Agon(y) in pursuit of Ecstasy

by John Butler

Last week Mr Harms was waxing philosophical on matters football related. No great surprise in this. In his amiable fashion, the quest for footy’s meaning, and the source of its appeal, are recurring Harms themes.  As is his wont, this particular stroll took us through subjects ranging from Greek philosophy to the Kangaroo Island football league. You can’t claim you don’t get your money’s worth.

I wouldn’t be the first to speculate that this ongoing search indicates you can take the Lutheran out of the church, but you can’t entirely take the church out of the Lutheran. Whatever its motivation, it is laudable, for the life unexamined is the life less lived (to butcher Socrates). Rather than paraphrase JTH, I’ll let his words speak for themselves here in case you didn’t catch them.

Now I’m a little reticent to wander too deeply into waters philosophical. I have the niggling feeling such an exercise on my part might require gurgling sound effects to accompany a man badly out of his depth. Nevertheless, I’ll rise to JTH’s challenge, and tackle my own personal agon in an attempt to respond to some of the issues he raised.

Many of the contentions he put gel pretty neatly with a prevailing Almanac zeitgeist of the moment. It’s not hard to detect considerable angst with The Modern Game, or aspects thereof. And the specific game in question- Rd 6 Saints v Dogs- will struggle to find many defenders. I also have little issue with the need for a contest. Every sport needs the sense of a contest to give it meaning. But I think some other points require further examination.

I’ll begin at the point where he concluded, with his suggestion that limits should be imposed on interchange numbers during a game.

Whenever the clarion call rises for the game’s legislators to rectify some ill, my mind wanders all the way back to a mythical time called the 1980’s, when New Wave and New Romantic ruled the streets, and Carlton could still win flags with regularity. Ok, only one of those elements hasn’t really made a comeback, but stick with me for the purposes of discussion.

In this mythical time, there was a mythical ground called Waverley. I believe it nowadays resides somewhere in the vicinity of Brigadoon. Anyway, a big game beckoned at this Waverley ground, and dual Brownlow medallist Peter Moore was contemplating another battle with his nemesis, Gary Dempsey. Mr Moore had apparently grown tired of being pantsed at centre bounces by the wily Dempsey, and he decided to, literally, take matters into his own hands. Thus ensued the most prolonged wrestling match seen since the days when Jack Little ruled Festival Hall.

To the mystification of most onlookers, the presiding umpires of that day seemed overtaken by peculiar stasis, and declined to enforce the rules as then framed. This led to a post-match brouhaha of considerable proportions, and from this emerged The Line Across The Centre. And the art of ruckwork has never been the same since.

This one legislative change instantly consigned a whole species of 6’ 3’’ ruckmen- with thighs like tree trunks and buttocks like bullocks- to the same fate as the dodo. Body work was now consigned solely to the boundary throw-in, and only giraffes or spring-heeled jacks could survive with any longevity.

But it didn’t stop there. Soon enough, this change wrought the Great Posterior Cruciate Plague, and further tinkering was required. And so on, and so on.

My point here is that history shows rule changes can have huge impacts on the playing of the game; and that not all of these impacts will be readily foreseeable.

Reducing the number of interchanges in a game may slow proceedings down somewhat, and encourage more man on man contests as a consequence. Or it could have some other entirely unpredictable side affect.

At heart, most coaches are control freaks. They won’t easily cede control of events. We’re not just talking about Sheedy anymore, sitting at home with a good red, mulling over ways to push the playing envelope. Now, there are coaching ensembles as far as the eye can see. And they’re all equipped with state of the art technology, to scrutinise the game as it’s never been before. This is partly how we arrived at our current circumstance. Are they all really going to be deterred by a rule change? And if that change doesn’t work, where to next?

Over time, I’ve become much more aligned to the footy school of natural evolution. I was a lousy physics student (sorry Mr Gusbeth), but one rule I can more or less remember is the one about actions and their equal or opposite reactions (yes, I’m aware I’m mixing disciplines now). I think Leigh Matthews has summed up the present situation concisely, when he observed that current defensive strategies seem better organised than offensive ones. But this needn’t be always so. In fact, history suggests it’s unlikely to remain this way for long.

