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The Roar



How to fix the congestion that's ruining the AFL

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28th June, 2020

After years of attempting to deny the AFL has a spectacle problem, I have finally succumbed to the chorus, having watched it this weekend.

On Sunday night, after North Melbourne had kicked a quarter of an entire match’s goals in ten minutes of get-and-go footy, I had to wonder why we see so little of this footy.

After endless rule changes in an attempt to speed up an ever more congested game, the AFL seem to have lost sight of an extraordinarily obvious rule that would fix the game: holding the ball.

Now, this is not to say the rule no longer exists, although I might easily make that mistake watching endless rolling mauls over the weekend.

It’s just, they seem to have forgotten how to adjudicate the rule.

Once upon a time, if a player was trying to break a tackle and failed to properly dispose of the ball, it was paid as a free kick against.

Nick Vlastuin of the Tigers is tackled

(Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

But how often does that actually happen now?

A particularly frustrating trend is players putting out their arm immediately after picking the ball up to block the force of the tackle.


Surely this counts as prior opportunity? If you put your arm out, you have enough time to use that arm to dispose of the ball.

The most frustrating aspect of this trend is that it fails to understand the flow-on effects. Everything AFL teams do to congest the play is done in the knowledge these situations will not cost them a free kick.

Quite simply, if trying to break tackles results in more free kicks against, they will actually set up to move the ball more quickly.

With every AFL team understanding and tightly adhering to modern defensive structures, incentive to move the ball quickly among all the congested chaos is extremely low. Each team enters the battles and seems happy to keep it that way until the game is falling out of reach.

Teams are so incredibly reluctant to move the ball aggressively.


If players rarely kick from the back flank to the middle of the ground when they actually have space to make a good decision, why would we expect them to attempt to move the ball quickly out of congestion, when the risk of turning the ball over is so high, and simply riding tackle after tackle will not result in holding the ball?

So, it’s quite simple: pay holding the ball the way it is meant to be paid, and the entire situation will change.

If this slight tweak is made, it will incentivise teams to actually move the ball more quickly and break the congestion that is beginning to actually ruin the game.