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BRETT GEEVES: The three options AFL has to fix farcical exploitation of medical sub rule

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Expert
6th April, 2022
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The AFL has made so many rule changes over the last decade that its own website no longer holds the RAM capacity for additions to be made from 2019 onwards.

Six – six – six, stand, man on the mark back five from the kick in, grabbing the ball out of the ruck is no longer deemed prior opportunity, restrictions on runners, ruck nomination, no third man up, insufficient intent, forceful contact below the knees, imaginary rectangle (restricted area) when a player has taken a mark or been awarded a free kick, goal line technology, interchange caps, and of course, the ever shifting guidelines for the sub.

If the AFL were serious about protecting their umpires from the level of abuse they’ve copped, enough to enforce another new rule, you’d think they’d at least attempt to make it easy for them.

Add to this the volatile movement of interpretations, and the rule of the week, which sees umpires directed to crack down on one rule for the round without giving notice of which rule to the players, coaches, and supporters.

It has gameshow feels about it.

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If you can’t pick which rule it is by the conclusion of the round, you run the risk of a Squid Game-inspired death, where you must ask Luke Beveridge back-to-back questions in the Channel 7 press conference after his team has lost a game.

For now, though, let’s focus on the sub rule, because it has always been a stinker, one constantly used by coaches to exploit tired legs late in games.

It’s what coaches do. They’re paid millions to look for competitive advantage by teaching players how to shrug tackles to get free kicks, how to hook the defender’s arm so it looks like they’re the ones holding and how to dive over the top of players lying on the ground with the ball to enact the prohibited contact below the knee rule.

But nothing says subtle gamesmanship, and hunt for competitive advantage, like instructing your second ruck to lay in the middle of the MCG and stretch his calf a couple of times for proof at your AFL disciplinary committee hearing that cramp was present, so you can sub him off for the gut-running-super-sub (last name Dahlhaus), to inject your failing team with enough running to super-charge your push towards gunning down that 8-goal deficit in the last quarter.

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Let’s not pretend this isn’t a thing.

When the medical substitute rule was re-implemented only 36 hours before the first bounce of season 2021, the AFL said it was for injuries that looked set to sideline a player for 12 days, which would mean missing the following week’s game.

Let’s see how that is panning out in season 2022 via a Sam Edmund tweet.

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(For any slander, or want for confrontational discourse, please direct to @sammy_edmund on twitter.)

Whilst I’ll agree with your raised eyebrow on Jeremy Cameron, who left in an ambulance, and Trent McKenzie, who left the ground tied to a stretcher on the back of a golf buggy, the fact remains that all players recovered in time for the following week’s game, and via the activation of the sub, their team received the considerable competitive advantage of fresh legs.

An unfortunate injury shouldn’t turn into a stroke of good luck by way of fresh legs. All that does is provide the lure for cunning.

This week, we saw Carlton plodder, Marc Pittonet, the late game sub for the electric Jack Martin in a tight one against the Hawks.

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Tall Port Adelaide defender, Sam Skinner, out at three quarter time for the speed machine Marty Frederick in a thriller against Adelaide.

And as mentioned above, Geelong’s second ruck, Esava Ratugolea, out for the gut-running Luke Dahlhaus.

Three big men out, for the running power of three small substitutes, all in in late game scenarios where pace on the ball was required.

Coincidence!!?? Let’s see how many of Skinner, Pittonet and Esava get named this week.

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I think we can all agree that a sub, or a reserve, is necessary given the demands placed on the players from the flow of rule changes introduced across the last decade.

In that time, we’ve gone from uncapped interchange, to a three man bench with a sub, 120 capped rotations, to no sub and 90 rotations, to 75 rotations… and now a medical sub with a 12-day injury clause that no club has ever been investigated for breaking, even though it is clear from the above investigative work from Dr. Sammy Edmunds, that clubs have less time for a 12-day break than Jesus in early 00’s, downtown Jerusalem.

This dramatic decrease in rotations from the interchange, is designed to fatigue the players to slow the game down, opening space for a more-free flowing style with increased scoring.

By design of the AFL, increased fatigue means a higher rate of soft tissue injuries.

The justification is the preservation of brains. And that is a win we must take.

With this in mind, the view that soft tissue injury risk is heightened an inevitable, the AFL must have a medical sub in place for the protection of the players, integrity of the game, and perhaps even as a result of a clause in their insurance policy.

To implement this effectively, they have three options:

Enforce a 12-day break for any player subbed off the ground.

Make the sub rule for concussion only, where a 12-day break is enforced.

Open it up as a tactical free for all.

What it doesn’t have to do is be clouded in by-laws that aim to protect the integrity of the game, but through a lack of strength by those responsible for administering the by-laws, does nothing other than bring it into question.

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