AFL’s state of the game: A couple of easy changes will make all the difference

The following piece is by a young writer, Max Hatzoglou, who is currently studying in Year 11.



After an entertaining 2017 season, the state of the game is coming into conversation just seven rounds into 2018.


Many experts and followers of the game are trying to find reasons and solutions for the congestion and lack of scoring that fans have seen this year.


Truth is, there’s only one reason causing it all and a few changes will find the solution.


In a physical game where 36 players are on a field at a time, decision making can be the toughest component for those with whistle in hand.


Nevertheless, this toughness can be reduced by clearing the congestion where most free kicks appear.


In saying this, there must be a solution to help the umpires and the game develop into a better one.


In the wake of this conversation, many have said that the game could do with reducing interchanges or implementing a zoning system.


The issue with reducing interchanges is that you are making the game harder than it already is for players.


By reducing interchanges, fatigue will increase for players resulting in lower skilled games. This will most likely cause more congestion as stoppages will increase with more turnovers occurring from skill errors.


More stoppages will result in more contests and less scoring and free-flowing footy. This is evident in AFLW where skill levels are low, resulting in congestion and low scoring games.


A zoning rule is too big a change to the structure that the modern game is played in. As well as this, by implementing a zoning system, you’re changing the long-lived traditions and integrity of the game.


You might think of it as a way of reducing congestion although there are other solutions to this that won’t cause as much destruction to the values of the game.


When the solution to congestion of zoning was brought up, Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley responded with, “We don’t need to play under 9s and start putting players in zones, we don’t need to modify the number of players on the field. We just need to apply the rules as they were meant to be applied.”


Nathan Buckley has thoughts on the matter. Photo via AAP/Julian Smith


Buckley wasn’t passionate about the zoning or lowering the number of players on the field to 16.


He believed that the solution to the congestion was paying more free kicks to award the tackler by giving no prior opportunity in context to when a player receives a disposal of the ball from another player.


Alastair Clarkson agreed with Buckley on this matter that the interpretation of prior opportunity needed to be changed.


Buckley said that “If teams want to handball in a short space to get numbers into that congestion and they want to handball and take the tackles on, if you possess the ball but you don’t kick or handball it, then it’s a free kick against.”


“It would change the behaviour of the people with the ball and the tactics they’re asked to execute because if you put two or three quick handballs together inside or you gave a handball to a player who was hot and he was tackled, regardless of prior opportunity or anything, if he had the ball, was tackled and didn’t handball or kick it, then that’s a free kick.


“That would be rewarding the tackler.


“Tactics would change because you wouldn’t get as many handballs in tight and if you don’t get as many handballs in tight then you’re less likely to commit your numbers in tight. You’re more likely to commit your numbers to other parts of the ground.


“You would see sides still willing to take the tackle on and still willing to stand up in the tackle and handball or dispose of the ball in a legal manner but you would probably get other tactics that would say we’re not going to handball in congestion, we’ll just kick.


“Because of those varying tactics you would get less congestion, there’s no doubt.”


People’s view of this solution became worrying from the umpires’ point of view as the thought of it as being too tough for the umpires to adjudicate came up. It is something that the umpires will need to develop into their roles to put the game in a better position.


The second solution is to change the way that games are adjudicated by umpires. It is time to scrap the ruck nomination and just bounce (or throw) the ball up.


Stefan Martin (L) and Max Gawn at a ruck contest. Photo via AAP/Joe Castro.


The nomination system has got out of hand to the point where umpires are now waiting for the ruckmen to get to contests for ball-ups. This has given other players, including defenders and forwards, the opportunity to get around the ball resulting in congestion and slow play.


The AFL and their umpires need to make the decision of just balling the ball up. Not worrying about nominating rucks although continuing with the rules of the way rucks should contest.


The rules of only two players going up in ruck contests and keeping one metre apart still need to be applied.


This will decrease congestion by moving the game on and it will almost get rucks at contests every time, reducing the chances of forwards and defenders congesting around the ball.


The final solution for our game is to extend the running capacity from 15 metres to 20.


This will allow players with pace to use it to their advantage so they’re able to run the ball out of congestion without having to bounce it every 15 metres.


It will also give players the ability to break a game open which will bring a heap of excitement for fans. This will increase the entertainment value of our game as there will be more instances of the famous Cyril Rioli chase on Lewis Jetta that was seen in the 2014 grand final.


These three solutions are there although it is up to the AFL to decide when to implement them and judge whether their state of game needs a quick fix or one for the long term.


The AFL’s competition committee, which includes players, coaches and club administrators, will meet this Thursday to discuss several aspects of the game involving the issue of congestion.


You’d hope that there’d be some solutions coming out of that meeting.


The entertainment value of the game is crucial for its supporters and for the expansion of the game so the AFL needs to make sure that they’re getting it right.


