Want a higher-scoring AFL? Tell the umps to blow the whistle more

Tim Lane Columnist

By Tim Lane, Tim Lane is a Roar Expert New author!


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    Is this the most mouth-watering match of the year? (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

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    When Ron Barassi stared into the void at half-time of the 1970 VFL grand final, he imagined a hazy outline.

    In the few frantic minutes available, with Carlton trailing Collingwood by 44 points, the Blues’ coach worked a miracle of management. He persuaded his players to put his desperately formed vision into effect and the game’s most remarkable victory was achieved.

    Australian football was about to change.

    Not that it was all down to Barassi. The arrival at Hawthorn of the freakish Peter Hudson three years earlier had sparked a re-birth of the hundred-goal-a-year full forward. Scoring goals, rather than stopping them, was back in vogue.

    When that was coupled with a more mobile game, lubricated by the handball, things happened fast. The 1970 home-and-away season was the first-ever of 22 rounds. Four teams accrued 2000 points that year. By 1976, ten teams topped the 2K mark and by 1978 every one of the competition’s 12 teams had a two in front of its ‘points for’ entry.

    But just as Barassi had shown the way to all-out attack, it was inevitable some smart coach would come along to spoil the party. Mick Malthouse’s West Coast started it in 1991 by conceding just 1532 points. This equalled, precisely, the low-water mark achieved by Allan Jeans’ St Kilda in – you guessed it – 1970.

    In 2005, Paul Roos’ Sydney Swans became the first team in the history of the 22-game season to score fewer than 2000 points but win the flag. Last season, the Western Bulldogs became the second.

    The newly-appointed AFL football operations boss, Simon Lethlean, last week identified higher scoring as an objective to be pursued in his new role.

    “We will work with them (coaches and players) and support them with our rules to try to enhance scoring,” he said.

    The modern AFL has become a sporting administration like no other in its tendency to fiddle with the rules – or Laws – of its game. Unfortunately, if the work of his recent predecessors is any guide, Lethlean is likely to infuriatingly tinker at the edges of the problem rather than cut to its heart.

    Yet the heart of this issue is simple and it involves a sporting rivalry almost as old as time. For just as there is good versus evil and there is Collingwood versus Carlton, so too there is offence versus defence. In a nutshell, the latter is the battle which determines how high-scoring, or low-scoring, the game is. If, in general, ‘D’ is prevailing over ‘O’, low scoring will be the order of the day.

    So what is the most fundamental aspect of defence? Unarguably, it is tackling. And what component of the game requires the most adjudication from umpires? Yes, tackling. So, to a very real extent, the adjudication by umpires determines the success, or otherwise, of defence.

    The factor most responsible for the modern ascendancy of defence is the degree to which a blind eye is turned to illegal tackles. There is now much more tackling than ever before, yet there are way fewer free kicks being paid than was once the case.

    In last year’s grand final, 193 tackles were recorded and 28 frees paid. Of those, only 11 were specifically tackling-related. That’s one infringement for every 17.5 tackles.

    Compare this to the 1991 grand final, when Mick Malthouse’s Eagles had developed their new tackling ethos. In that game, 52 tackles were laid and 42 free kicks paid. If 20 of those were for tackling breaches, that’s one infringement for every 2.5 tackles.

    Carlton coach Mick Malthouse

    That’s a 700 per cent difference over 26 years. Are we really to believe that, in a game becoming ever faster, tackling techniques and precision have improved so much?

    The more likely explanation – palpable to those who have watched football over decades – is that umpires have been encouraged to put the whistle away.

    While there are no tackling statistics available from the 1970s, we do know that field umpire Don Jolley – officiating solo – paid 90 free kicks in the 1970 grand final. And this was in an era when tackle was what footballers took on their post-season fishing holiday.

    Conventional wisdom says fewer free kicks are good for the game. Yet more serious consideration compels the view that acquiescent umpiring has actually been bad. It encourages defence over offence, making for ‘pack football’, more stoppages, and, ultimately, lower scoring.

    The simple fact is, if Simon Lethlean wants higher scoring, he can achieve it by re-setting the bar on permissible tackling. In other words, by telling the umpires that being a whistle-blower isn’t a crime.

    Tim Lane
    Tim Lane

    Tim Lane is one of the most respected voices in Australian sport, having gained a strong following for his weekly AFL column in The Age. Tim has also called 32 AFL/VFL grand finals and was behind the microphone for Cathy Freeman's memorable gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. You can catch him on Twitter @TimLaneSport.

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    The Crowd Says (45)

    • March 9th 2017 @ 8:27am
      John said | March 9th 2017 @ 8:27am | ! Report

      The AFL should be paying frees for dropping the ball or incorrect disposal. So many players just drop the ball now and don’t get a free against them it is so frustrating to watch!

