If AFL rule change is inevitable, don’t be hasty

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By Ryan Buckland, Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert


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    Most credible football journalists agree: the AFL is going to change the rules this off season. The only question is how.

    Jake Niall, the best Australian rules journalist in the game, wrote in the Sunday Age that the AFL is all-but certain to institute some form of change in the coming off season with the express intent of opening up the game on the field.

    The league has come to the conclusion that change must happen, lest we all lose interest in a game that is aesthetically unappealing.

    As the topic of the year, I’ve expressed my thoughts both in this column and in my Thursday slot. In Niall’s three “camps”, I sit somewhere between a Conservative and an Incrementalist.

    I do not want the AFL to sit on its hands for the sake of it, but nor do I want to see radical changes made to a game in which the pace of its evolution quickens by the year.

    In these bye rounds, with little to discuss beyond which teams might consider planning for next year (that comes Thursday), it is worth taking some time out to consider what some practical, incremental changes could be made. After all, if the AFL feels compelled to act, we all may as well have our own cards on the table.

    Which as an aside might be a good position for everyone to take. Amongst the AFL’s various temporary committees set up to report to the standing Competition Committee is a fan-centric group.

    The Roar sought clarification from the League on what this group may look like. We can reveal the group will meet in either late June or early July, ahead of the next meeting of the Competition Committee to be held before this year’s finals series.

    The AFL is yet to determine how it will form the fan committee, with AFL spokesperson Patrick Keane suggesting the administration may either turn to its focus groups or set up a one-off group of fans.

    Before this fan meeting, a committee of recently retired players will meet with the AFL’s game analysis group. They’ll follow on from the work of what I’ve been calling the Grumpy Old Man Committee, made up of long-term media types and members of the legend class of the Australian Football Hall of Fame. According to reports this group came up with no less than 35 ideas for consideration.

    That’s a lot. But as these are net-casting exercises, and not places for decisions to be made, perhaps it is better to have as big a net as possible.

    Gerard Whateley, of Crocmedia and Fox Footy fame, reported on AFL360 that only a handful of ideas had been endorsed for further consideration: expanding the size of the goal square, introducing starting positions at centre bounces, and reducing the interchange.

    All others, according to Whateley, were found to violate one or more principles in the Charter of the Laws of the Game Committee – the document set up to safeguard the uniqueness of Australian football and save it from death by committee. Indeed.

    These are all what one may consider to be incremental changes. But before we change a rule or two, how about we try enforcing those we already have?

    As I wrote earlier on this year, as a first attempt to ease congestion, the AFL should attack the problem head on: start to pay more free kicks in said congestion. More free kicks are there to be paid. For holding the man without the ball. For incorrect disposal. For pushing in the back. For simply holding the ball.

    Hooker Hogan

    (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media)

    The first order impact of this is clear: it stops a stoppage, and gives birth to a clear disposal. But the second order impact is perhaps more intriguing: it reduces the incentive for both teams to heave players at the ball carrier, because they know any false move will bring down the heavy hand of the law.

    Alastair Clarkson is a proponent of this view; his thought carries more weight than any involved in the code full time. The incrementalist in me says this should be the starting point.

    But from the words of others it will not be enough. The AFL will want to go further. It is here that I can draw on some previous material: the AFL should consider expanding the size of the goal square.

    I first wrote of the expanded goal square in the 2015 season, around the time of the annual debate about congestion and the state of the game.

    The idea is simple: expand the goal square to twice its length and three times its width, so it extends around 18 metres from the goal posts and spreads to cover the area immediately in front of the behind posts. All other rules regarding the goal square remain unchanged.

    This has two benefits. It increases the incentive for teams to keep a forward or two deep at their end of the ground, with the knowledge that any kick from 70 metres could result in an automatic goal.

    That helps stretch the ground out, the key to any change proposed. It also means a team taking a kick out does so with an extra nine metres to work with, opening up more angles and allowing for presses to be broken.

    In this vein, the AFL may consider allowing any defensive mark taken inside the expanded goal square the same luxuries of a kick out as a means of breaking forward half presses.

    Jeremy Cameron overhead mark for GWS

    (AAP image/Julian Smith)

    And then there is the interchange, which may view as the panacea to the professional game’s challenge with congestion.

    Australian rules had survived without any interchange bench from its codification through to 1978. And the current system of four players being available for interchange has only been around since 1998 – or just over one football generation.

    Use of the bench is now capped at 90 changes a game. This will almost certainly go lower next year – the question is whether it could or should be gradually pared back and eventually eliminated.

    A reduction to 60 would afford coaches and players the opportunity to use the bench to rest players. It works out to be around one change every two minutes, plus any changes made at quarter, half and three quarter time breaks.

