Time and Space – James Coventry

 James Coventry Time and Space

 

James Coventry is an ABC sports commentator based in Adelaide. This is an extract from his book Time and Space, which is a history of strategy, tactics and coaching innovation in Australian football. Copies of the book are available by emailing Time and Space

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There was an unusually buoyant mood at Fitzroy at the end of 1981. The previous year’s wooden-spooners had defied all expectation by making that season’s finals. Their dramatic improvement was largely attributed to their rookie coach, Robert Walls, who was the product of a classical football education. As a teenager he’d become best friends with Norm Smith’s son, Peter, and was a regular visitor to the Smith family home. ‘To sit down and talk footy with Norm was just unbelievable,’ he said. He made his senior debut for Carlton under Ron Barassi at the age of sixteen, and had played in three grand finals for two premierships by the time he turned twenty-one.

Barassi admired the young centre half-forward’s work ethic and pushed him to his limits. It was a tough-love approach that eventually backfired. ‘We had a falling-out. I’d had a gutful of the man,’ said Walls. ‘I’d played under him for six years and he was so demanding, but he taught me more about football and more about life than anybody.’ After Barassi’s departure, Walls won another flag under John Nicholls in 1972, starring with six goals in the decider against Richmond. He was named Carlton’s captain in 1977, but left the following season due to friction with another coach in Ian Stewart.

Walls spent the last three years of his playing career with Fitzroy. ‘I played with Bernie Quinlan, Max Richardson and Len Thompson,’ he said. ‘It was a bit of a “Dad’s Army”.’ After he retired as a player in 1980, aged thirty, the club appointed him coach. It was a daunting job, as it was a financially troubled club coming off a bottom-placed finish. His first task was to rejuvenate its ageing list. Richardson, Thompson and John Rantall, who were all older than he was, were ushered into retirement. Next he implemented a rigorous pre-season program. The players were split into three groups, one of which was sent to train under the renowned athletics guru Franz Stampfl at Melbourne University. Stampfl, an Austrian, was best known for training Englishman Roger Bannister to run the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954. He’d immigrated to Australia the following year after accepting a coaching job at the university. He was a strong advocate of interval training, which involved a series of high- intensity exercises interspersed with rest periods. It put him at odds with Percy Cerutty, a vocal critic of the method. Like his rival, Stampfl’s expertise was sought by VFL clubs. In 1979, Fitzroy’s fitness advisor, Tony Knight, took a group of his players to watch one of Stampfl’s sessions. According to the Age, Knight wanted them ‘to see what a real athlete was, how hard Stampfl taught and tuned them, and how much they knew about their own bodies’. When Walls was named coach, Stampfl was asked to oversee part of Fitzroy’s pre-season himself. Sadly, though, he was involved in a car accident in November 1980 which left him a quadriplegic. Although he’d later return to coaching from his wheelchair, in the short term the club needed a replacement.

Knight turned to a friend he’d made while studying in America, Englishman Chris Jones. Jones had spent the past decade living in Eugene, Oregon, which was the birthplace of Nike and the home of running in the US. He’d initially joined the University of Oregon on a basketball scholarship. While he was there he made a raft of contacts within the university’s athletics department, and became involved in tailoring off-season conditioning programs for former students who’d graduated to the professional leagues.

He moved to Melbourne in August 1980 to run a health club, and had only seen one game of Australian football when he was approached by Fitzroy. ‘The original plan was that Franz would look after the group,’ he said. ‘But then he had his accident and couldn’t cope, and so I became the substitute.’

Knight and Stampfl had already discussed introducing interval training, and Jones agreed it was the right direction to take. ‘I was trying to understand the game, so I’d asked the players some simple things like the length of a match, how far they ran and how many efforts they generally made,’ he said. ‘They told me a game went for about 100 minutes, that they usually ran about 10 kilometres and that an effort a minute would be a big day.’

After doing some simple calculations, he decided to split his group’s usual 10-kilometre training run into a hundred 100-metre sprints. The players had to complete a sprint per minute, resting between each one. ‘The logic was to make the running look more like the game,’ Jones said. ‘Australian football required intermittent efforts, meaning that you usually didn’t run hard for more than 100 metres at a time.’

When the three groups came together after Christmas, the players who’d trained with Jones at Melbourne University were significantly fitter than the rest. Walls was impressed and decided the whole squad should try the new program. It gave them a solid fitness base, which played a major part in their rise up the ladder. The Lions improved from four wins in 1980 to fourteen wins in 1981. ‘We knew we had a reputation around the competition as being very fit,’ said Jones. ‘In those days it made a noticeable difference.’ They won an elimination final against Essendon before going down to Hafey’s Collingwood by 1 point in the semis. They’d come a long way in just twelve months.

During his second pre-season in charge, Walls took the Lions to Victoria’s Surf Coast. They stayed at the Jan Juc Surf Life Saving Club and ran on the beach. For their ball sessions they went to the nearby Torquay Football Club. Jones was amazed at the players’ skills. ‘I remember watching Bernie Quinlan, Grant Lawrie and Laurie Serafini having a kicking contest,’ he said. ‘They were inside the centre square and were trying to kick the ball into an oil drum. A few hit the rim and I saw Bernie actually get one in, which was just a crazy amount of skill.’ It made Jones wonder why they weren’t making better use of their abilities at set plays such as the kick-in. ‘It seemed bizarre to me that for guys who were that talented, the strategy was to just kick it long and wide to the ruckman,’ he said.

