Seven questions an American AFL fan needs answered

Gordon Smith Roar Rookie

By Gordon Smith, Gordon Smith is a Roar Rookie


39 Have your say

    They say that the secret of making people think you’re smart is not to say anything to contradict that. For some people, that means not to say anything at all.

    (The US President is a case in point. He’ll read from a prepared text, and sound very presidential, very intelligent – and then look up and speak off the cuff, and that image goes right out the window – “gone”.)

    Speaking of which, that reminds me of several questions I’ve been meaning to ask you, you born-‘n-raised Australian football aficionados.

    As an American who has never had the privilege of visiting “Down Under”, and who has only followed the sport for fifteen or eighteen years from afar, there are a few things that I’ve never completely understood.

    At the risk of bursting the balloon of any of you who thought the rookie with the buffalo avatar was Einstein reincarnated, I’d like to ask you a few questions. And these are legit: please comment with answers if you see that no one else has already provided the right answer, okay?

    Why do we yell “Gone” when someone carrying the ball is tackled and turns the ball over to the tackling team? Why not “Down”, or “Got him!”, or something else? Nothing wrong with the phrase – I’m just not sure why we use it in that situation.

    Is there any rule-related purpose to the 50-meter arc? It’s an absolutely invaluable tool for players to gauge distance, it makes for very functional statistics, and frankly it lends an aesthetic to the look of the field. But I can’t think of anything in the rulebook that utilises it at all.

    And the over-the-head-and backwards, chuck-it-as-far-as-you-can toss in by the ref from the sideline on dead balls – where did that come from?

    I remember the first time I saw that years ago, when I was first introduced to the sport of gods, thinking, “Lord, that may be the silliest thing I’ve ever seen a ref be required to do in my life.”

    But it sure creates a problem if you have to declare a ruck and you really have no faith in where the ref’s going to throw it on a windy or storm-riddled day. My vote is to do away with the no third man rule on those tosses alone – that seems to be when the most confusion happens.

    Speaking of “over-the-head”, is it only because of the spectacle involved that we’ve chosen to ignore the physical interference caused by a spectacular marking effort on the player below him?

    If you shoved a defender like that without the jump and attempted catch, you’d give up a free kick, minimum, every time. Mind you, I prefer the highlight package leaps, so maybe I’m answering my own question here.

    It seems very strange to send a player out to face the media mid-week to report on injuries and how the team’s doing and all the things I’d expect to hear a coach report.

    I happened to watch a “’round the league” report on Wednesday, and it was Ross Lyon and John Longmire for the Dockers and Swans, of course, but it seems that the Eagles and Cats sent Elliot Yeo and Tom Hawkins out to do the same job for their teams.

    And for Zach Merrett, all of 22 years of age, to have to handle those duties of who’s hurting where and what the general plans are and (by inference) how much to admit and how much to shade to prevent the opponent from getting information they could use in battle?

    I can’t imagine that happening in an American sport. If we ever see a player doing “coach-speak” work, it’s a LeBron James or a Tom Brady, not the hotshot rookie or even the fourth-year running back.

    The Tribunal. Compared to having a single commissioner, or worse yet a VP-CFO type handling the disciplinary and punitive actions of the league, having a public hearing, a set of relatively concrete guidelines that are fairly transparent, and (best of all!) the ability to appeal becomes a wager rather than a free swing, reducing the frivolous dragging out of the legal element to almost nothing?
    Infinitely superior to anything in the US.

    Is this something that happens in all the other Aussie sports, or is it unique to the footy landscape? I know the VFL has it, but I don’t follow Series A or netball or the other pro leagues closely enough to know this detail about them.

    Have the outrageously tall banners been a part of the game forever? I love them, but their stateside counterparts are (generally) much smaller. Occasionally you’ll see a good sized college football banner, but that’s usually in Texas, where everything’s reputedly bigger. Until we added Alaska as a state.