      • March 9th 2017 @ 9:19am
        Brian said | March 9th 2017 @ 9:19am | ! Report

        Agree especially on incorrect disposal. All credit to the Dogs last year but so often their handballs were incorrect disposal and the umpire would waive play on

        • March 9th 2017 @ 10:31am
          Steve said | March 9th 2017 @ 10:31am | ! Report

          Not so sure about the Bulldogs often incorrect disposal and the umpires waving play on. The way the Bulldogs deftly moved that ball to clear the packs with such vigour and bravado made for very exciting football. Often their handballs in traffic were so fast unless you were watching in slow motion there was no way to doubt the umpire’s interpretation. I think every side will be working on increasing the accuracy and speed of their disposal skills by hand. This skill definitely provides the edge in tight spaces and contested situations, making the game a far better and exciting product as it offers the fast break and running game with a scoring chance to ensue.

    • Roar Guru

      March 9th 2017 @ 8:57am
      Rick Disnick said | March 9th 2017 @ 8:57am | ! Report

      Let me get this straight: You believe if more frees are paid for illegal tackles, more goals will result? The logic you provide is:

      “Compare this to the 1991 grand final, when Mick Malthouse’s Eagles had developed their new tackling ethos. In that game, 52 tackles were laid and 42 free kicks paid. If 20 of those were for tackling breaches, that’s one infringement for every 2.5 tackles.”

      …doesn’t really make sense when you couple it with this comment:

      “Mick Malthouse’s West Coast started it in 1991 by conceding just 1532 points. This equalled, precisely, the low-water mark achieved by Allan Jeans’ St Kilda in – you guessed it – 1970.”

      You’ve made a very compelling argument — with your own words — the exact opposite may occur should the umpires cough up the whistle.

      Don’t even get me going on your random use of arbitrary stats to make your case either.

    • Roar Guru

      March 9th 2017 @ 9:11am
      Dalgety Carrington said | March 9th 2017 @ 9:11am | ! Report

      • Roar Guru

        March 9th 2017 @ 9:32am
        Rick Disnick said | March 9th 2017 @ 9:32am | ! Report

        Anyone else see a blank comment from Dal or is it just me?

    • March 9th 2017 @ 9:23am
      Mullo said | March 9th 2017 @ 9:23am | ! Report

      What happens when you pay more free kicks for holding the ball? You incentivise tackling over getting the ball.

      What happens with more players hunting the player with the ball instead of the ball? Less scoring.

      No thanks. The best thing about our game has always been what players do when they have the ball or are trying to get it. Long may it remain so.

      • Roar Guru

        March 9th 2017 @ 9:30am
        Cat said | March 9th 2017 @ 9:30am | ! Report

        Players will never stop trying to get the ball. They’ll learn to dispose of it better when they can’t just drop it. They will look for opportunities to get rid of it quicker instead of holding onto it for a stoppage.

        • March 9th 2017 @ 9:55am
          Mullo said | March 9th 2017 @ 9:55am | ! Report

          I didn’t say they would stop trying to get the ball. But it will further shift the balance in favour of players hunting the player with the ball.

    • Editor

      March 9th 2017 @ 9:38am
      Riordan Lee said | March 9th 2017 @ 9:38am | ! Report

      Great to have you on board, Tim – and I think tightening up tackling laws would surely lead to faster games and more points. Personally I’m not entirely on board with Lethlean’s obsession with ultra-high scoring affairs. I think the GF proved how absorbing football can be even if neither team makes it to the magic 100. Goals suddenly become more precious and valuable – I just don’t think the game’s in need of some sort of existential transformation.

      • March 9th 2017 @ 10:18am
        Craig Delaney said | March 9th 2017 @ 10:18am | ! Report

        I’ve been saying for a long time on the Roar that blowing the whistle appropriately will open up the game. The old adage that the whistle slows the game down may have been true of a less professional age, but the fitness, skills, and coaching acumen of today means the ball will be moved on very quickly. Congestion and stoppages should be cleared more effectively, and, more importantly, more fairly. A quickly taken free kick is like gold, or should be.

        Will this increase scoring? Not necessarily. The whistle is not used enough in favour of tacklers as well as against them. Likewise, the player in possession.

    • Roar Guru

      March 9th 2017 @ 9:50am
      mds1970 said | March 9th 2017 @ 9:50am | ! Report

      There’s no doubt the umpires let a lot more go than they used to, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
      But these things change over time. Different tactics come into vogue. 10 years ago all the talk was how flooding was killing the game. But some teams have worked out how to beat the flood.
      Let it evolve. If the game is lower scoring now than in the 1970s, I don’t see that’s necessarily a bad thing.

      BTW Tim, welcome to The Roar.