Real concerns about more tinkering with the game
'No amount of stats or medical opinion can accurately forecast the level of extra fatigue this dramatic reduction will have on players.' Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
These days there's a degree of cynicism that follows the criticism of any AFL coach towards a rule change; along the lines of: "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?"
Coaches don't give, in the words of one of their former alumni, Malcolm Blight, a "rat's toss bag" about how attractive the game looks as a spectacle, goes the theory. They would just as soon 36 players conducted one moveable scrum for 120 minutes if it meant theirs could come out on top.
That will be the prevailing view, too, as the coaches step forward one by one to slam the cap of 80 rotations being trialled in this year's NAB Cup.
Three of them spoke up last weekend – Hawthorn's Alastair Clarkson, Carlton's Mick Malthouse and Melbourne's Mark Neeld. Malthouse went a step further and questioned the entire make-up of the AFL's Laws of the Game Committee.
While that became a launching pad for a round of thrust and parry between him and the committee's most public voice, Kevin Bartlett, it was the words of Clarkson on Friday night which, for me, resonated most.
This didn't come across as a coach whingeing about an extra layer of control imposed upon him, but a real fan of the best game in the world genuinely concerned at the potential consequences of another round of tinkering. And I reckon he made a bloody good point.
Football, he said, was already a complex enough game. "It's played over the longest period of time, on the biggest oval, with the largest amount of participants, with an oval ball.
''It's a bloody tough game, and there's no set plays or stops in the game like gridiron. It's not a coach-driven game, it's a player-driven game, and we're just making it more and more difficult for the players in what is already a very, very complex game.
"I reckon it's an enormous risk to take with what's a pretty good game we've got at the moment.
''Just on a hunch, we're going to say, 'Let's put the cap at 80 and see what happens to the game.' Well, I hope it's good, but what happens if it's no good?"
At least the AFL Commission had the good sense to make this latest tinkering a pre-season trial. Surely this was too big a change to have introduced immediately for the premiership season. Interchange rotations ran at an average 131 last year.
No amount of stats or medical opinion can accurately forecast the level of extra fatigue this dramatic reduction will have on players. And while the Laws of the Game people will argue that more fatigue means less speed and less collision injuries, club people will argue just as passionately that more fatigue will merely equate to more stress injuries. That debate is no closer to being resolved.
What concerns most football watchers, though, aren't those debates, and certainly not the aesthetics of a crowded interchange bench, but an apparent desire by those in charge to stay one step ahead of the game's own evolutionary curve.
Even those who support administrative intervention would surely concede that about 50 rules changes in the past 20 seasons is a fair whack.
Congestion in AFL football is an issue, but it's not necessarily a fatal disease, not one so insidious that the game won't find its own solutions.
It has repeatedly, even in the modern era - flooding was once the subject of such hand- wringing that serious consideration was being given to rules limiting the amount of players in the defensive zone.
And it's not like there aren't other measures already introduced that could have at least as profound an impact on the swarms of players around contests.
One is the rule change announced late last year where umpires will now throw the ball up rather than bounce it at stoppages around the ground, saving an estimated two to three seconds each contest.
Last week AFL umpires' director Jeff Gieschen confirmed to Fairfax Media that umpires were also being instructed to call for ball-ups more quickly in the first place.
Both are more sensible, practical measures that will simply not allow the time for the same numbers of players milling around the ball that we have witnessed in recent seasons.
Shouldn't we give them a chance to have the desired effect, rather than also imposing an arbitrary and dramatic reduction on interchange numbers in the speculative hope sheer exhaustion of players will by consequence reduce the congestion as well?
It's the equivalent of cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer, particularly when you remember that last year's grand final between Hawthorn and Sydney, which featured close to 100 stoppages, also happened to be one of the best handful of premiership-deciders the game has seen.
Clarkson would agree, despite the fact it was his team that came out on the losing end that day. And on this matter, once more, he's speaking from far more than mere self-interest.