The perception of success is what really drives the AFL world. The live/die ratio of coaches is ultimately dictated by their win/loss ratio. The thought of a successful strategy will always concentrate their minds wonderfully. The only ecstasy for a coach is a premiership.

Given this, I think the evidence still lies in favour of a “better” style of footy. To further this argument, I’ll cite JTH’s own beloved Cats. They have developed a version of perpetual motion football that has a sturdy defensive base. I would have thought two premierships was adequate supporting evidence. And I don’t hear many complaints about the show they put on.

“Saints Footy” is the current favoured whipping boy. But for all the recent home and away success that style has brought, it hasn’t won a flag. Collingwood have pioneered interchanges to a stratospheric level, but we haven’t had to batten down the hatches for one of their flag celebrations in recent memory.

The scales of success still strongly favour Geelong Footy. Until someone bests them, it should remain so. Zones worked for the Hawks in 2008, but even here I hold the Cats responsible. They had more than enough opportunity to put that Grand Final away, but just blew it on the day. Without that win, extreme zones suddenly don’t look like such a clear way forward. What’s it done for the Hawks lately?

A logical extension of the notion that regulation will “fix problems” is that there must be a target toward which the regulators are aiming. That there must be an “ideal” kind of footy. If so, what is it? And who gets to decide?

I wouldn’t think many would seriously argue with the contention that Australian society as a whole has benefitted from the influx of new cultures and ideas. Are we really suggesting that our indigenous football code should be excepted from this general rule? That it isn’t sturdy enough to withstand foreign concepts and influences? I would contend the evidence already suggests otherwise. If you interfere with the game’s evolution to pursue a particular ideal, aren’t you running a risk you might eventually render it like some cured-in-aspic museum sample?

Lots of questions here, and I doubt JTH had much of this in mind when he made his suggestion. He just likes what he likes. It would be fair to say I’ve taken the ball and run my full measure. But we often seem overly concerned with control. The call that Something Must Be Done seems constant.

Sometimes, I think situations are better served by sitting down, pouring yourself a drink, and letting events play themselves out.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. Great stuff, JB. No sooner had I posted a comment agreeing with John H’s call for an interchange limit, I found myself almost swaying back the other way, based on your excellently-reasoned arguments.

    Again, this highlights beautifully the need and worth of the wonderful community that is The Footy Almanac.

    (Of course, I might be just a little bit biased.)

  2. JB – outstanding arguments. In a footy sense I am essentially an evolutionist, but in a religious sense I think Darwin’s theory is inadequate. I think the game should be allowed to evolve just like it has sine the 1850s.

    We need to be careful of the laws of unintentional consequences. A change to a simple rule can make or break players and even clubs’ playing styles.

    A good illustration of this was a recent discussion I was having with my brother in law who works for the Red Cross. He travels the needy parts of the world in his capacity as a scientist working on cures and medication for diseases like malaria. When I got enthusiastic that these diseases could soon be conquered or at least controlled, he pointed out that saving thousands of kid’s lives creates another problem perhaps bigger than the first – over population. The aim to do the noble thing will create a nastier beast. Extreme example I know.

  3. Tony Robb says

    A compelling argument but I still think there as too many interchanges. The introduction of the interchange in League changed the nature of the game completely. Forward used to dominate in the 1st half and as they tired, the backs came into the game. Now the forwards are still fresh in the last five minutes which stifles attacking football. Last nights game showed how you can beat the defensive zone. Quick precise movement and leg speed unlike the over possession against Collingwood. The Blues have come through the trilogy of horror much better than expected.

  4. Chalkdog says

    just an observation but have we seen the death of “Saints Footy” after last night? Will be interestig to see if Rossy L sticks by his guns like his predecessor did in his thinking of not hiring ruckmen.

  5. JB,

    I must be a regulator, as it’s rare that I disagree with a rule change. I think they’ve all been made for the better.

    Especially the one where you can’t deliberately rush a behind. Henry Slattery might as well have written a letter to the AFL and declared his intention to saunter over the goal-line with the ball in his hand when he rushed (in a sauntering sense) his behind against Hawthorn.

    I like the fact that he was penalised for it. Long may it deter others from rushing behinds rather than tying to keep the ball alive.

