What’s next for AFL game plans?

Stephen Roar Rookie

By Stephen, Stephen is a Roar Rookie


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    Tom Hafey coached Richmond to four premierships between 1967 and 1974. He liked to keep the game simple Tommy – playing to the strengths at his disposal. The game plan was built upon and around player fitness and the AFL Team of the Century centre-half-forward – Royce Hart.

    Richmond’s list during the Hafey years boasted other great players – notably; Kevin Bartlett, Kevin Sheedy and Francis Bourke. But Hart was the linchpin and Tommy new it.

    Denis Pagan was clever enough to adopt a similar style for North Melbourne. He went on to coach the Kangaroos to the 1996 and 1999 premierships – with Wayne Carey playing a similar role as Hart played under Hafey.

    Both Hafey and Pagan were as predictable as they were effective.

    More recently, Hawthorn’s triple premiership run from 2013 to 2015 was underpinned by a game plan evolving from an anti-social, contested brand of football into a highly skilled precision based game plan.

    Hawthorn at their premiership best displayed the clinical prowess of a surgeon’s scalpel. Pinging the ball around – holding, holding… then releasing the trigger through the corridor and toward goal.

    If mimicking is the greatest form of flattery our game would certainly qualify. The manic pressure displayed by the Bulldogs in 2016 was clearly present in Richmond 2017. We Aussies are like sheep at times.

    AFL Grand Final Dustin Martin Richmond Tigers 2017

    (Photo by Scott Barbour/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    Critically, successful game plans must be crafted – mindful of the attributes of the playing list at the coach’s disposal. This should be a given for any coach. A team’s game plan and their playing list must be syncretised.

    The coaching challenge experienced by Brent Guerra – trying to instill the Hawthorn style of play into Fremantle over the past two seasons – is perhaps a recent example of the need for a playing list and game plan to be aligned.

    If a coach bemoans that the team is not buying into or executing the game plan, then it’s the wrong plan. And frankly the coach is likely to be lacking basic understanding, communications or humility.

    So what is the next phase for the contemporary AFL game plan?

    The 2014 AFL grand final between Hawthorn and Sydney may provide some insight. As a spectacle the game was not particularly memorable. However, something struck me at half-time of that match. Given Hawthorn’s ‘keepings-off’ and highly skilled game style, it is perhaps unsurprising they finished the 2014 home/away season averaging a modest 59 tackles per game, compared with Sydney’s 74.

    However, by halftime of the 2014 grand final, Hawthorn had tackled Sydney on 45 separate occasions. It’s safe to assume the Hawthorn hierarchy had decided during grand final week the best way to defeat Sydney was to tackle them, and Hawthorn’s on-field leadership was sufficient to execute the change.

    Facing a seven-goal deficit at half-time the Swans never recovered. Beaten at their own game.

    My point is this – Hawthorn appeared to have planned and executed a brand of football during the 2014 grand final different from their standard game plan that had previously served them so well. No mean feat.

    By extension, perhaps the next phase of AFL game plans is a more flexible approach, where a well-rehearsed Plan A provides the foundation, but Plan A is then combined with an ability to adjust – according to the variable week-to-week circumstances.

    There is evidence of this appearing in today’s game. But only in small degrees from my observation.

    I will never understand why players and coaches speak of only focussing on what ‘they’ wish to execute as a team. What small-minded arrogance. Within a team’s control is how they plan for their upcoming opponents. Ignore them at your own peril.

    The world’s best chess players can read what moves their opponents are planning in advance, and adapt accordingly. Similarly, the best AFL coaches give their weekly opponents exactly what they do not wish to receive. This can only be achieved by respecting the weekly opponent and adjusting accordingly.

    Perhaps Charles Darwin had a valid point when he said – “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

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    The Crowd Says (53)

    • Roar Pro

      December 9th 2017 @ 3:49am
      Alphingtonian said | December 9th 2017 @ 3:49am | ! Report

      Great article. I think most teams/coaches are well behind Richmond with the synchronicity of their lists and game-plan at the moment. Some coaches are stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that teams need smaller midsize players with speed that can win ground ball across the whole ground in order to win flags. So many coaches continue to persist with traditional tall forward lines and tall teams in general. Chris Scott and Leon Cameron are firmly of that mindset. As AFL becomes based on soccer like formations more and more it makes sense for whole teams to need speed in order to transition more quickly between attack and defense. Coaches/teams that don’t understand this simple premise will be left behind in the evolutionary race.

      • December 9th 2017 @ 2:37pm
        Stephen said | December 9th 2017 @ 2:37pm | ! Report

        Thanks Alph. So do you see the recent rush for 200cm players being perhaps a one-off? The last two national drafts didn’t seem to have many tall players.

