Unnecessary congestion is holding the AFL back

Craig Delaney Roar Pro

By Craig Delaney, Craig Delaney is a Roar Pro New author!


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    The Western Bulldogs have changed the way the game is played. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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    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.

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    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.

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    The Crowd Says (51)

    • December 30th 2016 @ 8:07am
      dave said | December 30th 2016 @ 8:07am | ! Report

      Good article,
      What baffles me is the thought that most people in power at the AFL would have some history with the game,why can’t they see the obvious?
      Do they forget what holding the ball means once they don the suits?
      Its really not rocket science.

    • December 30th 2016 @ 8:47am
      Craig Delaney said | December 30th 2016 @ 8:47am | ! Report

      Yeah Dave, but it seems that people don’t pay that much attention to history in all kinds of areas in this world. It takes a little humility before the past to not overestimate your importance now. You feel like you have to leave a big mark to justify your existence. Once they got rid of the sub and cut the numbers, the interchange was a big mark which has worked very well. But how many such big marks can come in a generation?

      A great example is the so-called sliding rule. It was totally unnecessary. That play was always covered under the trip rule. But the undoubted excitement of players risking life and limb seemed to be deemed a welcome spectacle. Until the danger to players became obvious. Then, they introduce a new rule/interpretation thinking this was innovation when the golden rule already existed unimplemented! Now, what kind of mindset does that? Mind you, I don’t think it’s easy running the AFL.

    • Roar Guru

      December 30th 2016 @ 9:56am
      Mister Football said | December 30th 2016 @ 9:56am | ! Report

      The dogs showed this year that success awaits clubs who can both lock the ball in when needed, and get it out with equal effectiveness (with its inner/outer circle rapid fire handball routine).

      Other successful clubs in recent years have had their own way of going about it: Hawthorn, Geelong and Sydney.

      The Giants clearly have the resources to do both as well, with a combo of head over footy singlemindedness and slick ball movement.

      There’s one club who looks very similar to the dogs in this department, and that’s the Saints, who have beaten the dogs two years running.

      Watch out for them in 2017.

      • December 30th 2016 @ 10:21am
        Craig Delaney said | December 30th 2016 @ 10:21am | ! Report

        Yes, MF, there are a number of teams who could/can play a precisely umpired game immediately and to exciting effect. If my mind’s eye memory is correct, plays that legitimately lock the ball in generally lead pretty quickly to a ball up where the game can get moving again. Or, as you say, it comes out pretty quickly via handball or a quick kick. The Bullies were the first, or one of the first, to really focus on this fact.

      • December 30th 2016 @ 5:07pm
        Lroy said | December 30th 2016 @ 5:07pm | ! Report

        ”locking the ball in effectively…” used to be an automatic free kick for holding the ball… its whats causing the congestion. Surprised the AFL dont seem to have worked that out.

        • December 30th 2016 @ 6:23pm
          Craig Delaney said | December 30th 2016 @ 6:23pm | ! Report

          They ping it when it is lying on the ball because that definitely constitutes posession. The problem is that players resort to that practice because the interpretations don’t often protect the first to the ball enough.

    • December 30th 2016 @ 10:07am
      Ian Nicholas said | December 30th 2016 @ 10:07am | ! Report

      Veryn thoughtful and positive article. I just hope that those in authority at the AFL take notice.

      • December 30th 2016 @ 10:14am
        Craig Delaney said | December 30th 2016 @ 10:14am | ! Report

        Thanks Ian. I doubt the AFL reads Roar rookies, but many many fans do. Can we look to a trickle up effect?

    • December 30th 2016 @ 10:17am
      mdso said | December 30th 2016 @ 10:17am | ! Report

      There are more bums on seats at AFL House than there are players playing the game. Many wanting to justify their existence but also still wanting to be a legend in their own undies. Simplify the game, stop making it more complex.

    • Roar Guru

      December 30th 2016 @ 10:27am
      Cat said | December 30th 2016 @ 10:27am | ! Report

      Why all the congestion articles lately? The rolling scrums happened 2 seasons ago. Congestion was barely talked about and essentially became a non-issue last year. Ten metre exclusion zone and deliberate out of bounds rules worked wonders. Let the game evolve naturally, stop trying to fix every minutia.

      • December 30th 2016 @ 10:46am
        Craig Delaney said | December 30th 2016 @ 10:46am | ! Report

        To a degree I agree with you. However, the exclusion zone has proved clunky to adjudicate and play to. Deliberate was always a rule but umpires were understandably somewhat lax with it. In this case, we evolved BACK to it.

        Perhaps some of our continuing frustration with congestion comes down to our awareness that congestion often results in lower skilled play, and unfairness to higher skilled plays. When the interpretations unfairly favour the infringers and congestion results, our feelings about the unfairness and congestion run in together.

        By all means let the game evolve, but it should be both fair and foster, not hinder, skill.

        • December 30th 2016 @ 11:35am
          Craig Delaney said | December 30th 2016 @ 11:35am | ! Report

          Lest I misrepresent my attitude to the exclusion zone: I support it, particularly as it protects the player with the ball who, these days, is deemed to have played on when he has taken one or two small steps off his line (tweaking) thus opening him up to tackles from anyone within a 5-10 metres arc. It’s really back to the future too. One drawback seems to be that players are less likely to use the drop punt, or banana kick, when locked into the pocket and shooting for goal.

          • Roar Guru

            December 30th 2016 @ 1:58pm
            Cat said | December 30th 2016 @ 1:58pm | ! Report

            The only solution we need is to enforce the existing rules better. If a ball is not handballed or kicked it is illegal disposal, get rid of the stupid ‘in a tackle’ interpretation garbage. If a player can’t hold onto the ball whilst being tackled they should be penalized. If a player doesn’t make a genuine attempt to keep a ball in play rule it deliberate. every single time! Regardless of time on clock! Regardless of where on the ground it happens! So sick of different rules for different times and places.