Australian Football Versus Tackleball and Stoppageball

THE ‘GREAT GAME’ OF 2009–10

This is a story of the state of Australian Football — with implications for the character of other invasion/?eld games in the commercial, professional, corporate era of sport — in three parts.

This more speci?c study is set in an era of the corruption of contemporary sports (from corporate club cultures to match-?xing, salary cap rorts, gambling, absurd levels of debt, performance enhancing and recreational drug use) across several sports and all continents.1 The ?rst half analyses the situation as manifested in one game, the 2009 Australian Football League Grand Final. The second half, after the summer interval, notes the debates on the changing character of the game and possible solutions to what I term ‘Tackleball’ and ‘Stoppageball’ (and what Ted Hopkins dubs ‘Ugby’). In the third part, ‘Time On’, it raises the question of what might be called here, appropriately, ‘left ?eld’, choosing the American term to consider the future of footy in the battle of the sports, including its appeal to new generations and newcomers and to television viewers.

First Half

Football Defeats Tackleball

— ‘Good for Football’ (Grand Final, 26 September 2009)

The ?nal score was Football (Geelong) 12.8.80 defeated Tackleball (St Kilda) 9.14.68. The September 2009 Grand Final was a win for the team that ‘plays the game as it should be played’ over a team which plays another game.

Geelong is a tough, hard-bodied side which valour and endeavour of its opponents. Its most emblematic moment was when Joel Selwood broke away from tackles and the usual mess and took the ball forward and kicked truly.

The idea that it was a ‘great match’, an ‘enthralling contest’, a ‘great battle’, and an exciting ‘arm wrestle’ is rather odd, except for the excitement. Only in its closeness and its desperate physicality was it a great Grand Final. It was not a ‘scrappy match’ played in the mud as has happened often before. It was a ‘scrappy match’, with a ‘slippery’ or hard-to-handle ball, on a perfect surface primarily because it was played on St Kilda’s reductionist terms. Although it was not a ‘blood sport’ as predicted by Ross Lyon at the coaches’ awards night, it was ‘a brutal game’, as Cam Mooney said on the Monday after. It forced Geelong, hitherto the most attractive of contemporary teams, to ‘stand up and ?ght’, in the words from the second verse of its club song, to win hard and to ‘win ugly’.

St Kilda, despite its talent, is a football mutant, a team which plays a game that might be called ‘Tackleball’ or ‘Stoppageball’, the game invented by Ross Lyon’s mentor at Sydney, Paul Roos. Throughout the 2009 season that ignoble creation, ‘Saints’ footy’, restricted its opponents to an average of 64 points. This is the game which can make the umpires amongst

the biggest possession winners on the ground as stoppage after stoppage turns the game into a rolling maul, a ruck and even a scrum.

There were indeed two sides out there on the last Saturday in September 2009 and only one of them was playing football. St Kilda laid 118 tackles, forcing Geelong to respond with 96. That meant almost two tackles a minute — that is Tackleball. Over 20 stoppages (including throw-ins) in the last quarter and over 100 hit outs for the day indicate a game which might also be called ‘Umpireball’. Is that what footy lovers want, however appealing they ?nd tight matches?

Despite the brilliant skills of Paul Roos as a player and the dry, laconic wit of his apprentice, Ross Lyon, their teams — at their worst — play a game which many football lovers would not cross the road to watch. Having once, uncharacteristically, walked out of a pre-season cup match between Sydney and the Western Bulldogs because of ?ooding and Tackleball, I know how they feel.

Some people like ‘mobile wrestling’ (a term once used to deride rugby), and everyone likes tense matches on the scoreboard. However, do supporters really want a match in which the game plan is to ‘win ugly’, to impose a ‘Lyon cage’ on the opposition, to ‘put a blanket’ over them? Even aside from smothering footy with jargon (‘frontal pressure’), St Kilda degrades the game, despite, on its best days, displaying the brilliance of Nick Riewoldt, Lenny Hayes and Nick Del Santo.