    My problem was with The Giesh’s action in sacrificing the umpire who made the decision he should have made. Poor leadership, Giesch.

  6. Chalkdog,

    I reckon Ross Lyon does rate ruckmen. He’s gone into every single game with two of them, as far as I know.

    I also agree with his policy of drafting in mature ruckmen. Developing them is very hit-and-miss.

    On the other point, few teams are as fast as Carlton, especially the small forwards in Garlett, Yarran and Betts. (Is there a better sight in footy than seeing a player bounce the ball and still manage to run away from his chaser, as happened with Yarran and Garlett last night? I think not.)

    If the Saints have got any sense, they’ll tweak Saints Footy right out of existence. I reckon Saints Footy lost them last year’s grand final. The Cats kept attacking. They kicked the goals. The Saints had no other gear beyond relentless defence. They lost the grand final. They should have learned from it.

  7. Stephen Cooke says

    Regarding Daff’s comment that the Saints lost the grand final last year – they sure did. It was splendid.

  8. Chalkdog says

    I agree with you on the timely demise of Saints Footy. Its pretty easy to beat if you are 1. reasonably skilled and 2. prepared to attack them. They seem to have bluffed some teams [read Bulldogs] into thinking it was some sort of footy voodoo.

    To clarify the ruckman bit, I was referring to Grant Thomas’ disdain of them and wondering if Lyon would be as resolute in defending his game plan as Grant was. Cant see that he can or should but time will tell.

  9. Daff – sometimes the “rule changes” are insidious. Its not a rule change its a “change in interpretation”. My problem with this is that any “problem” in the game doesn’t get a chance to be worked out naturally because changes in interpretation seem to occur every week. Even the Giesch admits that umpires will concentrate on this or that in any given week, depending on what the coaches have whinged about.

    Hence spectators get angry, players get confused and our game is umpired on a whim. Keep the rules basic and let it go.

  10. johnharms says

    Flat out like a one armed taxi driver with crabs, with all things Manning Clark House, but JB, loved your piece, and look forward to having the time to respond.

    Carlton may have saved footy in 2010 the way that Richmond did in Round 6 2007. Agree entirely with the Essendon/Carlton take-the-Saints on approach. (a la Chalkdog) Which must also say something about Rocket eade and what the Bulldogs weren’t willing to do.

    Just a quick one though JB, the four-man unlimited interchange bench is not ‘natural’. It is constructed. It was a rule change at the time.

    I’m not sure when the 20th man came in but that was also a rule change (and can now be seen as the thin edge of the wedge, just as the one-carton rule was in the 70s).

    Will return to all this later on, I hope.

  11. JTH,

    busy as a one legged man in an arse kicking competition. You started it. (Again)

  12. John Butler says

    Thanks for the feedback folks.

    Two streams seem to have developed here.

    Re Saints Footy, I’ll inflict a game review on you all soon, in which I’ll offer my thoughts. So you are warned.

    JTH, you’re right about the interchange bench being a rule change itself. But if we follow that line far enough, every aspect of the game since someone pinched the possum skin off the marngrook boys is a rule change.

    My main concern is the ongoing notion that The Game needs “fixing” every time there’s a few crook games.

    Paul’s right to identify that some rule changes have helped. And Dips is onto something when he raises the creeping “interpretation” loophole.

    I think the fact footy can arouse so many lines of discussion indicates that things aren’t too crook.

    Cheers all. :)

  13. Pamela Sherpa says

    I hate the interchange .I want to see a contest – you know -when one bloke plays against the other and there is a fair dinkum competition. You are right about coaches being control freaks – they are avoidance specialists as well. The rotations are becoming a joke.

    One of the reasons I think we have all these changes, rules etc is that the AFL head honchos and coaches are getting paid big money so they have to look like they are doing something evolutionary.

  14. Stop Press !! You must have incredible pull in football circles JTH – I just heard on the news that the AFL is investigating a restriction on the interchange to reduce the number of injuries occurring in football – injuries broght on by the speed of the game like hanstrings and high speed collisions.

  15. Pamela Sherpa says

    It’s mind boggling stuff Dips. What did the AFL actually think would happen if they speeded up the game?

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