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How 2019's AFL rule changes will play out on the field

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Expert
20th February, 2019
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So much of last year’s football palace intrigue centred on just how far the AFL would go to change the rules of the game in response to some meta-elements of the game it found unsatisfactory.

I’ve got good news, and bad news.

The good news is the changes the AFL made in between West Coast’s glorious AFL premiership triumph and next week’s first round of preseason games are not going to dramatically alter football.

We’ll get to the bad news soon enough (remember, this column is all about the good vibes in 2019). But there will be subtle impacts.

To quickly recap, the most significant rules changes are below.

The introduction of additional starting positions at centre bounces, with six players from each side required to be inside each forward 50 arc (with one in the goal square), and the remaining two players allowed to line up on the wings but not behind the centre square (the existing centre bounce set up is otherwise unchanged).

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On kick outs, the defensive player is now stationed ten metres from the top of the square (instead of five). A player also no longer has to kick the ball to themselves if they want to play on.

Defensive marks and free kicks inside nine metres from the goal-line will see the mark set in line with the goal square.

The threshold for “hands in the back” has been lifted sharply, with a player now only penalised if they physically push their opponent in the back in a marking contest.

Ruckmen can now take the ball out of the ruck themselves without that being considered their prior opportunity.

If changes two and three look a little familiar to regular readers of this column, well played. They are matters we’ve discussed previously when I first proposed to enlarge the goal square in 2015 (a concept which has been renamed the Buckland Box by Footy Twitter, which, yeah).

The AFL has found a way to capture most of the benefits of the larger goal square without having to change the markings on the field, to which folk in both the media and the stands have formed an emotional bond it seems.

First, the trope. In this year’s first edition of Totally Subjective Power Rankings – the second comes with next week’s Roar AFL Top 50, which let me tell you now folks is WILD – we’ll briefly run through how the five changes above will subtly change how the professional game is played.

The other four rule changes (runner restrictions, ability to play on while the 50m penalty is being set, relaxation of the “straight line” rule for shots after the siren, and a strict crackdown on players setting up behind the umpire at centre bounces) are what we might call in my day job “minor technical amendments” which are designed to clean up things that are more nuisance in nature.

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When you’re making significant changes to the rules you might as well change the finnicky stuff too right?

On to the rankings.

Gabba

(Photo by Jason O’Brien/AFL Media/Getty Images)

5. Starting positions
The rule which has been most discussed will have the least impact on the game. Put simply, there are only 30-odd centre bounces in a game, and once the ball is bounced starting positions mean nothing.

Indeed, according to statistics published by AFL Media earlier in the week, a “6-6-6” set up was the stance of teams at 42.1 per cent of centre bounces, higher than any other combination of players behind or ahead of the ball. The second most popular combination was “7-6-5”, being one extra player off the back of the square and one less forward, was used 38.5 per cent of the time.

Not that there is anything stopping teams setting up to rush the square from the tip of the forward 50 mark, which is only a few metres from the edge of the centre square anyway. That could create the same effect as the old structure, albeit with half a second delay. That half second could mean a lot though.

If one were inclined to be cynical – ahem – one may conclude this change is as much about creating the dynamic which could lead to an extra centre bounce goal or two per game. This is a fine outcome, centre bounce goals are kind of cool, but I bet our beloved free-to-air broadcaster will love the prospect of two quick fire ad breaks.

There will be times where a team would like to stack its defensive 50; a bottom four team getting trounced by a premiership contender, or a team being up by less than a goal with 30 seconds to play.

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The former could be considered collateral damage – games which were previously decided by eight goals might look more like ten or 12 goal losses because the weaker team can’t park the bus at centre bounces. The latter could be considered the regulation of uncertainty and chaos, and most will be fine with that.

You can see why this one will have a muted impact. It will certainly impact those teams which ran with an extra man or two off the back of the square more frequently. That same AFL Media piece linked above suggested Adelaide and Richmond went with the new regulated set up just 4.4 per cent and 3.4 per cent of the time in 2018, preferring instead 7-6-5 at their standard look.