Walls, a schoolteacher, was generally receptive to new ideas. He was intrigued by the questions that Jones was putting to him. ‘He asked why, on the only occasion the fullback is under no pressure and has time to kick the ball, does he put it to a 50/50 situation?’ Walls said. ‘He’d ask why does the fullback kick in even when he might be the worst kick in the team?’

During their discussions, Jones raised the idea of adapting a tactic from basketball called the ‘pick and roll’. ‘A lot of my thinking about strategies and tactics came from watching and listening to John Wooden, who coached UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] for a long time,’ he said. ‘The pick and roll, which helped your teammate get rid of his opponent, was central to everything they did. I thought we could try something like that and kick to someone in a bit of space rather than just roosting it to a contest.’

Walls took the concept to the Lions’ backmen and gave them licence to experiment. ‘Robert’s philosophy was to empower the group, so the players owned it,’ said defender Scott Clayton. ‘It was the coaches’ idea but we would drill it, run it and lead it.’

‘They set to work on a strategy that came to be known as the ‘huddle’. In its most basic form, a group of players would gather at centre half-back after an opposition behind, leaving the flanks vacant. Most teams were taught to play man-on-man at all times, so they knew their opponents would invariably follow them into the huddle. A Fitzroy player, aided by blocks from his teammates, would then break into the open space to receive an uncontested mark from the kick-in. The player kicking in, who was usually Grant Lawrie or Gary Pert, would hold the ball in either his left or right hand to signal which side it was going to. ‘We worked on it over the summer of 1981–82 and then put it into action,’ Walls said.

The results weren’t immediately forthcoming. The Lions lost eight and drew one of their opening fifteen games, before surging to win six of their last seven. They missed the finals by two games. By the start of the following season, however, they were functioning like a well-oiled machine. David Parkin, who was coaching the reigning premier, Carlton, said the huddle took the VFL by storm. ‘We’d not been subjected to any of that kind of thinking before,’ he said. ‘It was so easy to set up and yet so difficult to stop if you went man-on-man. Every coach in the competition was trying to work out how to beat it.’

The earliest counter-move was to position two players in the space on either side. ‘We had a couple of blokes we called “outriders” who would be there to greet the receiver when he came out,’ said Parkin. Hawthorn’s Leigh Matthews said Allan Jeans used the same ploy, but found it didn’t work for long. ‘Simply, there was too much space for a couple of outriders to adequately cover,’ he said.

 

 

Fitzroy’s ‘huddle’, 1983.

The Lions drew their opponents into a tight bunch at centre half-back, before one of their players broke away to receive an uncontested mark from the kick-in.

 

Fitzroy stayed ahead of the pack by devising a number of variations. ‘One that worked well involved a bloke running out of the back of the huddle,’ recalled ruckman Matt Rendell. ‘That player was often Paul Roos. He’d spin up the middle and Lawrie or Pert would kick it over the top of the huddle.’ Roos claimed the move was virtually ‘unstoppable’. ‘The player would gather on or after the centre square line, running full speed toward our goal,’ he wrote in his book Beyond 300. ‘If executed correctly, that player would run through the centre unopposed and deliver to the full-forward on the lead. We would only use this kick-in once a quarter, because if the opposition predicted it was coming, the designated receiver could have easily been injured while running with the flight.’

Walls was delighted, if not a little surprised, by the tactic’s overall success. ‘Our retention of possession from the kick-in went from 50 per cent to between 80 and 90 per cent,’ he said. ‘Some days it was 100 per cent. I reckon for a good two or three years we had a picnic with it.’ In 1983 the Lions finished the minor round third on the ladder, but narrowly lost their two finals against that year’s grand finalists, Hawthorn and Essendon. They’d rue the missed opportunity. Although they scraped into the top five again in 1984, they were thrashed by Collingwood in an elimination final. They then dropped to ninth in 1985, prompting Walls and Jones to move to Carlton. With greater resources at their disposal, the pair took the Blues to a grand final and then a premiership over the next two seasons.

 

Comments

  1. Phil Hill says:

    I’ve heard this story before. When Wallsie is at a luncheon I always ask him to tell the story of the ‘huddle’. I wonder how Kevin Sheedy, who travelled to the US many times looking at the Grid Iron, did not come up with it?

  2. Great read about the Robert Walls era at Fitzroy, James, and I’m sure the rest of your book is just as interesting and informative. Although aware of his good work with the Lions, I never knew Chris Jones played such a key role in the development of the huddle. It goes to show that appointing people from other sports can introduce a refreshing open-mindedness and willingness to experiment with new tactics. That might have been the rationale behind Fremantle turning to Ric Charlesworth a decade or so ago.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    This will be an interesting read. I’m told that James goes beyond the confines of the VFL/AFL comps too.

  4. Looking forward to reading this book.
    Thanks for the tease…

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