Most who love Aussie rules do not like the level of congestion in the current game.
Some years back the AFL started tweaking interpretations of the rules in an effort to speed up the game.
Some new rules (like the interchange) helped, but the tweaking inspired new counterproductive plays, some dangerous and some leading to increased congestion.
The irony is that increased professionalism in all areas of the AFL meant that a faster game had always been inevitable. Those who thought they had tweaked their way to this faster game were wrong. The benefits of professionalism masked their error.
The tweaking was focused on what I call the ‘golden rules’ of the game, which had evolved through decades of experience. Holding the ball, holding the man, in the back, incorrect disposal.
The golden rules are designed to privilege higher over lower skill. Giving someone a push in the back, for example, is a very low skill, if indeed it is one, and it cuts down the player who had the skill to get in front with first go at the ball.
That’s why I applauded when hands in the back came in, but, let’s face it, it was merely a return to the golden rule, no great new tweak.
Many were, and are, confused by the incessant tweaking of interpretations that have gone on for years.
For example, holding the ball used to be the result when a player was impeded in the tackle and did not immediately attempt to dispose of the ball. Impeding does not mean stopped in his tracks – it means held in such a way that he simply cannot do what he likes.
2016 saw many examples of players storming on for metres, or swung 360 degrees plus without penalty. Both are examples of significant impediment. Both tend to lead to further congestion.
Coaching and culture changes a lot of the time because of the need to adopt what works. If congestion works that’s what you do. If the tweaked interpretations of the rules create an environment in which congestion is your best option, then erasing the tweaks is needed in order to eradicate as much of it as you can.
I think we should be far more precise, less tweaked, with the interpretation of the golden rules that apply around congested play.
For example, very often players, who on other occasions have a vice-like grip on the ball, suddenly go all weak and seem to spill it when tackled.
Funny how often this occurs only when there’s nobody to give it to, and the alternative would be to lose possession to the opposite team! At this point, players all swoop on the ball and we have the beginnings or continuation of congested play.
Ping this as the incorrect disposal that it is and the resulting free will clear the congestion. These days players are far more skilled at moving the ball on from free kick situations, so giving the free will very seldom slow the game down, as was once thought and feared.
In fact, it will open it up. Just look at the Bulldogs’ movement of the ball. Coaches and culture will adapt very quickly.
Similar scenarios could be drawn for the other golden rules of contested ball play: in the back, holding the man, holding the ball. The one rule they do umpire pretty well precisely is handball/throw.
There is also the tendency to let play go on when it is deemed both sides are committing the same infringement, which clearly fosters congestion. However, the concept of mutual infringement is most often a fallacy as almost always one player starts it and others follow. Penalise the first one and the coaches will stamp out the practice.
For example, mutual holding is a common part of congested play. It seems condoned in ruck contests and many situations around the contest. To me, mutual holding is low skill play and not very satisfying to watch or do.
It takes the place of the higher skill of using your body to shield the fall of the ball (or time your leap) in ruck contests, or the ball or fellow team member in the ground contest.
Current umpiring practice has helped create actual instances of mutual holding. The players and coaches don’t expect to be penalised, so they set up for it. If that guy holds me to his advantage and goes unpenalised, then I better do the same to counter him.
Congestion favours the less skilled over the more skilled play and player. The delight of the game, its excitement, resides in great players doing what they do so well, and great teams likewise. Unnecessary congestion significantly impairs the game.
Rules and their interpretation should do two things: one, protect the players, and two, foster higher rather than lower skills. The golden rules precisely interpreted evolved to do just that. Time to go back to the future.