Professional sport encourages coaches to do their worst to get across the line even when it is against the spirit of the game. In the 1980s, English soccer became a game of mind-numbing defence, until it was saved by the importation of creative talent from Europe/Africa and South America. A few years ago, rugby, a game based on running with the ball to score a try, perverted its traditions in two World Cups. The English in particular, contending for the Webb Ellis trophy, named after the founder of the game in which he focused on running with the ball to score, sought to win by kicking ?eld goals, and by preventing tries!

Now, despite the running, ?owing moments of the contemporary game at its best, Australian Football is in danger of a similar decline. The Roos-Lyon tactics have turned the Australian game upside down with the top teams resisting the spirit of attack which is the highlight of the only major ?eld sport without an offside rule. The believers in ‘Tackleball’ do not want an attacking game. They want the ball ‘all tied up’, they want the opposition forwards ‘locked down’, so they can win the game with a few attacking thrusts.

The problem with this style of football as a war of attrition is that it turns football back into the Somme. A game of inches and tackles, not of kicking, handballing, running and goalling. As one commentator later remarked, unconscious of the similarity with the mud and blood of World War I, St Kilda likes to win ‘ten metres at a time, then another ten metres’. It is not Australian Football at its best, or even its ?nals best. Nor does it guarantee a win to the boa constrictor team — a ‘game of inches’ can be lost by inches as well as won by inches.

Second Half

The 2010 ‘State of the Game’ Debate

In 2010, former players and coaches, current coaches, the AFL Players Association and numerous commentators and impassioned observers raised a number of themes in the ongoing debate about the state of the game.2

One theme was the higher level of injury due to the interchange expansion and the related several kilometres per hour increase in the speed of the game and the greater bulk of AFL players. Dr Ken Norton’s statistical research for the AFL demonstrated this fact. Since 2006, average player speed had increased from 6.46 to 7.48 kmh. Faster speed was facilitated by increasing interchanges, from 46 to 116, and an emerging correlation with increased numbers of games missed due to injury. In AFL Football Operations manager Adrian Anderson’s summary, ‘players are fresher and travelling at higher speeds, and the medical advice is telling us that there is an increased risk of injury from high-intensity collisions if we let the speed of the game continue increasing unchecked’.3 King Canute-like traditionalists and club supporters of course said that it was not true. Such views come especially from supporters of the great practitioners of the interchange, Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs; like most supporters, they put their club before the game, preferring subjective one-eyed views to the larger facts. That is why the

AFL has an independent commission and an independent committee to review the changing game and how coaches have used the laws of the game to win at all costs, including at the cost of the spirit of the game itself.

In a related debate, over the need to shorten quarters to reduce the impact on the bodies of players, the analyses which emphasized the reality of a physically tougher game were supported by Mick Malthouse, who remarked in his Australian column that the game was now harder and more physical. ‘I don’t care what some former players say, the intensity of the game has lifted dramatically. There are more tackles than ever before, bodies are bigger and players are faster, leading to greater impacts’.4 Despite being a critic of interchange caps (as coach of a Collingwood team with an interchange-focused game plan), he used the reality of a tougher game to support the move for shorter quarters. The change was recognized by Leigh Matthews (who would know), when he remarked on radio that although ‘the game was once dirtier it was now much tougher’.

Another related theme was the congestion of the game — the 24 plus players around stoppages, the increased number of ball-ups and the stacks-on-the-mill tackles leading to repeated stoppages. In Adrian Anderson’s summary, ‘the research shows us the increased use of the interchange is also linked to more congestion, more tackling and more stoppages’.5 It was this tendency, which was encouraged by ?ooding, zoning and (from basketball) ‘full court press’ on the St Kilda model, making it hard for the opposition to get the ball out of their forward line. The outcome of these game plans (particularly ?ooding) was criticized by Kevin Sheedy and by the creator of Champion Statistics and the former Carlton premiership goal-kicker, Ted Hopkins. In the Hopkins argument, ‘the result is mainly ugly football’. The game was now ‘Ugby’, ‘a style of play which looks more like a combination of rugby and ugly’. In his summary, ‘Its features include: all in mauling-scrimmages, with, at times, nearly all players positioned on the defensive side of the ball, too much backward ball movement, more handpasses than kicks, gang tackling, slam tackles, violent hit-ups and regular injuries. To boot, Ugby footy generally produces low-scoring affairs’.6