      • Roar Rookie

        December 11th 2017 @ 10:10am
        Lamby said | December 11th 2017 @ 10:10am | ! Report

        “Some coaches are stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that teams need smaller midsize players with speed that can win ground ball across the whole ground in order to win flags. ”

        I think you have missed the point of the article.

        Pretty much every coaching team is working on a way to counteract the Bulldog/Tiger small forward pressure game (though I would argue that the Tiger game plan in the GF was significantly different to the Bulldog one). This time next year we MAY be saying that small, fast forwards are overrated and that no team can win a flag without X (where ‘X’ is the next trend that wins a flag).

        It is not that long ago that Neil Craig’s ‘Crowbots’ were doing a very similar thing – very fit, fast ‘athletes’ were picked over ‘footballers’ and applied pressure and played very ‘soccer’ like tactics. It worked fantastically until a few weeks before the finals they came across the Weagle Web (developed by Don Pyke as tactical coach there). They never found the way to combat it.

        I think the point of the article is that modern coaches need to be flexible. They need to work with the ‘cattle’ they have. They need to have multiple different game plans depending on who they play.

        There is a great book (Time and Space: The Tactics That Shaped Australian Rules – and the Players and Coaches Who Mastered Them. by James Coventry) that explains some of the evolution’s in the game.

        • December 11th 2017 @ 10:56am
          Stephen said | December 11th 2017 @ 10:56am | ! Report

          Yes Lamby. You’ve summed it up well. Flexible, aligned with the playing list and dependant upon the weekly opposition and conditions. That’s my take on the modern game plan.

          As Cat says below – outright copying is not the answer. Essendon’s three tall forwards (Daniher, Hooker and Stewart) were among a forward structure that produced 2.01 goals for each forward entry in 2017. Second only to Adelaide for forward efficiency – Essendon’s midfield was their issue. My point is – three 200cm+ forwards was vastly different to the Richmond approach. Yet both seemed to work.

          What suits one team may not suit the next.

          I’ll checkout that book. Thanks.

    • Roar Guru

      December 9th 2017 @ 10:19am
      Cat said | December 9th 2017 @ 10:19am | ! Report

      Just like Richmond could achieve nothing when they tried to copy Hawthorn’s game plan, other clubs will achieve the same nothing if they just try to copy Richmond. Teams have to come up with their own ideas, or at least add something different to whatever the new ‘it’ game plan is.
      After ’07 every team bar Hawthorn tried to go handball happy and copy the Cats. Not surprisingly it was Hawthorn that has the answer to the Cats. After ’08 every team had studied and planned for ‘Clarko’s Cluster’, Hawthorn stood pat and didn’t even make finals.
      Why was Hawthorn able to put together a 3-peat when other teams fail to even go back-to-back? Clarko had learned the dangers of standing pat in 2009. He kept evolving the Hawks game plan each year and no other team could catch up to them.
      The Dogs failed when they trotted out the same thing after their flag. Richmond will fail if they trot out the same game in ’18. Any team that just tried to be Richmond will also fail.
      The winners in this league are the ones who can get ahead of the curve, not follow it. Keeping up is not good enough. Doing what everyone else is doing, is not good enough. If your side dares to be different your side might just be the one to hold the cup aloft next. Follow the leader and your side will just remain in the pack.

      • December 9th 2017 @ 2:46pm
        Stephen said | December 9th 2017 @ 2:46pm | ! Report

        Cat, your last paragraph sums up my article. “Get ahead of the curve, not follow it”. Perhaps the article is borne from that very frustration (thus my reference to sheep).

        How I long for just one bold coach to keep at least two forwards in the attacking 50m arc at all times – for an entire match. And possibly one defender in the defensive arc. I understand the U18 competition has this legislated.

        • Roar Guru

          December 11th 2017 @ 12:25pm
          Dalgety Carrington said | December 11th 2017 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

          I’d just be a little more circumspect over how vital innovation is over execution. It’s a little ironic, in the rush to fall into line with the modern deification of innovation and minimising or forgetting the much more crucial role of execution, there’s labelling of those who are perceived not to innovate as “sheep”.

          While someone may come up with a brilliant idea, if it’s not executed well it will easily drop into oblivion, while that same idea (or even a well worn one) in someone else’s hands who executes it brilliantly will take the cherries. Another crucial factor often outweighing innovation in breaking through, is right place/right time (RPRT).

          Even Richmond’s plan wasn’t really all that innovative. Plenty of teams have used the smaller forward line (out of necessity), pace overdrive (the value of which has always been apparent but has gotten greater weighting on list management plans over the past few years) and pressure-based plans before. There’s also some evidence to suggest they weren’t even the best team or best executors of their respective plan. But they had an irresistible combination of great execution and RPRT (i.e. 5-6 weeks camped at their home ground, then playing interlopers in the finals).

