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Pressing times call for courage


Robert Walls

The game is going from strength to strength, and that is just the players.

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Footy Fix: let the games begin

Rohan Connolly returns for another season of the best insights into the AFL season and his footy tips.

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WHAT can we expect from a game that is continually evolving? Nathan Buckley recently said that winning the contested ball is now the foundation of the game plan. And that's because never before has top-level Australian football been played in such congested conditions.

Watch the ruck contests, be it a centre bounce, around the ground or a boundary throw-in, and it is the norm now to have all 36 on-field players within 70 metres of the ball.

So now, more than ever, teams need strong-bodied, courageous players who will keep their eye on the ball in heavy traffic.

In close: Dane Swan and Joel Selwood, well used to winning the contested ball, in last year's Collingwood-Geelong grand final.

In close: Dane Swan and Joel Selwood, well used to winning the contested ball, in last year's Collingwood-Geelong grand final. Photo: Paul Rovere

Why? Because to handle the ball in these tight situations means you will be physically battered.

So the standouts at stoppages are the likes of Dane Swan, Chris Judd, Sam Mitchell, Matthew Boyd, Joel Selwood, Gary Ablett and Josh Kennedy.

The other strategy, the "forward press", initiated by the Hawks, further developed by the Saints and near perfected by Collingwood, has dramatically altered the game.

Years ago, the ball went into a team's forward line and 60 per cent of the time came out straight away as the forwards were always outnumbered. Not now.

Now, the ball goes in, and can stay in as the attacking team pushes numbers forward and tackles with never-before-seen ferocity.

This ensures the defending team struggles to bring the ball out.

Some of the top forward-line tacklers today are Jeff Garlett, Cyril Rioli and Jarryd Blair. The end result is even more congestion as 36 players push into one half of the ground.

So, the increased numbers at stoppages, and the application of the forward press, has given us:


Contested possessions

As Buckley says, today's players just have to be able to win contested ball and last year, Collingwood, Geelong, Sydney and West Coast led the way.

Boundary throw-ins

As teams move the ball out of a crowded defence, they play safe by exiting wide to the boundary line.

Long kicks

The old-fashioned long bomb is reappearing, as it's hard to find short kick and handball targets in congested areas.

Contested marks

More long kicks provide more opportunities for players to compete against each other in the air, and that's a spectacle fans enjoy.


More long kicks give players more time to set themselves for a long, strong defensive spoil. The two best are Brisbane's Daniel Merrett and Hawthorn's Josh Gibson, who average 10 per game.


Congestion means numbers, and numbers mean a player will find it hard to break free into space as the tackles come from everywhere. Last year's best tacklers were Scott Selwood, James Kelly and Luke Ball.

Hard-ball gets

More and more balls are spilled free from tackles, spoils and ruck contests, giving tough nuts at ground level a chance to mop up.

So, with congestion coming to the fore, what are we seeing fewer of?



In 2008, the average number of marks taken by a team was 103. Last year, it had dropped to 87. Why? In heavy traffic, players are being checked closer by opponents and they haven't the free space to run into as they once did. The exception of course is Hawthorn. Last year, the Hawks averaged 100 marks per game; by far the most of any team.

At the other end of the scale, Sydney averaged just 59. The Hawks have been encouraged by coach Alastair Clarkson to go for their short pass targets, and their bullet-like kicks are so accurate, they can cut through presses and zones.


From 2008 to 2011, the average number of handballs per team per game has dropped from 177 to 155. Again, because of the congestion, there's no point in giving a teammate a "hospital" handball.

Short kicks

The average has dropped from 94 to 76 per game over the past four seasons.

Uncontested possessions

It's increasingly harder to get an easy ball out wide. In the past three seasons, the number has dropped from 254 to 214 per game per team.

Running bounces

With the squeeze on, this too has dropped from 18 per game per team to 10 over the past four seasons.


What hasn't changed, however, is the scoring. Over the past four seasons, the average score per team has remained at 14 goals, 12 behinds. Finals stats are revealing, too. They tell us there are fewer stoppages, more tackles and more contested possessions. In other words, big, strong bodies are even more important.

No wonder the emphasis over the pre-season at Essendon, Melbourne, Western Bulldogs, Gold Coast and Fremantle has been to build strength and competitiveness. To match it with Geelong, Collingwood and Hawthorn, the other teams just have to size up and, as new Bulldogs coach Brendan McCartney says, play "manly" football.


  • Well we all know that it is about the contested ball, but the players I don't think new that until this year. Great Article Robert, however maybe you should also mentioned the fact that some of the players brains aren't switched on in the contests.

    Date and time
    March 30, 2012, 11:35AM
    • As a result, I find the game far less attractive to watch than I did 20-30 years ago.

      On the upside, there appears to be more closer results than in the past, which means there's still excitement and tension in the game.

      Date and time
      March 30, 2012, 12:41PM
      • While I enjoy seeing contested footy, it doesn't neccesarily let players show off all their abilities. I'd like to see an experiment in the next NAB Cup of the the full foward and full back lines being forced back to the goal square at stoppages and centre bounces to reduce congestion around the ball.

        Date and time
        March 30, 2012, 12:48PM
        • Some AFL games remind me of little league with 36 blokes chasing the ball around.

          Almost every sport on the planet suffers from too many players on the field. Watch world cup rugby or soccer snore fests and see how the best players are checked by the less talented who are just too big and fast making the grounds essentially smaller and congested.

          Follow the old VFA lead and have only 16 on the field. It might open the game up.Otherwise it will end up like netball with GA on some blokes shirt.

          Date and time
          March 30, 2012, 4:28PM
      • Excuse me Robert, but haven't you been listening to us? The AFL has said consistently that the long kicking, contested marks etc are a direct result of the 3 on the interchange. And there will be more next season when we drop the interchange down to 2. Surely you don't think that game styles and coaching tactics have played a part in this change??? You sound just like the players, coaches, commentators (ie Leigh Matthews) and the fans. Don't worry though, we don't listen to them either!

        Andrew D & Adrian A
        Date and time
        March 30, 2012, 1:14PM
        • contested footy = scrums. its football chasey now. Not as good to watch. It used to be called one on one contested footy or key position play.

          Date and time
          March 30, 2012, 4:12PM
          • Just great.

            If I wanted to watch League I'd move to Sydney.

            The sooner the game opens up again to get the free-flowing agility back into it the better.

            Contested balls with players continually being mauled and umps having to continually stop play and bounce it again has never been a highlight of the game.

            Football Brain
            In your head
            Date and time
            March 30, 2012, 4:25PM
            • If your really serious, then you need a good strong ruckman who knocks the ball forward, puts pressure on the other team a good lot of quick gutsy players around him to pickup and kick the ball in the back of the net - oops i mean goal posts... If you have a stong defense and good ruckman with quick midfileders and a target or two up front then baby you got it made! finals time is all about expereince, all round exceptional team from the club president right though to coaching staff and down to the gritty players...

              Date and time
              March 30, 2012, 4:51PM
              • Only visibly ink free players should be allowed to ruck.

                Perk Cartel
                Date and time
                March 30, 2012, 5:15PM
                • Northern folks used to mock Aussie rules as "aerial ping-pong". With all the congestion nowadays it probably doesn't look much different to rugby to them.

                  Be nice to see a bit more aerial ping pong come back into the game.

                  I liked @H's suggestion that forward line players had to go back to their 50m arc during bounces/ball ups and boundary throw ins.

                  Date and time
                  March 30, 2012, 5:57PM

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