    One of the greatest putdowns ever made was an Alaskan who listened to a Texas brag incessantly in a bar one night about how “EVERY-thing is bigger down yonder in Texas!” The Alaskan finally replied, “Mister, if you don’t shut your yapper, Alaska’ll split itself in half down the middle, and you’ll become the third largest state in the union!” (And that’s accurate: Alaska is literally 2.5 times the size of Texas, fully one quarter of the size of Australia.)

    West Coast Eagles AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

    Wandering back to last week’s topic in this column, we mentioned our “meta-Brownlow”, our AFL Player of the Year, utilizing as many other Player of the Year/Week/Month/Fortnight/ Whatever recognitions as I can track down.

    To address a topic we bandied about in the comments last week, this scorecard is not statistics-based – in the vast majority of cases, the points come from some form of human judgment rather than anything numerical.

    The exceptions to that would be the AFL’s Player Rating data, which creates its weekly tweeted Team of the Week based on ratings changes, and the Fantasy scoring element (I use the Supercoach numbers for this, partly to avoid duplication from the above, and partly because it seems to best recognize a balance between the requirements of the different regions of the field a player spends his day in. Translation: It’s not all about the midfielders).

    Through Round 7 (data for R8 will trickle in over the next couple of days), Rory Sloane of the Adelaide Crows still held a big lead with 256 points despite a one-point total in R7.

    West Coast’s Elliot Yeo, who was on nobody’s short list of Brownlow candidates in March, is second with 190, having just passed Dustin Martin of Richmond, currently at 181.

    The defending champ, Geelong’s Paddy Dangerfield, sits at 164 in fourth, and the pack behind him includes his teammate Joel Selwood and Magpie Scott Pendlebury, who had transport waiting if his wife goes into labor with their first child during the game with GWS Saturday; Port Adelaide’s Ollie Wines at 147, fallen to seventh after two low-tallying games and being closed on by Western’s Marcus Bontempelli at 145. The Bont has surged 51 points in his prior two games (Wines had only four).

    Rounding out the top 20 are Robbie Gray of Port (136), Rory Laird of Adelaide (130), Gold Coast’s Gary Ablett (129), the Eagles’ Josh Kennedy (126), Sydney’s Lance Franklin and GWS’ Toby Greene (both at 119), and Zach Merrett of Essendon (116). Sixteenth is St. Kilda’s Jack Steven (113), followed by Luke Shuey of West Coast (111), Fremantle’s Nat Fyfe (103), and Richmond’s duo of Trent Cotchin and Jack Riewoldt (102 each).

    Another categorization I use is what I call “dominant” and “prominent” performances. Dominant performances receive recognition from at least 90 per cent of our sources; prominent performances at least 80 per cent of those sources. Basically, it says that everyone or nearly everyone thought that player had a very remarkable performance that round.

    42 different players have produced “dominant” performances; Sloane put four in a row together in rounds three through six, and Yeo has three “dominant” and two other “prominent” performances in his seven games. Nine other players have had two dominants, including Rory Laird (two dominants, two prominents) and Ollie Wines (two of each as well).

    My final thought is to return to my first: remember that this is not based on statistical analysis of the players’ games, but on the recognition of those games as among the top performances of the week by human evaluators – as the Brownlow and most other awards are. Before you criticise, remember the intent of the meta-Brownlow scoring system (okay, now you can criticise.)

    Next week, the Wanderer intends to look at two related topics: the showcase in China this weekend and the choice to keep the brakes on the AFLW’s expansion plans.

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    The Crowd Says (39)

    • May 15th 2017 @ 11:49am
      Perry Bridge said | May 15th 2017 @ 11:49am | ! Report

      re the 50m arc – the main rule related aspect is the prohibition of runners etc at specific times – such as a kick out from a behind.

    • May 15th 2017 @ 12:00pm
      Adrian said | May 15th 2017 @ 12:00pm | ! Report

      Why do we yell “Gone”?
      The origin is shrouded in mystery – but it just sounds good.