          Nothing’s to say that a team couldn’t take 95% of what Richmond did last year and just execute it better (a la Collingwood 2010 via Saints 2009, or Cats ’07 via Adelaide ‘06) to romp away with things.

          I would agree a premiership team has a bigger imperative to change. The hunted factor comes into play for the reigning team, with more scrutiny and higher prized scalp generally requiring a new level.

          There’s a huge challenge to stay at the top of the AFL across seasons and this is where Clarkson was the master across 2013-15 (which I’d argue was in the way he was able to get the teams to execute his plans). Has Hardwick and Richmond got more in them, or were they at peak in 2017?

          • December 11th 2017 @ 1:10pm
            Stephen said | December 11th 2017 @ 1:10pm | ! Report

            DC, I would agree with the essence of what you are saying. I well thought-out plan is like a ‘bird without wings’ if poorly executed.

            And the old formulae of – good fortune, good timing and good management (planning and execution) – holds true in many facets of sport/business/life.

            • Roar Guru

              December 11th 2017 @ 1:29pm
              Dalgety Carrington said | December 11th 2017 @ 1:29pm | ! Report

              If it was a choice between the two, give me execution over innovation any day of the week.

              • December 11th 2017 @ 1:49pm
                Stephen said | December 11th 2017 @ 1:49pm | ! Report

                DC, I’m guilty of brilliantly executing some very poor plans. I would argue they are both equally critical.

              • Roar Guru

                December 11th 2017 @ 1:58pm
                Dalgety Carrington said | December 11th 2017 @ 1:58pm | ! Report

                At least if you execute a poor plan brilliantly you’ve got some chance, but hash the execution of even the best of plans, you’re much more likely to be doomed. But it’s not really about poor vs good plans (I’d prefer effective/ineffective as a scale of measure though). My point was about innovation vs execution.

              • December 12th 2017 @ 8:14pm
                Stephen said | December 12th 2017 @ 8:14pm | ! Report

                DC, I re-read your initial post. Your comments re innovation versus execution have me thinking. Perhaps I’m biased – because it never ceases to amaze me what can flow from a good idea.

                Innovation is often the genesis of critical growth. And without it and the accompanying risks – nothing ever really changes.

                I would allot equal weight to innovation and execution. But I suspect you would argue – execution holds the key.

                It’s a philosophical debate – but you have opened my mind – which is always a good thing – thanks.

    • December 9th 2017 @ 10:38am
      Aransan said | December 9th 2017 @ 10:38am | ! Report

      A good article Stephen. A concern for me is that there is often insufficient time between games for recovery given the way teams play, exaggerated when there are short turn arounds. I believe every team at some stage during the season had difficulty in playing a sustainable game plan within a game and between games. It isn’t much good to win a game one week laying a hundred tackles and then being unable to reproduce that the following week. I believe the game will evolve with more planned rotations, especially with late career players although that has been recognised for some time now. Geelong would have to be happy if they can get 18 home and away games into Gary Ablett and be able to plan in advance the games that he will miss — I fully expect that Geelong and Ablett will be able to achieve that.

      • December 9th 2017 @ 2:55pm
        Stephen said | December 9th 2017 @ 2:55pm | ! Report

        Thanks Aransan. I hadn’t given much thought to the challenges a maintaining/sustaining a game plan. But I take your point.

        As an Essendon man you may recall Matthew Knights’ attacking brand of football – which seem to take a toll on the players at the time.

        • December 9th 2017 @ 6:10pm
          Aransan said | December 9th 2017 @ 6:10pm | ! Report

          Stephen, I always think of Essendon’s comeback against the Kangaroos in 2001 and wonder whether it stuffed their season. Managing players loads is very important in the modern game, in the old days a coach might flog the players on the training track after a weak loss. I can remember this happening a while ago and players breaking down with hamstring injuries and so on during the following week. The modern player is trained to a point like a highly tuned Ferrari, perhaps this needs to be even better understood — follow a player’s recovery after a game and work out more precisely what their training needs are for the following week and whether they need to be rested.

          • December 9th 2017 @ 6:28pm
            Stephen said | December 9th 2017 @ 6:28pm | ! Report

            Yes Aransan. Sheedy never coached a winning side against NM ever again after the record comeback in 2001 (EFC or GWS).

            I think sporting codes need to be careful ensuring the sports scientists don’t hijack the game. I’m staggered at the enormous influence the medico’s have over bowlers in cricket at the moment. I respect their input. I just feel it has gone way too far.

        • December 10th 2017 @ 6:31pm
          Ken Olah said | December 10th 2017 @ 6:31pm | ! Report

          As a Swans supporter, the sustainability of a game plan is a paramount concern, particularly if you consistently play deep into September, such that the equivalent of six seasons is played in five.

