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The AFL's injury plague requires a radical solution

Alex Johnson of the Swans reacts after he injures his leg when trying to tackle Jesse Hogan of the Demons during the round 21 AFL match between the Melbourne Demons and the Sydney Swans at Melbourne Cricket Ground on August 12, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Expert
14th August, 2018
53

The scourge of football’s on-field battle toll is now a matter crying out for serious treatment. It’s not good enough for the AFL’s annual injury survey to be released with a blithe: ‘Things are largely stable’. We’ve heard all that before.

In the real world, fans are seeing teams’ entire seasons undermined by injury. And they’re seeing too many individual players forced to endure heartbreak. Too much football is being played with star players missing. In short, too many big injuries are occurring in the modern game.

Here’s a microcosmic example. As the Demons and Swans began their match at the MCG last Sunday, Melbourne’s Jesse Hogan was manned up by Sydney’s Alex Johnson. I made a mental note of the rare struggle endured by this pair of opponents.

One had been forced to take a break last year following the death of his father, and soon after returning was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The other was playing his second game in almost six years, following five knee reconstructions.

Eight minutes in, Hogan attacked the ball in the left forward pocket at the city end, with Johnson close behind.
Next moment, it was all over for the admired Swan.

In appearing to avoid a tangle of feet, he seemed to change stride and went down in a painful heap. We now know the outcome is as bad as was feared in the moment.

Then, on Tuesday morning, we learnt Hogan’s season is over. The dreaded stress fracture of the navicular bone has taken another victim. It’s an injury that requires a lot of getting over.

How shattering for two young men. Particularly given the height of their hopes at 3:20 last Sunday afternoon at the G.

Johnson was back at the ground where he’d played the last game before his succession of injuries. That day, he’d been part of a Sydney premiership and, at 20 years of age, had the footy world at his feet. Now, almost six years later, he was back at the cathedral.

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For Hogan, there was the prospect of what lay immediately ahead. He was where every young footballer aspires to be; his team at last on the brink of playing finals.

The serious back injury that halted his progress early, the loss of his father and the cancer scare – as painful and debilitating as they were – had been confronted. Now it was time to enjoy the upside of footy, and life.

But now, for both, the season is over and the future unclear.

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They are, of course, just two players. And they are two whose struggle has been particularly exposed. But there is an almost endless litany of others who’ve endured psychological and physical trauma due to their commitment to playing in the AFL.

Then there are the clubs. At this crucial juncture of the season, three within the finals mix are seriously compromised by injuries to important players.

GWS are doing a remarkable job of overcoming a devastating injury toll, but it may get them before September’s done. The same can be said of Collingwood. Port Adelaide’s chances of making September, let alone prospering, might have vanished in one quarter late on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Melbourne are now without Jake Lever and Hogan, while Jack Viney is sidelined with a recurring foot injury. West Coast has lost Nic Naitanui and Josh Kennedy has missed almost as many games as he’s played this year. So it goes.

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It’s a reality that will diminish this year’s finals. Not only will the biggest games of the season be missing many of the best players, but some teams will inevitably fall short of their best.

The rate of attrition is too great. Amid the discussion about making the game more attractive, consideration must be given to keeping more good players available more of the time.

How could it be achieved? Almost certainly via a raft of changes; slowing the game down, reducing the rate and intensity of collisions, and softening the playing surfaces are three measures that should be considered.

But it’s a fourth option – reducing the number of games – which is most intriguing.

The idea is instinctively resisted due to the notional reduction in TV revenue it would cause. Yet, a reduced season might soon have to be considered. And it could eventually be seen as an attractive option given its potential side-benefits.

For not only would it cut back on the physical load expected of players, it also has the potential to at last bring integrity to the AFL draw, and to enable the overdue inclusion of a Tasmanian team.

A 19-team competition, with each playing all the others once, would bring an 18 per cent reduction in the number of matches played by each club. That would have to provide relief for players, although other measures would also be required to rein in the injury toll.

As for the reduction in television product, there would be 13.6 per cent fewer home-and-away matches than is now the case. However, there would be four extra weeks available for pre-final play-offs or, perhaps at the other end of the season, for AFLW or a pre-season format.

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When a respected club administrator spoke to me about four years ago of such a concept, it sounded pie-in-the-sky. But, that was then.

Things are changing. The season has too many inconsequential games. There’s a footy state desperately in need of the salvation that only AFL-involvement can bring.

Perhaps, most compellingly for the AFL, too many good players are getting injured. The corrective options must be explored.