Almanac AFLW: Defenders Rule, Okay – Why Goals are Scarce in the AFLW

 

In a piece published on this website last December, I looked back at the first five years of the AFLW competition and picked my best combined team for those years.  Given what happened last season, and given what’s about to happen very soon, the entry of four new teams into the competition, I have been moved to reflect again, this time on the goal kicking during the first few years.  Why?  Because the numbers are low and they haven’t improved.

 

I’ll explain that statement in a moment, but let me say at the outset that I am not against the introduction of the four new teams this year.  At least, I think the decision was a reasonable one under the circumstances – these being that the competition has already been expanded from eight to fourteen teams very rapidly.  Having added two teams in the third year, and another four teams in the fourth year, it kind of makes sense to give the remaining four clubs the green light now and be done with it.  I’m not totally happy with this decision, far from it.  One might have thought that the best way to improve the standard of the competition, in these early years, would have been to add more games rather than more teams, i.e. to expand the length of the season.  Frankly, it seems absurd that after six years our elite female players are only notching up ten or twelve games per season, if they’re lucky.  Still, the standard of play is only one consideration, albeit a vital one.  There is also the question of fairness.  In fairness to Brisbane, Melbourne and the other teams currently vying for a premiership, Port Adelaide had to be admitted without delay – that was a no-brainer and should have happened sooner.  And if Port, then why not Essendon, Hawthorn and Sydney, if only in fairness to the teams further down the ladder, mostly expansion teams, which are generally and through no fault of their own struggling to compete against the top teams?  I’m not sure about Sydney (given that GWS is only doing as well as it is with the help of several Victorians), but the other two clubs are demonstrably ready to go, and who knows, they might all be better prepared than any of the four new clubs were in 2020.

 

It remains to be seen whether the standard in the AFLW will rise or fall in season seven, and I’m not about to make a prediction one way or the other.  It has certainly risen, in general, over the course of the first six seasons, though arguably not evenly across the country, and obviously not as much as it would have done if no or fewer new teams had been added along the way (and if the pandemic had not arrived).  What has not risen, unfortunately, is the number of goals being kicked.  I sat down recently and did the stats, and here they are for the six seasons.

 

Year 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Average goals per game 9.2 9.9 10.2 9.2 9.9 9.5
Goals in the grand final 8 7 12 9 6

 

The figures in this table clearly show that the women are not kicking more goals now than they did in the early years of the competition, and the picture is no rosier if we look at some related figures – the number of games with very high or very low goal aggregates, for example.  These figures have not improved either, broadly speaking.  Only 5% of games this year produced 16 goals or more, better than the 3% in 2017 and the 0% in 2018, but well down from the 11% in 2019.  More worryingly, at the other end of the spectrum, a whopping 35% of the games earlier this year, so more than a third of them, produced fewer than eight goals.  This figure has never been higher and only once (in 2020) has it exceeded 25%.  A third statistic may be worth recording.  In season six, the goal aggregate was 12 or more in 28% of the games, a vast improvement on the 17% in season one, but down from the 31% in season five, and way down from the 34% in season two and the 37% in season three.

 

So we have, on the face of it, a paradox and a problem.  The paradox is that the players are better than ever before – fitter, stronger, faster, more skilful – and yet not for some reason better at kicking goals.  The problem is that, by and large and other things being equal, we want to see goals.  We want to see other things as well, of course – courage, tension, strong tackling, contested marking, and so on.  We want to see our favourite players running around.  We want to see the youngsters and the cross-coders.  Above all, perhaps, we want to see our own team kick more goals than the opposition, however many goals that might be.  It is undeniable, too, that as in soccer and certain other sports low-scoring games can be exciting and worth watching (think of the 2018 grand final and this year’s Melbourne/Brisbane preliminary final), and conversely that high-scoring games can be boring and worth missing (the 2019 grand final and the most recent Queensland derby, for example).  Nobody wants to watch high-scoring games where all the scoring is being done by one side, or not every week.

 

Having said this, it remains the case that we do very much like to see the Sherrin sailing through between the big sticks, and that the ideal game of Australian football involves some sort of shoot-out between the two teams (with our own mob slotting the winner late in the day, naturally).  And if this is right, then the problem identified above is a genuine problem, and the most common complaint voiced by fans who are aren’t fans of the women’s game – that the women don’t kick enough goals – has some validity.  How much validity must ultimately be a matter of opinion, for it must ultimately be a matter of opinion (within reason) how many goals the women ought to be kicking.

 

To put things in perspective, the men are kicking well over 20 goals per game, around 24 in fact, so roughly three per team per quarter, while the women are averaging a little over one goal per team per quarter.  Here are the figures for the men over the same six year period (with this year’s figure correct to Round 21, and keeping in mind that the playing time was slightly reduced in 2020).