    Without any data to support this, I reckon 60 is the point where the bench moves from a business as usual means to give players a breather to a tactical weapon.

    This is where the conservative in me arks up a tad: reducing the interchange cap is sure to have unintended consequences that must be explored before we go lower. Fiddling with the interchange is surely top of mind at AFL House.

    Any further and we are stretching into radical territory, and I’m not quite ready to embrace my inner flower child. We can be sure these are being discussed, debated, deduced and drawn out at the AFL’s various committees and internal working groups though.

    But for the sake of the game, here’s one piece of advice I can categorically offer to the league: don’t be hasty.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.

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    The Crowd Says (92)

    • June 11th 2018 @ 8:33am
      truetigerfan said | June 11th 2018 @ 8:33am | ! Report

      Definitely agree. Slowly, slowly with a minimum of intrusion. Suggestions of zones, 16 a side and the like are far too extreme and unnecessarily reactive. Coaches will use any changes made to gain tactical advantages so going to extremes may just be disastrous. Assisting uncompetitive teams should be higher on the to-do-list.

    • June 11th 2018 @ 9:16am
      Aligee said | June 11th 2018 @ 9:16am | ! Report

      Need to taper back interchange to 10 per quarter to stop the frenetic maul around the ball which IMO will slow the game down but open it up,

      Just as an aside WAFL colts must have 2 players per team in their defensive or attacking 50 ‘s at all times and I am up in the Gasgoyne around Carnovon ATM and they have done away with boundary umpires and use the last touch rule this year, they also have a Exmouth team in the league who travels 360K (720 round journey) second week for a game in Carnarvon through floods, Roos, stray cows, goats etc.

    • Roar Guru

      June 11th 2018 @ 9:16am
      XI said | June 11th 2018 @ 9:16am | ! Report

      But doesn’t reducing the interchange encourage coaches to cause more congestion? I’m definitely in favour of the umpires enforcing the rules already in place.

      • June 11th 2018 @ 9:59am
        BigAl said | June 11th 2018 @ 9:59am | ! Report

        I’m sure the umpires are doing their best, but as in society, bad rule/laws are hard to enforce !

      • June 11th 2018 @ 10:03am
        BigAl said | June 11th 2018 @ 10:03am | ! Report

      • June 11th 2018 @ 11:09am
        Griffo said | June 11th 2018 @ 11:09am | ! Report

        It may encourage this but it might be harder to create congestion.

      • June 11th 2018 @ 2:50pm
        Mark said | June 11th 2018 @ 2:50pm | ! Report

        Fewer interchanges means less rest for the players, so they can’t keep running with the ball all game to create congestion. What it is trying to create is a more positionally focused game, rather than having all players on the field chasing the ball up and down both ends of the field all game.

        • Roar Guru

          June 11th 2018 @ 3:05pm
          Cat said | June 11th 2018 @ 3:05pm | ! Report

          Tired players can’t kick as far, can’t run away from packs as quickly and basic skills drop. All of this leads to more balls on the ground, making for more contests and because players are tired they will WANT and look for ways to create additional stoppages to get a rest.

    • Roar Guru

      June 11th 2018 @ 9:20am
      Rick Disnick said | June 11th 2018 @ 9:20am | ! Report

      The AFL needs to sort the physicality of the game out first.

      With all the concerns about concussion and the ‘look’ of the game to the ‘mummies’ out there, many rule interpretations have been changed, significantly affecting the flow of the game.

      They need to sort the tackling, ducking and bump rules out first, before implementing more drastic change. The interpretation of these areas significantly affects the way players attack and defend at the coalface. If we keep changing them every week, not only is it confusing to the fans & players, but almost impossible to umpire with any consistency.

      This framework must be consolidated first by the AFL Commission; requiring a long, hard look at whether the AFL can compete with soccer — at the junior level — well into this century.

      This is the AFL’s most prominent issue that must be addressed before any further rule changes.

      • June 11th 2018 @ 9:54am
        BigAl said | June 11th 2018 @ 9:54am | ! Report

        This is an excellent comment.
        I know the AFL have said “… the fans want the bump so it will stay…” but it leads to occasional grief – and potential tragedy ! Look at that Aaron Sandilands effort of a week back – one bump, two players off with concussion !
        Eventually the bump will have to go !
        At the same time get rid of the in the back rule (ridiculously hard to pick sometimes) and make all tackling be about successfully claiming/wrapping up the opponent – including from the back – and no bumping !