      Is there any rule-related purpose to the 50-meter arc?

      And the over-the-head-and backwards, chuck-it-as-far-as-you-can toss in by the ref from the sideline on dead balls – where did that come from?
      The original rule states – “9 When the ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary line and thrown in right angels with that line.”
      Throwing it backwards means you can throw it further back into the field of play, but also higher. But as to when that started …. no idea.

      Speaking of “over-the-head”, is it only because of the spectacle involved that we’ve chosen to ignore the physical interference caused by a spectacular marking effort on the player below him?
      Of course!

      Have the outrageously tall banners been a part of the game forever?
      No – at first there used to just be streamers tied across the entrance to the players’ race.

      • May 15th 2017 @ 12:29pm
        Perry Bridge said | May 15th 2017 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

        re the head contact in a speccie – it’s deemed incidental contact but gee – it can be more forceful than anything else – that knee in the back or back of the head.

        In oldies footy (over 35s) – knees up are outlawed to speccies are for the younger ones playing regular footy.

        Haven’t really seen many people hurt by being the ‘stepladder’ but – having seen players knock themselves out after not quite executing the landing after taking a speccie…Mason Wood as an example last year vs Essendon (actually, for North, back in the mid 1980s Peter Smith did likewise).

        • May 15th 2017 @ 5:02pm
          Leonard said | May 15th 2017 @ 5:02pm | ! Report

          Re “players knock[ing] themselves out after not quite executing the landing after taking a speccie”; Essendon’s Gary Moorcroft took a candidate for the ‘Mark of the Millennium’ in 2000 (or 2001?) at Docklands near the left-of-screen goal, landed from a great height on that venue’s hard surface – AND WAS NEVER THE SAME AGAIN!

      • May 15th 2017 @ 1:47pm
        Bob said | May 15th 2017 @ 1:47pm | ! Report

        In terms of “gone”, I think it might be a shortening of the Peter Landy (I think) commentary where he used to say “Look out, son, ‘cos you’re gone” whenever someone was getting tackled. It had always been ball prior to that and still is mostly. But that is just a posited theory and I have no evidence to back that up.

    • May 15th 2017 @ 12:22pm
      Perry Bridge said | May 15th 2017 @ 12:22pm | ! Report

      The boundary throw in – over the head as it is – ensures there’s no question of favouritism. So long as the ump gets reasonable elevation and distance then the ruckmen can get to it.

      The original rule from 1859:

      IX: When a ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary-line and thrown in at right angles with that line.

      (you can trace the evolution of the boundary umpires from about 1904 on via this link:

      Noting that originally the ground tended to be a rectangular shape. There was no description of how the ball ought be thrown in – – however – – unless you’re doing the Rugby Union line out with one side taking the throw in – then, it’s really a common sense evolution of a neutral 3rd party throwing it in in a manner that is totally fair.

      It may look silly but it helps facilitate a key tenet of the game – the neutral restart – a true 50/50. (and that’s actually why 3rd man up compromises the 50/50 neutral restarts).

    • May 15th 2017 @ 12:52pm
      joe b said | May 15th 2017 @ 12:52pm | ! Report

      A brief history on how the game came to be, can help with some questions. Look up Tom Wills and Marn Grook in wikipedia for more detail.
      The creator, Tom Wills, watched Marn Grook in his youth, and was later sent to England for schooling at Rugby School where he played an early version of rugby football, and was the school cricket captain. Marn Grook, a collective term for aboriginal ball games, required keeping the ball (stuffed possum skin) up in the air, primarily by kicking (dropping ball to foot, the drop punt), and marking. The game was played by many (men and women, and most likely children as well) numbering up to fifty at times. The tall “players” would leap up high over other players to great applause.
      Anyhooo… when Wills returned to Melbourne, he went to work on codifying a football game to be played during the winter months so cricket players would keep fit for in readiness for summer cricket. The football game, Australian football, is influenced by Rugby and Marn Grook.