Leigh Matthews con?rmed the analysis of congestion by comparing television images then and now. He re?ected on the fewer number of players in every shot when watching matches from the eighties on television. It was not, he emphasized, just a matter of the size of the screen! In the 1981 Grand Final there were often ten players in most shots, now there could be over twenty.7

A related theme in the 2010 debate is the proposal noted above, by the AFL Rules of the Game Committee, to reverse some of the initiatives of recent years, which had sought to speed up the game — to slow down the game by a cap on the number of interchanges.8 Despite ‘traditionalists’ who defend the most untraditional game of today, the cap will reduce the speed of the game, reduce serious injuries (both impact and repetition injuries) and reduce flooding, congestion and the ‘inside play’ characterised by Tackleball and Stoppageball.

Grey clouds of negative coaching were in?uencing other sports. Off the ?eld, in South Africa in 2010, the then Australian Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek was channelling Ross Lyon with an emphasis on defensive play. His negativity was not atypical. The World Cup tournament which was meant to be a showcase of the worldwide game was often characterized by yellow cards and scoreless draws, including over 115 goal-free minutes in the ?nal. The negative results, and ugly play, of the professionalization and corporatization of sporting culture were not just con?ned to the Australian game.

Time On

The Future of Footy

In the AFL, the squeeze on the creative game matters when Australian Football is under challenge from less interesting sports which have wider pro?les and celebrity clout. The Australian game has signi?cance for Australian society and culture as a great Australian creation and the nearest of all games to Australia’s most profound sporting religion.

Both AFL-level football and local football (so far completely forgotten in the media debates) need to return to a higher level of skill and a diminished focus on heavy tackling. The combination of heavy running and collision/ gladiatorial football puts even more pressure on the part-time player who has to go to work on

Monday. At all levels, the modern play-on game has greater appeal, when not in Stoppageball or Tackleball modes, as a creative attacking sport for players, spectators and telespectators than a trench-like scramble for territory. Tackle- and interchange-dominated football is already seeing a preference for athletes over footballers and a consequent diminution in skills.

While Australian Football waits for some new coach, some chess grandmaster, to checkmate the Lyon game plan, the 2009 Grand Final victory by Geelong was ‘good for football’. That Grand Final would have been the same had the Western Bulldogs been ahead in the game of inches when the ?nal siren blew a week before. The last Saturday in September in 2010 will be an interesting test of which game plan, which ‘structures’, win — the creative or the defensive.

In 2010 there have been creative moments, coming mainly from Geelong and the Western Bulldogs, sometimes from Collingwood (and even, rarely, St Kilda), and from the rising young Demon side, although all will descend to ?ooding and ‘keepings off’ when the situation demands. Pressured football, Tackleball, also involves deskilling, when fit, strong, ‘hard bodied’ athletes dominate over skilled footballers as they apply continuous pressure.

In the longer term, what is ‘good for football’, and for new generations of footy followers, is every defeat of a team that plays Tackleball and Stoppageball. If ‘scoreboard pressure’ (to use that bizarre contemporary coinage) does not save the game from the evil geniuses in the coaching box, then they will have to be checkmated by revised rules. When the ?nal siren blows Australian Football will be the winner.

Stephen Alomes is an Australian Football researcher and a football supporter who wants a win for ‘what’s good for football’. He is Associate Professor of Australian Studies at Deakin University.

Reproduced with permission from the Bulletin of Sport and Culture, no. 34, September 2010 ©Victoria University Sport and Culture Group.

Comments

  1. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Stephen,

    a thought provoking debut article. I too get frustrated with the amount of stoppages that constipate our game. However, I also recognize that being a child of attacking and often haphazard ’70s and ’80s footy, my views could be biased.

    Footy tends to reflect life rather than challenge it. Since the early ’90s our lives have been influenced by the shift toward greater professionalism, efficiency and that insidious word, outcomes. From the boardroom to the bedroom expectations of how we perform have changed.