        • Roar Guru

          June 11th 2018 @ 11:06am
          Paul Dawson said | June 11th 2018 @ 11:06am | ! Report

          Yeah I’d get rid of the “in the back” rule too. I think if the rules surrounding tackles meant it was anywhere above the knees but below the shoulders, direction irrelevant, no prior opportunity – if you’re tackled you must dispose of the football correctly or it is a free kick every time would be a lot more straightforward and simple to police

          I really like the idea of a bigger goal square too

    • June 11th 2018 @ 9:37am
      Timmuh said | June 11th 2018 @ 9:37am | ! Report

      Eventually, I think removing interchange and going completely to subs is the way to go. But that would need to be trialled, tested and refined; and clubs given a couple of years notice in order to adjust their lists. Gut feel is a bench of six and four subs per quarter. If that is combined with 16 a side on field, which I’m not too sure on, that would leave 22 named.

      It should reduce the call for the “burst” athlete and allow players to get tired, or be more careful about energy expenditure. The players with innate skill may get tired and sloppy, but should in theory prove more valuable than a lower-skilled athlete who is out of puff.

      Having six on the bench and four subs means that one or two inuries doesn’t cut “rotation” options as badly as is the case now. A game can almost be decided by an early injury to a small.

      There are potential downsides, however. Playing Sunday would be a definite disadvantage. Sides may well have one or two players who see little game time. Playing on Sunday, or interstate Saturday, means no chance to get those players game time in the reserves/affiliate/slave in the state league.

      They key things are to ensure the game remains a contest for the ball.
      That means no “last touch out of bounds” rule, its a disgrace in the AFLW and has no place at any level of the game.
      “Prior opportunity” must be retained, we were at a point a few years back where being second to the ball was almost the advantageous position. Lay the tackle, get the free; the ball player was disadvantaged – that should never be the case.
      Except deliberate out of bounds, benefit of the doubt should always be with the ball player. Putting the ball out deliuberately is killing the ball, not playing it.
      (I will contradict myself here with throws, it is hard to pick up for an umpire but far too many throws and scoops are let go. Either allow the scoop in the ruck, or eliminate it. Elsewhere, elimiinate it)

      Widening the goal square for kick-outs seems a good idea, and not as radical. I’m not so sure I would do it for forward marks and free kicks. Watching as a neutral, seeing a player brought around to dead in front takes away from the skill for a goal. And rewarding the mark near the behind post with a shot from dead in front seems too much. For defensive marks and frees, maybe.

      • Roar Guru

        June 11th 2018 @ 1:06pm
        Paul Dawson said | June 11th 2018 @ 1:06pm | ! Report

        I think you’d just get rid of the mark in the goal square rule altogether if they made the square bigger. Just line up against the centre of the goal and kick it from where you caught it. Your thoughts on interchange and subs are really intriguing, I like the idea of an expanded bench and less subs. Would allow for a few “specialist” players – 4th quarter players, expert taggers etc that would add a more tactical feel to the game, and I think enhance matchups on the ground.

        • Roar Guru

          June 11th 2018 @ 1:12pm
          Rick Disnick said | June 11th 2018 @ 1:12pm | ! Report

          The cost involved with a larger bench, probably makes it prohibitive.

          • June 11th 2018 @ 2:47pm
            Timmuh said | June 11th 2018 @ 2:47pm | ! Report

            At AFL level not so much, the revenue is there. But going to 24 players a side might be problematic in suburban, country and even state leagues (looking at Tasmania ) where clubs struggle with numbers. I admit to not having considered that.

            • Roar Guru

              June 11th 2018 @ 3:27pm
              Paul Dawson said | June 11th 2018 @ 3:27pm | ! Report

              Timmuh, I’m not advocating changing number of players on field – and I don’t think you are either beyond say going down to 16, so I don’t see that clubs have to have extended benches or interchanges that mimic AFL conditions. Certainly not at anything below organised state carnival level or something. I don’t see it as an issue

              Rick – when you say cost, are you thinking the cap would have to be increased? What if instead the cap remained the same but it had to be paid to say a list of 50, and a salary floor of 95%, and existing minimum wages kept in place?

              Wouldn’t that go a long way towards dropping inflated contracts for average players and free up player movement, given that the money would have to be spread round more thinly? Bit of ideology creeping on my part here I admit, but if the players want their high % minimum wages, I think perhaps they should have to share it round say 900 players instead of 700 or so. Would also add more speculative draft picks and tactical flexibility on game day with a larger bench. The average wage for a footballer in 2022 is projected to be $389,000 – I think under this proposal you’d have an average wage of around $289,000 and the prospect that the game itself could now be a lot more appealing and more valuable anyway.

              If we can’t open up the number of clubs to free up player movement then I think we really need to open up more slots on existing successful club lists and keep the salary floor in place to shift up player movement. Right now it’s all a bit too cosy, the salary growth has exceeded the available talent for some years now.

              • Roar Guru

                June 11th 2018 @ 4:27pm
                Rick Disnick said | June 11th 2018 @ 4:27pm | ! Report

                No, the cost I was associating mainly with the away team.