      * Why do we yell “Gone” when someone carrying the ball is tackled and turns the ball over to the tackling team? In Perth we say “Ball”… not sure about Gone
      * the 50-meter arc? No rules centered around the arc that I know of, it is just a measure on the ground to reference (maybe soccer and rugby influence of the box and 20 yard line)
      * the over-the-head-and backwards throw in? would have been influenced by the rugby line-out for this. The umpire with back to players makes it fairer, and he generally aims at right angles to where ball crossed the line. It is a one on one contest for the big boys.
      * Spectacular over head mark of another player (the “speccy”) and physical interference? Marn Grook influence I suspect, like you suggest it doesn’t count as infringing the player because it is pretty sweet to watch. However, there is the rule of unrealistic attempt which is penalised…. you cant use hands in back though to get up.
      * players and coaches have individual media gigs with different broadcasters, they also have contractual obligations enforced by the AFL as part of broadcast rights, and club contract obligations to promote the club… rookies get used to help spread the load I guess, or for media training.
      * each sporting code has their own judicial process. Rugby League is similar I think.
      * the banners? not sure when it started, but has been there for a long time. Some are boring, some are funny.
      * super coach ratings etc? I have no idea

      • May 15th 2017 @ 1:27pm
        Mat said | May 15th 2017 @ 1:27pm | ! Report

        Actually the indigenous influence on AFL has been bebunked as a myth by academics.

        • May 15th 2017 @ 1:47pm
          Mickyo said | May 15th 2017 @ 1:47pm | ! Report

          Plenty of academics back up the connection, please explain how Wills the only white child in his district and someone who spoke the local Aboriginal dialect and played with local aboriginal kids where the game of Marn Grook was known to have been played was not influenced by them.

          He was held in such high esteem by local tribes that years later they would come to the homestead asking to see photos of him.

          • May 15th 2017 @ 2:24pm
            Perry Bridge said | May 15th 2017 @ 2:24pm | ! Report

            I figure the childhood interactions of Wills out near present day Moyston helps explain his ‘natural’ abilities at football and cricket once he was shipped to Rugby for schooling.

            However – upon his return to Melbourne – as an unspectacular white collar worker and perhaps a less spectacular secretary of the MCC – he was though well regarded for his on field sporting prowess.

            Need to remember though – he was but one of the committee charged with creating a list of rules.

            Certainly in 1858 he’d shared umpiring duties with John MacAdam (he of the nut fame) for the Melb Grammar v Scotch match. And it appears Rugby rules were at least – and in part – attempted and Wills was the most readily available expert in the field.

            However – on the rules committee – Smith, Hammersley and vitally – Thompson, and actually, probably the publican Bryant (an active member of the MCC and MFC) – the rules committee was not 100% beholden to Wills. So – Marn Grook – if it influenced anything – was therefore a direct influence on but 1 member of the committee – and that member had subsequently played a few years of football (but was more the cricketer by far) at Rugby school.

            Thompson was the one who published the cricketers annual which included a subsection on the rules of football. He came prepared with copies of known rules of football from a number of English public schools.

            So – I like to believe there’s a definite link. However – let’s not over state that link and let’s not forget the other members of the first rules committee.

            Also – the early evolution – and several reviews of the rules – saw the influence of Wills diminish. He relocated to QLD for a time (during which time he just avoided being home when the local aboriginals attacked the station and killed his father). During this time – the game in Melbourne was evolving without ANY of his input.