          When your game plan is built around “hard, contested footy” and “two way running”, chances are that injuries and fatigue will catch up with you in the end (of 20015, 2016, 2017 …)

          Paul Roos so-called “ugly football” was the classic example of matching a game plan to a list, although few would have been comfortable with his oft repeated words to the effect that “you play with the cattle you have”.

          And, yes, any team that stands still strategically is going backwards on the park. Look at coaches that resist drafting the best available in order to secure the best available for a particular position or with particular strengths to get a sense of where their game plan is likely heading.

          • December 10th 2017 @ 6:55pm
            Stephen said | December 10th 2017 @ 6:55pm | ! Report

            Good points Ken. The Swans are an interesting study for 2018. Their core playing group of – Grundy, McVeigh, Hanneberry, Jack, Franklin, Smith etc. perhaps have their best years behind them. As a finalist in 11 of the last 12 seasons – they tend to be an automatic finals prediction.

            I’m a big fan of coach Longmire. However, I suspect next season might be his most challenging yet. In the meantime Sydney membership continues to grow from 36k in 2013 to almost 60k in 2017. Someone posted yesterday – Sydney’s membership is growing so quickly – they may be placed on a waiting list. Quite remarkable.

            • December 10th 2017 @ 9:24pm
              Aligee said | December 10th 2017 @ 9:24pm | ! Report

              I am a big fan of Longmire as well, i think Jack and |Mcveigh are gone, but the Swans have a habit of finding players or moulding them to what they need.

              • December 11th 2017 @ 9:07am
                Stephen said | December 11th 2017 @ 9:07am | ! Report

                Indeed they do. Discarded players enter the Sydney culture and in many cases become transformed as footballers.

                Was it you Ali who said Sydney’s/SCG membership was soon to enter a waiting list?

    • December 9th 2017 @ 12:26pm
      Kt said | December 9th 2017 @ 12:26pm | ! Report


      Tl:dr – perhaps it’s be more flexible.

    • December 9th 2017 @ 12:50pm
      Mattician6x6 said | December 9th 2017 @ 12:50pm | ! Report

      Game plans develop in each team around the players at a coaches disposal. If a team has the dominant player in a certain position you develop a game plan around them to best utilize said players dominance, simple as that.

      • December 9th 2017 @ 3:03pm
        Stephen said | December 9th 2017 @ 3:03pm | ! Report

        Agree Matti6x6. It would take years for a coach/club to draft and train toward a completely different game plan than currently in place. I guess its possible over several years.

    • December 9th 2017 @ 4:49pm
      BigAl said | December 9th 2017 @ 4:49pm | ! Report

      Richmond’s rise to prominence in that period was primed by the dominance of their centre line…

      Francis Bourke, Bill Barrot. Dick Clay – dumbfounded that they don’t crack a mention here !

      Just typing those three names now raises the hair on my neck !
      They essentially built the culture that enabled Royce Hart to become what he was.

      • December 9th 2017 @ 5:57pm
        Stephen said | December 9th 2017 @ 5:57pm | ! Report

        Fair point Big Al. Royce Hart certainly enjoyed silver-service from several exceptional team mates. CHF has often been referred to as the most difficult position on the ground. No doubt made even more difficult if the team is weak. Certainly not the case for the Tigers during the Hafey years.

        Kelvin Templeton is one of few outstanding CHF’s I can think of from the past few decades – who played for bottom sides – Footscray and Melbourne. My point is – if your CHF is dominant – there’s a good chance the team is also.

        During Allan Jeans’ time at St Kilda in the 1960’s – he claimed the team never lost a game when Darrel Baldock played well at CHF. That’s quite profound given Baldock played 119 games for the Saints

        • December 12th 2017 @ 1:30am
          Don Freo said | December 12th 2017 @ 1:30am | ! Report

          A 179cm CHF!! Amazing.

          • December 12th 2017 @ 10:55am
            Stephen said | December 12th 2017 @ 10:55am | ! Report

            Correct. And John Nicholls was a 189cm Ruckman from the same era.

            • December 12th 2017 @ 11:17am
              Aransan said | December 12th 2017 @ 11:17am | ! Report

              Alan Morrow was 183cm as a premiership ruckman in St. Kilda’s 1966 GF, replacing Carl Ditterich after he was suspended. Ted Whitten wouldn’t have been much over 183cm and could play chb, chf as well as a variety of other roles.

              • December 12th 2017 @ 12:11pm
                Stephen said | December 12th 2017 @ 12:11pm | ! Report

                Yes Aransan. Different era. Ted Whitten is listed at 184cm.

                I always thought Tim Watson changed the way coaches and recruiters viewed the game. Watson first played in 1977 aged 15. He was roughly the same height and weight as John Nicholls.

                Yet Nicholls was a renowned tap Ruckman. And Watson was an explosive running player.

                Watson seem to pave the way – to commence the era of big-bodied midfielders.