Bear in mind the AFL showcases its game in less than two weeks in Shanghai for the second time when Gold Coast take on Port Adelaide.


Will they want a low scoring, congested game or a high scoring, free-flowing game?




  1. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Excellent piece Max. Thought-provoking. I would definitely increase running capacity to 20 meters. Those extra 5 strides will open up the game and allow for long, searching runs. Play on for kicking backwards might also help. Cheers

  2. E.regnans says

    Thanks Max. Great debut.
    A lot to consider.
    I’m a bit wary of this “state of the game” commentary on commercial channels.
    I wonder about the motives of all those talking heads.

    But those views of N Buckley make sense.
    There are many ways to change the behaviour of Pavlov’s dogs.
    Well played.

  3. Peter_B says

    Well argued Max. I agree that nominating the ruckman should be abolished immediately. I think the “team prior opportunity” change makes sense. I am a bit worried about favouring tacklers over the team that won the ball, but I think the effects would be positive as described. And I think it should wait until next season for implementation as it is a fundamental change for the game plans that various team have applied. Can’t change that horse midstream.
    I don’t agree with you about letting players run 20 metres. Too close to rugby. We need to keep it a kicking game.

  4. MGLFerguson says

    But, they already let players run (at least) 20 meters, and kicks of 10 (or less) are paid as marks (except when kicking out from the goal square; those kicks must travel (at least) 20 meters). So that has to be in the rules somewhere already.

  5. Rulebook says

    Max agree with the last two changes as for the STUPIDITY by Both Clarkson and Buckley my blood is boiling NO NO and NO what garbage reward the tackler more that happens way to much now for goodness sake let’s remember there is still a push in the back,to high,hanging on rules reward the ball player ( what do we want a game in which no one wants to get the footy and stands there waiting for the other side to get the footy what garbage ) thanks Max great debut

  6. Stainless says

    I think your analysis is spot on. If you look at footy in the 1980s where scoring was high and play was free-flowing and uncongested, the umpires at the time paid lots of free kicks, both for holding the ball as you advocate, and for in-the-back, round-the-neck infringements as Rulebook mentions. Also, they made their decisions quickly and decisively, including ball-ups, with none of the stupid delays for ruck nominations, explanation of decisions etc that blight the game today. In short they let the players get on with it and didn’t give them a chance to form the unsightly packs that we’re seeing now.

  7. Dave Brown says

    Interesting analysis. It’s worthwhile noting in the discussion that when footy was apparently good, umpires would regularly pay over 100 free kicks in a game. Fiddling with the interchange rules only really changes the sort of athlete recruiters will go for, not the skills of the footballer. I’m a great fan of the idea of umpires making quick decisions and actions to keep play moving. Very little is more painful than waiting 5 seconds with the ball under 20 players while the umpire plays the theatrics of ‘will I pay htb or ball it up?’ I’m still a bit worried we’re so intent on fixing a problem that may not really exist.

  8. Peter Clark says

    Good piece Max. I agree with the quick ball up without ruckmen having to nominate. I don’t see a need for the 20 metre rule as we want to encourage kicking. The prior opportunity rule change has problems. How do you define a disposal in this situation? Does it include short handballs, smothered kicks, long handballs that clear the pack as well as short kicks? What about when the ball is knocked out in the tackle? For instance, in a congested situation a player shoots an overhead handball 10 metres away into the clear. His team mate collects the ball but is immediately tackled. Does the player deserve prior opportunity or not?

  9. Max Hatzoglou says

    To answer your last question Peter. There would be no prior opportunity for that players as he receives the ball from a teammate. This new interpretation of the rule is trying to have players who win the ball off the ground or from the opposition to pass it off to a player effectively which requires a high level of skill. This will ensure that fans are entertained by a high skill level of footy resulting in ball movement that is free flowing. For a game which has plenty of growth to do, such as expanding overseas, it must insure that fans are being entertained.

  10. Joe De Petro says

    Good work, Max.

    Enforce the rules, pay the frees when they are there, play will flow, players will do everything they can to avoid giving away a free kick, problem solved. Obviously, this is a radical change to the game but it will work better than reducing the teams to 16, capping interchanges, introducing no-go zones or making one player from each team wear a pink tutu.

  11. Some valid and well-argued points there, Max.

    Quite aside from everything else, I truly believe that the ruck-nomination/no-third-man-up rule is a farce.

  12. John Butler says

    Max, appreciate this thoughtful piece on a discussion that is still ongoing.

    I like the idea of extending the running distance to 20 metres. A lot of players are getting away with that already, so it would be formalising a common reality.

    Agreed also re the ruck nominations. Just throw the thing up and penalise a team if a third man jumps in.

    But I’m not at all sure about this “rewarding the tackler” idea. Since when was the tackle such a sacred act? We’re not playing rugby. Generations of footballers were brought up to win the ball. Now, it often seems like the ball winner is presumed guilty until the ball is disposed.

    Good stuff.

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