Much ballyhoo has been made about the low-scoring and generally dour football that has been presented in 2020.
Of course, this is simply confirming a trend we’ve seen now for the best part of a decade. Low-scoring, scrambling football is in, high-scoring, free-flowing footy is out.
The AFL have tried and tried some more to stem the tide. The 6x6x6 zone at the centre bounce, a far more strict interpretation of deliberate out of bounds, greater protected space around the ball carrier at the mark/free kick, and interchange restrictions have all been tried, and led to temporary increases in scoring.
But, inevitably, the coaching negates it.
Some suggest that the magical solution is 16 players per side. That’s madness.
It takes about five minutes to understand why it is, so here are five reasons why – one reason per minute.
1. Low scoring footy is not a new problem
Eras have been defined by both high-scoring footy and by defensive football.
A good deal of people have fond memories of the 1980s and early ’90s, which was high scoring. But they tend to forget the ’60s was low scoring, while the ’80s and early ’90s were unprecedentedly high scoring.
We had goal-kicking machines churning out 100 goals almost for fun but we forget that no one kicked 100 in a season between 1950-1968. It took the freak that was Peter Hudson to break that drought.
People presume the ’72, ’85 and ’89 grand finals were representative of 120 years. No. They are and remain outliers.
In the ’80s and early ’90s, when lots of teams were racking up 200 points, people think that was common. It wasn’t. It was simply part of an unusually high scoring era.
It’s cyclical. We are undoubtedly in an ebb now, but there’s nothing to suggest it’s permanent. It’s ebbed and flowed since the birth of the game.
2. The 16-minute quarters are contributing to artificially lower scores
There is, by 2020 measurements, a ‘fifth quarter’ of football not being played compared to last year – 16 minutes plus time on.
When you only get 80 per cent of game time, you will naturally get a lower score. Yes, it is still lower, even factoring in the additional 20 per cent, but even then that is misleading. The AFL have been open in saying the point of 16-minute quarters is to prepare for eventualities of teams needing to play two times a week or three times in 12 days. Fatigue was to be minimised where possible.
Thus, there was not a commensurate decrease in the interchange cap. We are not seeing the late quarter or end of game fade-outs as much as we did in previous years.
As a result, it’s leading to tighter matches. Additionally, some clubs put the cue in the rack a lot earlier in the match when victory has been nearly assured (sometimes, it’s nearly cost them).
Scoring is being placed as a secondary need over player welfare.
3. The game has had 18 players for 121 years
In 1899, the game decided to reduce to 18 men and it has gone through scoring ebbs and flows in that time, yet has not seen fit to move from 18 men.
Why the need to change now? What is it about this exact point in time where it’s been concluded by some that the only viable solution left is 16 men? Why is this period of low scoring different? Why has it been deemed by some that the low scoring is now permanent and there will be no natural evolution back to higher scoring, or no other rule change can bring back high scores?
Why is there a belief that where other sports have introduced new rules, Aussie rules is so unique that rule changes cannot work?
Why not just say all goals are now 18 points, and behinds are three? Why not even introduce a snitch that would be worth 180 points and would end the game upon its retrieval?
4. Congestion will improve, but…
Moving to 16 men would lead to a temporary decrease in congestion, but temporary is key.
Coaching will overcome the shortage. Coaching has overcome every single rule change in the game.
And then what will happen? Do we go down to 14? There would be a seismic change to the core of the game for only the most temporary of decreases in congestion.
Additionally, an AFL field is – by far – the least congested of the footy codes. Assuming a football field is a perfect circle of 150m (we know AFL fields are about 165×135 – so an even 150 is a slight overestimate), a player gets 490sqm to themselves.
A soccer field is the second-least congested at 290sqm. A rugby team on the same field gets 213sqm.
An AFL player literally gets twice as much space as a rugby player. Rugby is also horribly congested. But AFL is so special its congestion can only be solved by removing two players?
The congestion argument is not a furphy, but it’s ill thought-out, as there is still acres of space to utilise once you get the players away from the ball.
Changing to 16 a side would still have throngs of people around the ball, it’s just a matter of getting them away from it. Fewer players won’t change that.
5. Other sports haven’t felt the need to change team sizes to address scoring
Name another sport in the past 100 years that has made the most fundamental of changes by altering the team size? None. Because no other sport would be that stupid. No other sport would think their problems are so special this is the only solution left.
Rugby league and rugby union have gone through periods of dour play but neither have suggested that the problems would be solved by taking people out of the team. Each sport has addressed scoring issues by making changes to the value of scoring opportunities (increasing the worth of a try, for instance) or introducing initiatives to speed up the game (the six-again rule in rugby league, the short-arm penalty in union). The numbers – 13 on 13 and 15 on 15 – are sacrosanct.
Soccer has been 11 vs 11 since Adam was a boy. Basketball, a sport that also goes through periods of intensely high and low scoring, has never said, “Gee, time to go down to four people and let’s introduce a height limit while at it.” To address low scoring, they introduced the three-point arc.
American football has made huge changes to the rules, but it has never suggested any less than 11 people should be on the park. Cricket doesn’t respond to low-scoring innings by making the bowling side have to take 12 wickets.
Reducing a team to 16 would be representative of the least imaginative, dumbest thinking out there. Sensible solutions lay elsewhere.
Keeping the coaches a continent away from the rules committee would be a great start. A massive reduction in the interchange would also be another – ten a quarter. These may help address the low scoring, they may not, but they don’t attack the fundamentals of the game.
In cricket, soccer, union, basketball or ice hockey, changing the size of the team would basically mean the sport has finished and a new one has replaced it. It would be the same for the AFL.
High-scoring footy will come back. It may not be the 25 goals-a-game stuff that was common in the late ’70s to early ’90s, but it will come back.
There are already shoots of encouragement emerging. Brisbane play a great brand of attacking footy, which has them well placed to win a flag (if they could kick straight).