          • May 16th 2017 @ 10:21am
            Powerboy said | May 16th 2017 @ 10:21am | ! Report

            I posted on this very question on another forum (elsewhere) only yesterday. A soccer fan had speculated on why Aussie rules had become such a dominant sport in Victoria and South Australia and was unsure of the W.A. origins;

            ” The WAFL has always been as strong as the SANFL and the VFL – since the 1880’s. The biggest obstruction to a national league back then was the lack of horses that combined the speed of the thoroghbred with the strength of the clydesdale. A lack of lightweight stagecoaches that would accommodate more than 30 men also didn’t help. Huge arguments often erupted with regards to the draw and who had had an away game the week before.
            Just by the way, you may note, when looking at Aussie Rules’ historical champions, it might occur to you that the teams associated with a great seafaring tradition seemed to be the most successful and fastest growing. Think Fremantle, Ports Melbourne and Adelaide and Geelong and even Tasmania. I am very sure that the popularity of the Australian game was spread by the seafarers of the golden age of the tall ship.
            I am also very sure that the notion of “marngrook” is a crock foisted upon us by those who think it adds some sort of “ancient and revered” status to a code invented just to keep cricketers fit during the off season.”

            I will point out here that my family are from Adelaide and settled there in the 1850’s. My grandmother was born there in 1896 of Australian born Irish stock. Much of her recollections are digitally recorded and stored at the S.A. museum, particularly regarding Australian football. Her father played for Norwood.
            Having grown up as a white child on a couple of aboriginal missions and having many indigienous friends, albeit from central Australia, I can only say that many of my aboriginal friends cack themselves laughing over the “marngrook” story. I realise this will cause howls of outrage from certain sections of the readership, but can comprehensively state that there is absolutely no record of Tom Willis ever directly referring to any aboriginal game or sport of this nature as the basis for his concept. It is also true, and very notable, that Willis was very influential in the promotion of the game and the formalisation of the rules, even to the extent of promoting the game and the many aboriginal players of it whilst at Rugby school in England. Indeed, the first Australian Rules team to tour overseas was almost entirely aboriginal.
            This is in no way to detract from the HUGE influence and history of aboriginal footballers over the generations. It is merely here to note that there is absolutely no anthropological evidence in existence to support the Marn Grook legend. As a final note, I will point out that wikipedia has absolutely no relevance apart from what a contributor may decide is relevant and the inclusion of any early Australian sketch or painting of said sport does not in and of itself confirm any such theory.
            My thanks for your time in reading this post.

            • May 16th 2017 @ 12:20pm
              Leonard said | May 16th 2017 @ 12:20pm | ! Report

              Powerboy’s general point about ‘marngrook’ is supported by eminent professor Geoffrey Blainey, who did not reckon that young Tommy Wills seeing some aboriginal children playing some sort of game would ‘stand up in court’ as proof of provenance. (He also had a similar finding about any influence from traditional Irish Gaelic football; others have used the palaeo-biological notion of ‘convergent evolution’ to explain these similarities.)

              We are going through one of those recurring spasms of the ‘noble savage’ cultural cringe, where cultures which got no further than the Stone Age are All Good, and cultures which evolved into civilisations are No Good. Usually, of course, the academics who spout this rubbish DON’T lead Stone Age lives, but can be found in leafy, cosy inner city precincts with all 20C modcons and 21C apps, as far from our Red Centre as they can be!

              It seems that lots of the Top People in the AFL, desperate to de-identify themselves as Anglo-Celtic / Anglo-European in origin, will seize on any tidbit of ‘indigenousness’ to justify their existences.

              And, BTW, about 75% of Australian indigenous people lead early 21st lives almost indistinguishable from everyone else’s.

            • May 16th 2017 @ 1:33pm
              Perry Bridge said | May 16th 2017 @ 1:33pm | ! Report

              Tom Wills whilst at Rugby school in Warwickshire was known for 3 things by the end of his time there – he became their finest rugby player, captained the school in cricket, and ran through the country side as a champion athlete although the 3rd item in this list might be replace by his ability to take on his learnings of beer consumption.

              His main game was always cricket.

