Book launch: James Coventry’s Time and Space



At the risk of singling out Matthew Jaensch (a great character who, by default as a Crow, is one of my top-40 favourite players in the AFL), I must admit I cringed a little at one of his recent proclamations on social media.


Responding to a suggestion from his teammate Josh Jenkins to outlaw the growing use of third-man up tactics at stoppages, Jaensch tweeted:


“No. No. No. No. No. Why don’t we just leave the rules as they’ve been for 100 years? #forgoodnesssake.”


To be fair, Jaensch is far from alone in this misunderstanding. As the debate over the look of the game has intensified over the past month, a popular refrain has been to

‘leave the rules alone’.


What this fails to acknowledge, however, is that Australian football has existed in a constant state of flux. Even the very first laws were changed just weeks after being penned in May 1859. When the Argus complained that early games were marred by ‘unpleasantness… occasioned owing to the vague wording of the rule which makes “tripping” an institution’, Wills and co. acted swiftly to remove the ambiguity.


‘Twas ever thus. The administrators set the rules; players and coaches bent the rules; the media complained about the rules; and the rules were changed.


This cycle, which is repeated ad infinitum, is only made possible in the insular environment of Australian football. International sports such as soccer evolve differently due to the enormous complexity involved in implementing rule changes across hundreds of jurisdictions. Traditionally, we’ve only had to reach a consensus among a handful of states. It’s been both a blessing and a curse. While it has allowed the law makers to deal swiftly with any perceived problems, it has also had a tendency to foster knee-jerk reactions.


Type the phrase “what’s wrong with football?” into a search of the digitised newspapers on Trove and you’ll be presented with 125 results stretching back nearly a century. One of the more prominent examples is a front page headline from the Mail in Adelaide in 1930.


‘Considered a few years ago to be possibly the world’s most spectacular field game, the Australian code of football is definitely losing its pull,’ the accompanying article begins.


‘In South Australia, weekly attendances have dropped from around 35,000 in 1926 to about 22,000 this year. It is easy for those controlling the game to blame the financial depression for this sad state of affairs, but the fact is that the football slump began long before financial depression was thought of.’


This was five years after the sport’s governing body had introduced significant rule changes in an attempt to reduce jostling at ruck contests. Boundary throw-ins were abolished, replaced by a free kick awarded against the last player to have touched the ball before it went out of bounds.


In an attempt to get to the bottom of what was causing the fall in crowds, the Mail ran a plebiscite. Its readers were invited to return a coupon listing the factors they thought had played a part. Nine thousand people responded and the results were eye-opening.


‘Tinkering with the laws is adjudged by the public to be the outstanding cause of the decline of Australian Rules,’ the newspaper revealed. ‘The fact that 59.8 per cent of the votes cast blamed it for the decline in football attendances is one that football authorities cannot ignore.’ Even though the Great Depression was in full swing, ‘financial reasons’ came in a distant second at 21.5 per cent.


One wonders what the result would be were same poll run today?


I think I know what Jaenschy would say.


James Coventry is the ABC’s Deputy Sports Editor. He’s just released his first book Time and Space: the tactics that shaped Australian Rules – and the players and coaches who mastered them. (


A launch is being held at the MCC Library at noon on Friday August 14, where James will be discussing the book with Lionel Frost. This is a free event but bookings are essential. If you’d like to attend please RSVP to [email protected] by 5pm on Wednesday August 12.


James Coventry Time and Space_LaunchMCCL_A4-page-001



  1. John Butler says

    A fine book with a broad sweep this one. Draws some important connections. Prodigious research must have been required,

    A must for footy geeks (a description some contributors to this site might own up to).

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