Legendary Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson did not mince words on the supposed dire state of the game on Sunday night.
After a tense scrap against North Melbourne that was lambasted for congestion, sloppy ball movement and low scoring, Clarkson said the AFL “can’t be happy” with how the game is being played.
“You wonder why the game is an arm wrestle and that you can’t get any open footy … if that’s the spectacle that we’re trying to search for in our game, then our game’s in a dreadful space,” he said.
He’s not off the mark. While the general disruption to this season is having a bigger impact on skills and fitness than we realise, congestion and repeat stoppages have been a feature – or a problem, depending on where you sit – of the game for some time.
The dramatic drop-off in scoring this year is simply too great to be attributed to the 16-minute quarters.
Something isn’t right with the way Australian rules football is playing played today – but the reason why is where Clarko and I differ.
The four-time premiership coach took aim at the way the game is umpired in his presser, claiming his side’s tally of zero holding the ball free kicks from 69 tackles just couldn’t be right.
“What’s happened to our game? You can’t have that many tackles and not one of them be incorrect disposal.”
“We teach our players to tackle and if a player doesn’t dispose of the ball correctly then the rule book says to blow the whistle and pay a free kick.”
Yeah… that’s a bit of a simplification.
My good friend, the AFL rulebook, has a lot more to say on holding the ball than just ‘incorrect disposal, free kick’.
Law 17.6.3: Holding the Ball: Incorrect Disposal
Where a Player in Possession of the Football has not had Prior Opportunity, a Free Kick shall be awarded if that Player elects to Incorrectly Dispose of the football when Legally Tackled.
For the avoidance of doubt, a Player does not elect to Incorrectly Dispose of the football when:
(a) the Player genuinely attempts to Correctly Dispose of the football;
(b) the Legal Tackle causes the football to be dislodged from the Player’s possession.
Does Clarko genuinely not understand holding the ball works? Of course not, but the laws of the game couldn’t make it any clearer that his abridged explanation on Sunday was irresponsibly misguided.
If coaches are going to continuously throw huge player numbers around the ball, nobody is going to have prior opportunity to dispose of the ball and unless people deliberately drop or throw the ball, umpires will never – and should never – reward the tackler in that circumstance.
Indeed, the ‘spirit and intention’ entry for the holding the ball rule – the foundation upon which the law is built – states, “The Player who has Possession of the Football will be provided an opportunity to dispose of the football before rewarding an opponent for a Legal Tackle.”
That’s how the game should be. I want a faster and more free-flowing game, but nobody wants a game where electing not to go for the ball is a sound strategic decision.
While holding the ball has long been contentious – undergoing a plethora of changes since the game’s inception – every change made to it for the last several decades – bar one – has made it easier for the free kick to be paid, not harder.
A great table by Vic Metro assistant coach Rob Harding proves that holding the ball is getting paid more than ever in the last few years. Curiously, holding the ball was rarest during the first two years of Hawthorn’s triple-premiership era.
It wasn’t until 1986 that players started getting automatically pinged if they’d had prior opportunity and since that supposedly ‘golden era’ of football, fans and commentators have constantly bemoaned the state of the game – but it’s hardly the fault of the umpires.
The main change since those halcyon days has been the hyper-defensive tactics brought in by coaches. The flood, defensive zones, the web – you name it.
Every recent coaching innovation anyone can remember has been an advance in defence or defensive structures. Even the high-scoring Tigers of the last few seasons have been all about letting their opponent win the clearance, before suffocating them with manic pressure and punishing them on the turnover.
There’s more I’d like to see the umpires do to help ease congestion and get the game flowing – which I’ll touch on momentarily – but for Clarkson suggesting to fans and press that the constipated state of the game today is the fault of umpires not adjudicating the rules properly – while glossing over the stranglehold coaches have over the direction of the game – is disingenuous at best.
If we’re complaining about players not having enough time to dispose of the ball, penalising them more for not disposing of the ball in time is so obviously counterproductive it shouldn’t need spelling out.
So, what can be done?
For starters, I’d like to see the ball player protected more. Too often, the player that’s won the ball cops high contact in the form of an opponent trying to reach for the ball getting their arm around their neck or over the shoulder and it’s not paid.
We also see piles of players stack on an opponent at the bottom of the pile and push in the back doesn’t get called. You don’t want to discourage players from contesting the ball, but there really isn’t any reason for a player to be on their opponent’s back in an attempt to win it.
It might seem harsh initially, but it would force the player second to the ball to put more thought into how they wrap up their opponent. Right now, the player second to the ball is permitted to clumsily impede their ball-winning opponent too often and that’s what slows the game down.
As far as holding the ball goes, the one thing the umpires don’t pick up enough is players driving their head into a stationary, or near-stationary, opponent. The law book’s definition of prior opportunity lists this as a concrete example and yet we see this result in a ball-up too often.
Finally, while I wrote a long time ago about the umpire bounce being outdated and unnecessary, the change to a quick throw for ball-ups simply means players don’t have enough time to spread from the stoppage before play resumes anymore.
Just a few more seconds before the ball’s back in play could make a huge difference.
At the end of the day, however, what it will really take is a fundamental shift in coaching philosophies across the board, where players are encouraged to win the ball and win the game in their own right, rather than focus all their energy on trying not to lose.