Note: the Crows and Tigers are coached by two of the best coaches in the league, and I know from experience Adelaide has an outstanding back office team looking at game analysis. They’ll be fine.

4. Looser interpretation of hands in the back
Reverting to what some may call the classic version of the hands in the back rule will similarly have modest albeit noticeable impacts. Where this one will get interesting is the extent to which it will be driven by how the rule is initially officiated, rather than what is written in the rule book.

Prohibited contact in a marking contest is already one of the greyest laws of the game, if only because an umpire’s view is almost always obfuscated by the play. You could argue that introducing the need for “hands” and a “push” helps make it a bit more black and white, and that’s certainly the intent.

Jeremy Cameron

Is this the only kind of hand on the back that the AFL will allow in 2019? (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

But what is a push? An early season litmus test is required. This column expects umpires to take a much more laissez-faire to contact in marking contests, paying free kicks for only clear and obvious pushes which give the pushing player an unfair advantage. Otherwise if the ball is in the air more or less every kind of contact is going to be fair game.

Big marking forwards, and the teams that role with them, will be the beneficiary. It will require much more close checking by deep defenders, because position under the high will become everything. We’ve not seen the likes of Tom Lynch and Tom Boyd, nor the fully grown versions Tom Hawkins and Jack Riewoldt work under these sorts of rules.

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3. Deep defensive marks set at the goal square
Now we are getting into the more impactful changes. This is part one of the intent of the Buckland Box coming to life: stretching the ground both offensively and defensively. It doesn’t seem like much, but changing the defensive calculus in this way will give teams a greater incentive to hold a less aggressive defensive press when the ball is at their attacking end.

The impact will be relatively small, but noticeable. Teams will be less content to spoil the ball over the opposition’s goal-line when they could mark or win a free kick, because they get most of the benefit of conceding the behind (clean possession with the mark set away from goal) without having to chalk up a point on the scoreboard.

Jeremy McGovern of the Eagles marks during the 2018 AFL Grand Final

Marks in deep defence could be more common. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/AFL Media/Getty Images)

However, the impact will be felt more keenly the other way: in a team’s attacking 50. Similar logic applies, but in reverse. Now that long bomb kick from 80 metres, which might give you a chance at goal but will certainly give you a chance to set up a press, might not be such a wise choice.

If the defensive team can take a mark there is more space to work the ball out of defensive 50, tipping the calculus (ever so slightly) towards smarter entries to leading forwards or shots from goal from closer to the forward 50 arc.

The territory game, which is what most teams in the league have transitioned into as their go-to strategy, is a little less potent, and teams which can master ball movement will get a little bit of an edge.

2. Ruckmen can take the ball out of the ruck
The abolition of the third man up, on a whim and against what the data was telling us, has backfired on the AFL.

The move was intended to revive ruck play. Instead, teams began to experiment with midfielders as ruckmen, or chose to punt on the position all together. The League has again decided to tinker with the rules in order to make the employ of ruckmen more attractive, except this one is – in keeping with the theme – more subtle than the outright banning of a tactic.

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Historically, a ruckman has been required to tap the ball unless he could take the ball from mid air and escape the contest without being tackled. No more: ruckmen are no longer considered to have had their prior opportunity if they snaffle the ball at a ruck contest, and instead will have to merely attempt to dispose of the ball.

This is going to come into play when teams chose to tactically concede the ruck contest; personally I think this will put an end to the notion of conceding the ruck to your opponent in all but the most extreme circumstances.

The only player allowed to touch the ball at a stoppage until it hits the deck is a ruckman, and so not contesting the ruck is almost as good as giving your opponent a free possession (noting he can be tackled instantly, but work with me here). You know what coaches hate? Giving away possession of the ball to the other team for nothing.

Max Gawn of the Demons and Stefan Martin of the Lions

Melbourne could be 2019 premiership contenders. (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

I don’t expect ruckmen to try to take possession of the ball when they’re against a fellow big man. Except perhaps in situations where the game is close and a team is seeking to protect their lead.