              It was not an Aust Rules touring team – it was a cricket touring team – the aboriginal side formed with players from western Victoria – he was offered the role of capt/coach in 1866. That side toured Vic and NSW, and formed the nucleus of the Australian aboriginal touring team that was the first Australian touring cricket team to England in 1868 – but that was led by Englishman Charles Lawrence. Wills wasn’t invited to take part.

              So – important to note that Wills never actually got to tour the side back to England.

        • May 15th 2017 @ 2:49pm
          Pope Pauil VII said | May 15th 2017 @ 2:49pm | ! Report

          Depends on who the debunkers are. If they are named Windshuttle disregard.

          • May 15th 2017 @ 3:09pm
            Mat said | May 15th 2017 @ 3:09pm | ! Report

            The AFL commissioned a study by academic Gillian Hibbins who called the link a seductive myth without any basis in fact.

            • May 15th 2017 @ 3:33pm
              Slane said | May 15th 2017 @ 3:33pm | ! Report

              Another lifetime ago, before I got into the memorabilia business, I was an archaeologist and I tend to agree with Hibbins. Though it’s important to note that as an Historian, Hibbins sources are limited to what people deemed important enough to write down. From what we can gather, the original game of Melbourne Rules had barely any high kicking or leaping(it was very rugby-esque) which is a hallmark of modern day AFL and traditional versions of Marngrook.

              If people are looking for Indigenous influence in the original rules they are looking in the wrong place. I tend to think any influence that Marngrook had on Melbourne Rules came much later after the rules were codified and people began developing different styles of how to play. Indigenous people today certainly see many similarities between Australian rules and Marngrook.

            • May 15th 2017 @ 3:35pm
              Mickyo said | May 15th 2017 @ 3:35pm | ! Report

              Yet Monash university historian Professor Jenny Hocking claims transcripts placing marngrook where Tom Wills grew up, a claim Hibbins has denied.

              We are talking 2017 here not Hibbins 10 or so years ago.

              State library of Victoria has transcripts of interviews with a mukjarrawaint man Johnny Connolly who described playing marngrook in the Grampians in the 1830/40’s, he also worked on stations Wills father owned.

              Elders where Liam Jaarah comes from in the central desert still remember playing marngrook with a stuffed possum skin.

              • May 16th 2017 @ 8:25pm
                me too said | May 16th 2017 @ 8:25pm | ! Report

                Curious where elders in central australia found a possum skin?

            • May 15th 2017 @ 3:43pm
              Pope Pauil VII said | May 15th 2017 @ 3:43pm | ! Report

              As long as it’s not Windshuttle. He is the aussie equivalent of holocaust denier.

              I’ll have to read up on both sides. Certainly possible that a unique game contributes to a unique game.

    • May 15th 2017 @ 1:10pm
      Pope Pauil VII said | May 15th 2017 @ 1:10pm | ! Report

      I think “gone!” is similar to your “he’s a goner!” Gordon.

      The spectacular leap is the best part of the game I reckon. The term they use now is “unrealistic attempt” to penalise absolute shoves or ill conceived leaps.

      Just on young kiddies fronting press conference, Australian Cricket has a habit of putting up less experienced or less senior players to chat about about how their team mates are going. This has always struck me as a cruel thing to do as they are fighting for a tiny number of spots against best friends and/or intense rivals.

      • May 16th 2017 @ 4:07pm
        Shane said | May 16th 2017 @ 4:07pm | ! Report

        Yep, heard ‘gone’ used a bit in cricket too.

    • May 15th 2017 @ 1:17pm
      Slane said | May 15th 2017 @ 1:17pm | ! Report

      The Speccy allows us to observe 2 of the best traits in AFL: The incredible leap and athleticism of the player taking the mark and the courage of the bloke who had to back into the hole to try and contest the mark. Knowing full well you are about to be kneed in the back/head by a 100kg bloke traveling as fast as he can and still putting your body on the line is a good way to earn respect on the field.