 

 Year 2017 2018 2019 (2020) 2021 2022
Average goals per game 26 24 23 (17) 23 24
Goals in the grand final 24 22 20 (19) 31

 

Clearly, there is a massive disparity here between the men and the women, which cannot be explained away by saying that the women are just starting out, or that they are not full-time athletes, or that some of them are new to the game, or that new teams have entered the competition, or that the competition has been run at the wrong time of the year, or that the players have not had enough match practice because they have not played enough matches.  It’s true – or widely accepted – that the women haven’t played enough matches, and that they shouldn’t have been asked to play them during the hottest part of the year; and the other points in the previous sentence are just plain matters of fact.  These points, however, all very important in their own way, relate to the overall development of the women as footballers. They explain, if you like, why after six years the women are not better footballers than they are, generally speaking, and why they are not yet anywhere near as skilful as the men.  They don’t explain, specifically, why the forwards are not kicking more goals, and they could be trotted out, just as they are, to support the view (if one wanted to express it) that the defensive side of the women’s game is not up to scratch either, or at least not as good as we would like it to be, or as good as it might have been.

 

What does explain the disparity then?  Three or four things, at least.  Number one, and the most obvious, is the disparity in the playing time.  Scoring is about setting up scoring opportunities, first and foremost, and the scoring opportunities for the women have been severely limited by the shortness of the quarters: 16 minutes, with a small amount of time added on, usually about two minutes, for major stoppages (goals and serious injuries).  By comparison, men’s quarters, in theory 20 minutes, typically go for 30 minutes, because time-on is blown for every stoppage, however brief.  The differential is huge and hugely significant.  It means that if the women played for as long as the men, an extra 12 minutes, they would score on average 15 or 16 goals per game, rather than the 9 or 10 they are scoring currently.  This assumes, of course, that goals are scored at roughly the same rate before and after the 18 minute mark of each quarter, but this appears to be the case for the men, and there is no obvious reason to think that it would be different for the women.  (According to research done by Tony Corke in 2014 – “When Do AFL Teams Score?” – goals tend to be relatively scarce early and late in each term – in the first and final couple of minutes – but recur with much the same frequency the rest of the time.)

 

The second reason for the disparity, also a fairly obvious one, is the disparity in the kicking of the men and the women, in particular the length of the kicking.  This difference, and what sort of impact it has on the scoring, is harder to quantify.  But clearly the men are regularly kicking the ball 50 to 60 metres when they roost it long, while the average long kick in the women’s game usually travels around 30 to 40 metres.  This means two things, at least.  One is that the women do not generally kick goals from inside their forward 50 unless they are deep inside it – inside it by at least 15-20 metres.  The other consequence, equally significant, is that it is harder and more time-consuming for the women to achieve a useful inside-50: two kicks typically from the centre of the ground, compared to one kick for the men; four or five from the defensive 50 or half back flanks, as against two or three for the men.  Other factors compound these problems.  The women do not move the ball as far as the men by hand, either; nor do they hit targets as well as the men, either inside their forward 50 or anywhere else.  All of which means that scoring of any kind is rare, or rarer, in the women’s competition, and that goals in this competition are at a premium.

 

Two further reasons may be suggested for the lower goal tallies in the AFLW.  One is a lower conversion rate.  I’m not sure what the stats say about this, but it is likely that the women are also worse than the men at making the most of their scoring opportunities when they do create them, either because they are worse at converting set shots (even when range is not an issue), or because they make other mistakes more often than the men close to goal, like playing on when they should be taking a set shot, or not playing on when they should be playing on, or shooting from 30 when they could run in and shoot from 20 or improve the angle or handball over the top.  On this subject, one might also mention the windy weather the women have frequently had to contend with, playing as they mostly have at exposed suburban venues like Casey Fields and Whitten Oval.  Strong wind has a detrimental effect on all kicking, certainly on its accuracy, and it almost always makes kicking for goal more difficult.

 

Finally, and from a broader perspective, there is the coaching to consider, or what we might call the teaching and learning of the players.  Are the women being instructed to play more defensively than the men?  Or is it simply that have they learned to defend better than they have learned to attack thus far and as a matter of course, because defensive skills are easier to teach and learn?  No and Yes would be my answers to these two questions.  Coaches and their teams, it seems to me, are trying to play attacking football most of the time; it just happens to be the case, sadly, that defensive, goal-stopping skills are easier to acquire and to execute under pressure.  It is easier to lay a tackle than to break or evade one; easier to spoil a contested mark than to take the mark; easier to kick the ball safely out of the back 50, wide or down the line, than to find a target in your front 50; easier to break a chain of possessions than to build one.  This last factor might be the most important of all, apart from the lack of playing time.  It would certainly help to explain the shortage of goals and the aforementioned paradox – the fact that the shortage continues despite the clear improvement in the overall quality of the play.