We could end up living in a Ross Lyon fever dream, with Aaron Sandilands playing football well into his 40s as a specialist ruck buster. This is not only possible (not the Aaron Sandilands part, the ruck busting part) but likely as far as I’m concerned: the only question is how long will it be until a coach instructs his ruck to turtle up in a tight game.

This might also open the door to more midfielders jumping at the ball against a lumbering ruckman. If explosive midfielders are able to nab the ball from mid-air and get a step or two with the ball in hand, then we might have a ruckman mass extinction event on our hands.

1. Kick-in changes
Here’s the big one. This gets right to the heart of the intent of most of the changes the AFL is seeking to make with this round of rule changes: stretching the ground.

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I can’t find the exact quote, but the current meta-game in the AFL was neatly summarised by Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley a couple of years ago. The dominant strategy in professional Australian rules football is to make the ground small when you don’t have the ball and big when you do. This refers to the press, and the aggressive use of numbers at the ball and the strategic corralling of the opposition when they have possession.

Almost every club ran with some form of forward half press in the 2018 season. The intent is to gain territory – by brute force with numbers at the ball, by stoppage dominance, or with incisive ball movement – and then hang on to that territory until you can create a score. For all of West Coast’s kicking prowess, territory was at the heart of Adam Simpson’s game plan.

Lewis Jetta of the Eagles celebrates victory on the siren during the 2018 AFL Grand Final

Lewis Jetta of the Eagles celebrates (Photo by Ryan Pierse/AFL Media/Getty Images)

What does this have to do with kick-ins? Similar to the defensive marks within nine metres, giving the opposition much more freedom to exit from defensive 50 changes the calculus of the territory game.

It makes a long kick that is simply about gaining ground to then lock the ball inside 50 less attractive; it ups the incentive to be more efficient with the ball, either kicking to advantage close to goal or taking shots from further out. It might lead to fewer speculative shots at goal from acute angles; it might up the emphasis on practising and perfecting that art.

This is because a kick in will now almost always see the team kicking the ball move the ball outside of their forward 50 arc, on account of the extra time (not needing to kick the ball to yourself) and space (the mark being set 19 metres from the goal-line, instead of 14) afforded to use the ball wisely.

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The kick in also opens up a wider part of the ground, making pressing tactics more difficult to employ. The change to kick in rules will almost certainly see teams seek to use specialist exit kickers with range both in their kick and their legs.

The knock on effects of this change are huge. Armed with the knowledge that a poor kick inside 50 will be slingshot back the other way, teams will either become more careful with their ball use, or less aggressive with their commitment of numbers close to goal (or some combination of both).

Defensively, teams will want to have a long kicker stationed relatively close to goal if they can afford it given the circumstances of the play, so they can rebound quickly if they concede a behind.

Knowing their opponents are going to be thinking this way, teams will look to defensive stances which place more value on the wide centre of the ground instead of forcing them to work in a phone box.

I’m much more bullish on this rule change that most in the footy wonk community. Most other folk I’ve talked with seem to think the changes will be minor at best and negligible at worst; this is where the bad news comes in.

The AFL’s sweeping changes to the rules are far and away the most voluminous and impactful in modern times; only one year (2009, seven changes, which were mostly cosmetic) has seen more than five rule changes (we’ve had nine, and technically more given there are sub-changes within each change), and only one year has changed anything as fundamentally as the kick in change (the introduction of prior opportunity in 1996).

Chris Mayne Nathan Buckley

How will the game’s old guard view the new AFL rule changes? (Photo by Ryan Pierse/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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Are the sorts of incremental, even marginal, changes that this column thinks are likely to arise enough to satiate the AFL and its free-to-air broadcast partner? Perhaps. But if they aren’t, the next step is likely far more drastic than painting a different line on the field.

Now the AFL has eaten away at one of the game’s fundamental tenants – free movement of players – the rest is up for grabs. Here’s an early crazy, fearless prediction for you: we have a few scrappy games in the middle of a soppy Victorian winter, and 16 a side rears its head once again.

You better hope I’m on the money with the impact of this year’s suite of AFL rule changes.