    Footy is no different. In fact I reckon the fans are probably more responsible for the shift than coaches and administrators. How often do we hear hostile fans threatening to cancel their memberships when their team is not performing. “I pay my hard-earned money every year” etc. Matty Knights’ brand of attacking footy is a most recent casualty.

    In some ways the influence of other codes has made our footballers smarter and more skillful. Now they have to work with less space and more pressure to produce great footy. An example is the amount of brilliant goals kicked from all sorts of angles that are celebrated without the same exhilaration as the 70s and 80s because they occur more often.

    Geelong was an alterity because they had enough talent to execute their game and break through stifling defensive pressure. It wasn’t that the game style was any better, but the collective personnel nailed it.

    For the record, my favourite game of footy is the 1967 Grand Final. It showcased all the classical skills of our game as we knew it then. Perhaps if we just looked for the sublime in today’s footy and altered our conditioned responses, we may well find that there is a different type of aesthetic joy and a much more subtle artistry in the way footy is played.

    Watching MacLeod,Brown,Judd,Didak,Ryder,Pavlich,Ablett,Rioli,Jurrah,Harvey,Motlop,Jack Riewoldt,Goddard,Goodes,Natanui and Cooney…to name just one star from each team…certainly confirms that skill, flair and football intuition will always prevail over structural imperatives and mere athletic ability.

  2. John Butler says:

    Stephen

    A welcome addition to this debate.

    Personally, I’m sceptical that the cap on interchanges won’t end up having unintended consequences that cancel the benefits.

    I think changing one rule in isolation, when the focus of almost all recent changes has been to speed things up, is a little like accelerating with the handbrake on. What’s lacking from the AFL bodies is an overall coherence in what they’re aiming to achieve.

    We shall just have to sit back and observe proceedings next season.

  3. A way of increasing the scoring would be to double the value of a goal to 12, make the behinds worth 3 and create a further behind worth 1. High scores would soon come. ;-)

    It makes me wonder how a game that would typically have between 0 and 3 goals in a long afternoon’s play ever became Melbourne’s most popular game. What is it about high/low scores that has everyone so up in arms?

    There were three 0-0 draws in the EPL on the weekend, one of them was an absolute cracker, full of endeavour, skill and courage.

    Complaining about lack of scoring is bean counting — which is I guess the ideology of the age.

  4. Dave Latham says:

    I’ll have to read this properly soon, but I will say on the issue of high-rotation caps, it genuinely shits me that the Rules / Laws of the Game Committee have seen fit to introduce this rule.

    There is no scientific or aesthetic rationale for it that anyone has been able to convince me of to date for fixing it.

    I’m all for intervention in the economy, but these flimsy sports science arguments about high-rotations, muscle strain and high impact collisions sound utterly ludicrous to me.

    Kevin Bartlett really needs to get into model railways or woodwork, because he clearly has too much time on his hands.

  5. Just as socialism in the political world has been wrecked and hijacked by “issues” and lobby groups, none of which are inherently socialist (ie climate change, gay marriage, energy sources and resources etc etc) so football is also hijacked by “issues” rather than being self governed by its own beauty. (I’m talking about the rules here not the administration).

    To have sound intervention in anything requires that those intervening do so with intelligence and thought. I don’t trust the government or the AFL on these fronts.

    Leave the game alone! Let it evolve.

  6. #3 Ian, Soccer and Aussie Rules are different games. Soccer is fundamentally a defensive game, which makes the relatively rare goals all the more valued. A nil all draw in soccer can be exciting and all the other things that you mentioned.

    Aussie Rules is fundamentally an attacking game. That is why it doesn’t have an offside rule. While it began as a lower scoring game, since the early 20th Century high scores and goal feasts have been the expectation of fans.

    Soccer is relatively risk averse. Aussie Rules used to be a high risk game with plenty of contested high marks and lots of drop kicks, torpedo punts etc.

    In recent years the aim of most coaches is for their players to receive uncontested possessions, either through handball or uncontested marks. Restricting opposition scoring is considered more reliable than outscoring the opposition through attacking play. The result is that you get teams like Lyons’ St Kilda and Roos’ Sydney who win games in which their opponents score seven goals or less.