                Paul Roos hated the emergency player a few years back, along with most coaches, agreeing it was a huge waste of money and unnessary extra expense when away.

                If we have more on the bench, the flight costs increase along with accomodation. It may seem trivial to the WCE and Pies supporters, but not to the likes of the Roos, Suns etc.

                Secondly, most coaches agree (as do I) that they’d rather see the Lion’s share of payments going to the best payers, who simply put, entertain us weekly. More players receiving match day payments, I think, the AFL can do without.

              • Roar Rookie

                June 11th 2018 @ 4:41pm
                Mattician6x6 said | June 11th 2018 @ 4:41pm | ! Report

                Doesn’t the afl pay for players flights etc

              • Roar Guru

                June 11th 2018 @ 5:53pm
                Rick Disnick said | June 11th 2018 @ 5:53pm | ! Report

                You could be right. Still a resource drag that comes out of someone’s pocket.

              • Roar Guru

                June 11th 2018 @ 11:04pm
                Paul Dawson said | June 11th 2018 @ 11:04pm | ! Report

                With 16 a side and an 8 man bench that’s still only 24 players and most clubs would travel with that many already anyway

                Most of the expanded list could play VFL

                My issue is that crap players earning $350,000 because of mandatory salary floors is just more protectionism a la the Australian car industry. It’s a rort and it won’t last. So either more players to spread the pie wedges thinner or a smaller salary floor to stop rewarding mediocrity

              • Roar Guru

                June 11th 2018 @ 11:28pm
                Rick Disnick said | June 11th 2018 @ 11:28pm | ! Report

                It’s a tough one, because a salary floor could lead to greater margins in performance, just like we see in the EPL without a cap at all.

                16 aside I don’t see happening – a bit drastic at this stage with very little evidence to suggest it would decrease congestion, apart from all the great AFL theorist who are generally wrong.

                I agree with you on the rubbish players though being paid overs.

                David King actually came up with an excellent idea a few weeks ago. Change the ‘holding the ball’ rule to anyone caught with it after the second chain within a passage off play. It still rewards the player attacking the ball, but they have to be careful who they offload too within close quarters. Once the ball is in the open, a new passage of play begins.

                It’s where I’d start.

    • June 11th 2018 @ 9:39am
      BigAl said | June 11th 2018 @ 9:39am | ! Report

      “…This has two benefits. It increases the incentive for teams to keep a forward or two deep at their end of the ground, with the knowledge that any kick from 70 metres could result in an automatic goal.”
      – Not sure I understand the “automatic goal” – is it because the shot can be taken from dead in front.

      With a drop in the the no. of interchanges I would also advocate decrease the length of playing time 5 min a quarter. The game is just too exhausting – Mick Malthouse spoke of this a few years ago.

      Also just handing out free kicks willy nilly like third world politician flinging around bank notes could well generate into a childish farce. Is the Ump supposed to keep a tally so that at the end of the game it’s pretty close to 50-50 and that’s . . . all good! What about crunch moments? – in big games ?…-

      • June 11th 2018 @ 10:02am
        Pope Paul VII said | June 11th 2018 @ 10:02am | ! Report

        Hey BigAl. If you decrease the quarter length the coaches will become even more defensive. Get a couple of goals up and send everyone back.

        • June 11th 2018 @ 10:09am
          BigAl said | June 11th 2018 @ 10:09am | ! Report

          I like the sound of what Aligee says about what they’re doing with WAFL colts – 2 players in the forward and back 50 at all times

      • June 11th 2018 @ 2:53pm
        Mark said | June 11th 2018 @ 2:53pm | ! Report

        I don’t agree the game is too exhausting. The laws of the game don’t require every single player on the field to run up and down the field all game, remaining within 20m of the ball at all times. That is just the way the game has evolved. The players managed fine with smaller and fewer interchanges for a century, because the style of the game was different. Teams would have to manage by changing the way they play.

        • Roar Guru

          June 12th 2018 @ 10:54am
          Dalgety Carrington said | June 12th 2018 @ 10:54am | ! Report

          Players also managed to be amateurs/semi-professional for a hundred years. There are so many profound differences between the game as it was and as it is now. Turning back the clock in such a simplistic way is not the answer.

          The reason why there was a different style of game with players being more fixed to a position is because they hadn’t yet discovered the tactical leap of understanding the value of getting numbers to the ball, which far outweighs positional play in obtaining wins.

          Fatigue is a blunt instrument. Clubs will manage fatigue so they can still get whatever tactical advantage works best (or just to keep on par with others).

          Getting numbers to the ball (aka congestion) is such a tactical advantage and one of the bigger ones. The genie is out of the bottle and you aint going to put it back in with such an indirect measure like interchange elimination, instead you’re likely to bring in a bunch of undesirable outcomes that come with fatigue.