 

The play is good and better than ever, one might suggest, but super good defensively, or at least much better defensively than offensively at the moment.  It was the brilliance of the Brisbane defence, more than anything else, that won the flag for that club against Adelaide in 2021 (Lutkins, Campbell and Koenen taking 17 marks in their back 50).  It was Lutkins at centre-half-back that kept Brisbane in the final for three quarters against the Western Bulldogs in 2018 (though of course rain also made goals hard to come on that occasion).  And it was the rock solid defences of both teams, Melbourne and Adelaide, that kept the goal aggregate down to a lowly six in the most recent grand final.  The same point, incidentally, explains the curious fact that a weaker, less skilful team can sometimes match it with a top team for quite a while before (usually) being overpowered (last season’s game between Melbourne and St Kilda being a good example of this phenomenon).

 

To conclude.  There is a problem with goal scoring in the AFLW, or arguably so.  I’m not sure if greed is still good, but goals are good, on the whole, and while we might be mainly interested in seeing our own team kick more goals than the opposition on any given day, we would surely like to see them kick nine or ten rather than four or five on most occasions.  A rate of one goal per team per quarter, or a little more, might reasonably be considered – I won’t say unacceptable – but  disappointing, or slightly disappointing, given that the men’s rate is three per team per quarter.  At the same time, the problem is not as big as this discrepancy might suggest, nowhere near it, and it is not the fault of the players, given the nature and history of the competition and the nature of the sport.  It does not mean that the women ‘can’t play’ or ‘shouldn’t be playing at all’, as some critics of the AFLW like to assert.  There are good reasons why the women are not kicking more goals at present, and the most important of them, or one of the most important, is purely administrative.  There will be more goals in good time, when the skills of the women and especially their offensive skills improve further, and there would be more goals now, a lot more, if the women were allowed to play longer matches.  There would be more goals, too, most likely, a few more, if the women were allowed to play their matches where the men play theirs.  So far only the Geelong women have been able to do this on a regular basis.

 

Meanwhile, there is plenty to enjoy in the women’s game as it is, including the goals that are kicked, which are often spectacular and all the more exciting for being scarce (as in a good game of soccer or hockey).  There are more important things to worry about, too, at this point in time – the length of the season, the relatively poor standard of the umpiring, the behaviour of some of the fans now attending women’s matches, and, not least, how the competition can be equalized as fast as it was expanded, so that we don’t have the same teams playing finals every year.

 

 

Lindsay Zoch

12 August 2022

 

 

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About

I'm a retired teacher and a keen follower of women's footy. I follow Carlton, but attend as many AFLW matches as possible regardless of who is playing. I've been to 60 so far in the first five years. I try to be objective and rational about it all, a student of the game rather than a one-eyed fanatic.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Lindsay.
    Some really interesting and thought-provoking points you have raised.

    Having also followed AFLW from it inception, I reckon that one thing that gets slightly overlooked is how good the players are at tackling. In many matches, there just does not seem to be the space to allow creativity and attacking play because the players are so damn good defensively at stoppages and in close.

    But, as I always say, it is the generations who are starting to come through now – the girls who have played competitive footy since their infancy – who will improve the women’s game exponentially

  2. Lindsay Zoch says

    Thanks Smokey, I agree with you on both counts: the women will improve in time, as I suggested at the end of my piece, and more quickly perhaps over the next few years than previously for the reason you give – most of the girls coming through now have been playing for a few years continuously (except during the lockdowns).
    As for the tackling, yes, I could have given a little more emphasis to that particular defensive skill. Even the harshest critics of the AFLW concede that the tackling is ferocious, and it’s obviously effective in creating stoppages, congestion, etc, and a lack of open attacking play. One thing that amazes me when I watch the men is how good they are at getting the ball out of a pack or crowded space.

    Two other points while I’m at it, which friends have mentioned privately.
    One is my point about the ideal game of Australian football. On reflection, I was a little hasty to say that it was necessarily ‘some sort of shoot out’. I would allow that there are other kinds of games that are equally good, e.g. games like the one last weekend between Carlton and Melbourne. Actually, not ideal from my point of view because I’m a Carlton fan! But a damn good game, and not a shoot out in the usual sense, in fact low scoring initially.
    Another mate suggested that the point about the playing time is underdone, since the men’s quarters actually last for more than 30 minutes on average, perhaps closer to 32 minutes. That friend also said he thought that the official length for the women is 15 not 16 minutes, which would tend to strengthen rather than weaken my argument if correct.
    LNZ

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