    The way to appreciate individual sports is not by comparing them with vastly different games, it is by comparing them with the same sport played in a different time. Steve’s conclusion, and a lot of us agree with him, is that at least some AFL teams are playing a variant of the game that is less attractive to watch than that played in the 1970s.

  7. dave latham says:

    I can’t disagree more with the new interchange rule, and its varied rationalisations, whatever Dr Norton says for reasons I’ll explain below.

    I’m also interested to see when it was that Mick Malthouse made his comments about the game, because pre late 2007, he was a sceptic of high-rotations, today he sings a different tune. And I don’t think it’s merely about expediency.

    Firstly on the question of player welfare, the AFL have been beating this drum for a number of years, but years on are yet to produce anything remotely conclusive about velocity and impact, or soft-tissue injury.

    On the latter, if Collingwood is any measure, soft-tissue injuries are at an all time low. On the former, nothing has been produced that could warrant any alarmist claims. It’s all in the realm of the hunch and anecdotal / selective claims as far as I’m aware.

    And if we are to work on anecdotal claims or logical inferences, I would suggest that lower rotations (whose claim is a slower game) will lead to greater fatigue, reaction time and peripheral awareness, which is not exactly conducive to avoiding collisions.

    Conversely, high-rotations allow younger and therefore slighter framed players to play earlier. Steele Sidebottom is a good case in point, as are a number of other 1st or 2nd year players. Usually they will play limited game time owing to a lack of pre-season fitness and bulk, but a high-interchange allows a club to cover for them, and give them say 60% gametime.

    That means that a greater number of players with light frames will play, and presumably lower the general level of dangerous impact.

    Outside of that, and I’m all for OH&S, protection should take the specific form of outlawing and policing high-bumps around the head and neck.

    To me, that’s the way to tackle injury, not some blunt, nebulous and unproven assertions regarding high-rotations.

    Again, no Collingwood player has delivered a damaging bump this year. Wellingham did hit I think a Hawthorn player pretty hard, but it was early, and in the centre square – not part of a long run. There’s more to say about this, but I’m aware of space.

    On the question of aesthetics, the argument is flimsy. St Kilda, West Coast and Geelong played lower rotation games than the Pies and Dogs.

    I like to think the Pies and Dogs playd exciting brands of football – high scoring and fast moving. St Kilda played lower rotations and were more defensive and, according to the observor, possibly a boring style. But Geelong also played a lower rotation game but were exciting.

    Really, I don’t think the asethetics of the game are determined by rotations but by game style.

    In short, unless there is a clear proof of likely injury or aesthetic damage, just leave it alone.

    I’d wager that a lot more serious injuries were incurred in prior years at the top level.

  8. Pamela Sherpa says:

    I can’t understand the need for speed. In fact I hate watching when some games are just too fast- players running around in a frenzy, burning up energy having to have a drink of water every 2 seconds and exhausting themselves within 5 mins.
    The most annoying aspect of the merry-go-round that is the interchange is the lack of a true contest and the avoidance of having to have one with a particular opponent. That is what I miss most in football these days- the actual competition.

  9. Let’s face it, as a game we can’t help ourselves and continually change rules, etc, to bring about a certain effect, every time ignoring unintended consequences.

    This three man interchange + one sub is the most radical since they expanded the bench from two to three and changed the minimum distance from a kick (to be a mark) from 10 to 15m.

  10. Dave Latham says:

    I see plenty of contests for the ball, in fact every couple of seconds, so I don’t really understand that point that people always raise.

    I think we can slow it down with the Dew clause – a minimum of 6 [strike] fatties [/strike] big boned players in a starting 22 every week.

  11. Dave Latham says:

    I see plenty of contests for the ball, in fact every couple of seconds, so I don’t really understand that point that people always raise.

    I think we can slow it down with the Dew clause – a minimum of 6 fatties big boned players in a starting 22 every week.

  12. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Dave , the contests people miss are those between two particular opponents – for an entire day- the type that enables you to say afterwards Fletcher held Lockett today or five different full backs couldn’t stop him, as opposed to today’s all in ten players on top of each other stuff or alternatively ‘ Who is playing on so and so? Why doesn’t he have an opponent. Why is he able to get 40 possessions a game? .

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