Another year, and another footy season almost upon us. It’s hard to avoid a tingle in the nether regions.
The more things change (the rules), the more they stay the same (the AFL changing them). A new set of on-field laws greets us and, after one set of practice matches, it appears we will see a different brand of footy as a result.
The stand rule has created the most angst and conversation, and there should be some obvious flow-on effects.
We will see far less of the handball to a man running past from behind after a mark or free kick, which was often used to try and break a line. It won’t be as necessary, with the field more open for short kicks. In fact, it will be a waste of valuable seconds.
If players are middle wing to half-back and decide to go boundary-side with their possessions they are essentially wasting them, because that’s a kick the man on the mark would often be happy to allow anyway. Most kickers will elect to go in-board, as they should, but coaches around the league will be ardently trying to defend this option with team defence.
While the AFL brought in 6-6-6 in part to make it harder for teams to defend a small lead late in games by flooding back pre-bounce, the new stand rule will certainly make it easier to defend a winning position by chipping the ball around late in quarters. The man on the mark could often make himself quite a nuisance in these circumstances, but is no longer a hurdle to overcome.
What we should see in response to the above may well be more man-on-man defence around the ground, which will please those craving more contests between individuals. But we could also see more times where 18 defenders are crammed back inside defensive 50 or 60, as Sydney did at stages last season. That way, the man on the mark becomes redundant, because the players will be free to kick the ball around the middle and half-forward all they like for no forward momentum.
Other advantages will be seen inside 50, with a mark taken on or near the boundary line. Far easier now for the player with the ball to play on and score. And if marking the ball at the range of your distance, 50m out, easier now to play on and gain that extra metre or two that’s required to make the distance, so we should see more shots from long range, which is a good thing.
The extra distance a player is allowed to run from kick-ins will also make the ground harder to defend, as opposition teams will have to set their zone defence deeper than previous.
Melbourne have often used going long to Max Gawn as their set play from kick outs, but it was even more evident in the pre-season, planting him in the centre circle or on the wing, where he would try to punch the ball forward as much as mark it. If it comes off, it can mean full back to inside 50 with one possession.
All teams will have some sort of long-bomb planning, and the further back a defensive zone is pushed, the easier it will be to pierce through with a short kick, followed by a long one over the top. Either way, the ground will be lengthened, which is no bad thing.
The players will be running alright, covering more territory than ever before if the coaches still want to clog up around the ball and force stoppages. And they’ll be asked to do so with less rotations.
If fatigue does become a factor, coaches will naturally fold back defences and slow the game down with ball control.
The tactical battles will be fascinating as they always are.
Now, for the obligatory pre-season ladder.
1. Geelong – will be home and away strong again, but can they avoid the Tigers in the finals?
2. Western Bulldogs – their midfield will run rings around most, they just need to connect inside 50.
3. Brisbane – a solid top-four team now, but there is a hint that injuries are due to strike.
4. Richmond – hard to see them not playing a significant role again, they can be slow starters though.
5. St Kilda – love everything they are doing, would have had them higher if not for key players being struck down late in pre-season.
6. West Coast – perennial top-six team, but have been too compromising over the last two seasons.
7. Port Adelaide – they had a sense of destiny about them last year, but it went unfulfilled. Are they on an emotional rollercoaster?
8. Carlton – a popular pick to rise, and they could finish higher than this. A solid 25-30 players to pick from now.
9. Melbourne – always a hard team to assess, but easy to plonk them in the middle of the ladder.
10. Fremantle – some people’s pick for finals, but they’ll need a lot to go right. Not convinced yet.
11. Collingwood – the obvious slider, but will still be hard to score against. Depth all of a sudden an issue.
12. Gold Coast – still a year away from making a bigger leap. Big fan of Stuart Dew as a coach.
13. GWS – there’s a stench about them still and not exactly sure where they go from here. Big detractor of Leon Cameron as a coach.
14. Sydney – unlikely to take a big leap forward with John Longmire as coach. Will cause some upsets though.
15. Hawthorn – coached by anyone other than Alastair Clarkson and they’d almost be last.
16. Essendon – will cop some terrible hidings this year, with the occasional win in-between.
17. Adelaide – more pain cometh.
18. North Melbourne – it’s midnight for the Kangaroos.