval
View All Fixtures
Round 20
Fri, 05 AugTimes shown AEST
RIC vs COL 19:50MCG
Sat, 06 AugTimes shown AEST
SYD vs PTA 13:45SCG
MEL vs HAW 14:10MCG
GCF vs GWS 16:35MS
WBU vs NTH 19:25ES
ADE vs BRI 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 07 AugTimes shown AEST
CAR vs STK 13:10MCG
GEE vs ESS 15:20ES
FRE vs WCE 16:40Domain Stadium
View All Fixtures
Round 21
Fri, 12 AugTimes shown AEST
WBU vs COL 19:50ES
Sat, 13 AugTimes shown AEST
BRI vs CAR 13:45G
HAW vs NTH 14:10MCG
GWS vs WCE 16:35Spotless Stadium
STK vs SYD 19:25ES
PTA vs MEL 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 14 AugTimes shown AEST
ESS vs GCF 13:10ES
RIC vs GEE 15:20MCG
FRE vs ADE 16:40Domain Stadium
View All Fixtures
Round 22
Fri, 19 AugTimes shown AEST
WCE vs HAW 20:10Domain Stadium
Sat, 20 AugTimes shown AEST
NTH vs SYD 13:45BA
RIC vs STK 14:10MCG
GWS vs FRE 16:35Spotless Stadium
COL vs GCF 19:25ES
PTA vs ADE 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 21 AugTimes shown AEST
CAR vs MEL 13:10MCG
BRI vs GEE 15:20G
ESS vs WBU 16:40ES
View All Fixtures
Round 23
Sat, 27 AugTimes shown AEST
HAW vs COL 12:00MCG
STK vs BRI 12:00ES
ESS vs CAR 12:00MCG
GCF vs PTA 12:00MS
SYD vs RIC 12:00SCG
NTH vs GWS 12:00ES
GEE vs MEL 12:00SS
ADE vs WCE 12:30Adelaide Oval
FRE vs WBU 14:00Domain Stadium
View All Fixtures
AFL 2015
Overall standings
Team P W L D % Pts
Adelaide Crows 0 0 0 0 - 0
Brisbane Lions 0 0 0 0 - 0
Carlton 0 0 0 0 - 0
Collingwood 0 0 0 0 - 0
Essendon 0 0 0 0 - 0
Fremantle 0 0 0 0 - 0
Geelong Cats 0 0 0 0 - 0
Gold Coast Suns 0 0 0 0 - 0
View all

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