Bring Back the Place Kick

Speed ain’t everything.

For many years now Australian football pundits have been telling us that the game is getting faster and faster. That may be so but is it better? An overemphasis on pace at all costs leads to a loss of quality and value whether it be by munching on a Big Mac in preference to enjoying the tastier delights of a gourmet meal, or guzzling cask red wine versus sipping from a bottle cellared for years and decantered for half an hour. In his backyard cricket memoir You Only Get One Innings (2013) ABC broadcaster Barry Nicholls has also told us slow is good.

Slow can, indeed, be better. I’m reminded of this when I watch AFL games and see umpires pushing the play on at all costs. I don’t want to see deliberate time-wasting but I don’t mind pauses in play. Early in a Collingwood-Carlton match a few weeks ago a field umpire bounced the ball in the centre of the ground and it fell into a scrimmage. It was then thrown up not once, not twice but three times. In the name of speed the umpire tossed the ball up with one hand and on two of those occasions before the ruckmen had time to contest the ball it fell into a scramble of around twenty players. The quick throw ups were supposedly done in the name of keeping the game flowing – in fact, they had the opposite effect. Finally one ruckman knocked the ball clear but by that stage I’d had enough and turned the television off.

Modern football (like many other sports) is in thrall to quantity. I turned the TV off because of a loss of quality and part of the loss of quality is the lack of a spectacle. One measure of a field umpire used to be his ability to bounce a ball. It was like judging a player by his ability to kick. Can’t kick, can’t play football: can’t bounce, can’t umpire. Tossing the ball up is legitimate on heavy grounds but am I alone in thinking that the rest of the time it looks sissy? And it looks particularly sissy when done with one hand. If the ball has to be thrown up at least it should be done with two hands.

In my youth and early adulthood full-backs like Ron Elleway (Port Adelaide), Bruce Jarrett (Sturt) and Bob Hammond (North Adelaide) executed long dropkicks to the wings when kicking off after a behind had been scored. There was then frequently a one-on-one battle for the ball. To use an archaic expression there was something ‘manly’ (as well as spectacular) about such prodigious kicking unlike the short passes used by today’s full-backs. The terms ‘chips’ and ‘touches’ used to describe the modern game are surely an indicator of sissy elements. Who really likes to see six kicks from full-back to reach the centre line instead of one?

Position play predominated in the past and the game was better for it. As a public servant in my early twenties I used to adjourn to the Earl of Zetland hotel in Adelaide with a colleague on Thursday nights. Over several beers we would then work our way through the line-by-line match-up of players in all five South Australian league games for the coming Saturday as printed in the Advertiser and the News. No doubt thousands of men and boys pored over their own newspapers in Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania as well as South Australia and did their own analyses. Apart from there being something marvellously interactive about this there was also something to analyse. Individual duels created great excitement and I recall one game between Norwood and Glenelg in the early 1970s when John Wynne playing at centre-half-back for the Redlegs played a great rebound game and gathered 26 kicks for his side while his opponent John Sandland had 18 kicks and kicked four goals. Each was among his team’s best players. Obviously they played a little wide of each other.

I don’t want to sound like I’m totally glorifying the past and damning the present. Increased pace and the running game certainly removed the knuckle men who euphemistically used to ‘do a lot of good work in the packs’ although the passing of the dropkick in the early 1970s was a significant aesthetic loss.

Quantity as measured by statistics today is often meaningless. What profits a team is not how many inside-50s a team achieves but whether they defeat their opponents. What profits a player is not the number of possessions he obtains. It’s not possessing the ball that matters; it’s what he does with it. I’m reminded of this when I watch many AFL games and see so-called stars passing the ball around in circles and getting the ball no closer to goal. Kick the bloody thing!

I was reminded of this when I read Dave McNamara’s 1914 book, Football, republished a couple of months ago by award-winning ABC journalist and author Michael Sexton. The essential qualities McNamara believes make a champion are strength, brain application, obedience, self-restraint and courage. Strength by itself is ‘of no avail’. Stamina, strategy and brain power are of vast importance. The captain ‘designs the plan and has complete charge of it’, remedies faults and must at all times be obeyed. ‘Pace is not dash. Dash is acting on the very instant an opportunity arises.’

In another recent AFL game I saw a full-back find a team-mate with a forty-metre pass. The team-mate on the half-back line was unattended. He could have run straight ahead, bounced the ball, and with a long kick reached his own team’s half-forward line. Instead he turned and handballed to a team-mate behind him who, not expecting the ball, was tackled got a rushed kick which went high over his shoulder and was forced out of bounds. Amazingly no criticism was made by the commentary team. There was pace in the player’s decision to dispose of the ball but not dash because there was no opportunity which was used to advantage. It was dumb play. The brainiest thing to have done would have been the simplest and most logical: to have used the clear space in front of him and been direct in driving the ball forward.

In McNamara’s day the captain was almost universally the coach. He says the coach must be obeyed because even if his strategy is flawed it is better than various players following their own initiative as a result of which pandemonium would prevail. A criticism of the modern game is that it is over coached and the coach himself is surrounded by specialist coaches, ruck coaches, line coaches, fitness trainers, biomechanists, psychologists and so on. The player hears too many voices: who does he listen to? Is it any wonder pandemonium often results.

One of the most interesting aspects of McNamara’s book are the photographs of him in action following through after a long kick and two of him placing the ball and illustrating how to kick a place kick. In his instructional section he advises: ‘In a place kick always put the tube down on the ground … do not look at the goals but concentrate your attention on the ball … Kick it right on the point where the four seams meet … The non-kicking foot must be parallel with the ball when the kicking foot meets it.’

This brings me back to my starting point about the pace of Australian football and the loss of quality. When you see present-day footballers earning half a million dollars a year who cannot kick a ball out of their shadows you marvel at the distance feats achieved by McNamara and other old-timers. When you see modern players who miss goals from twenty metres straight in front on a calm dry day you wonder about the loss of kicking skills.

Sports often borrow ideas from other sports; sometimes with benefit.

In the mid-1970s North Melbourne under Ron Barassi was possibly the first Australian football club to implement the concept of ‘total football’ from soccer as a means of creating an attacking game from the last line of defence. Present day soccer goalkeepers frequently kick long bombs over the centre line where their team must have only an even chance of retaining possession. There must be some tactical advantage in this otherwise they would simply pass the ball to their defenders. I am waiting for our full-backs to return to making long kick-offs from the goal square, maybe even with dropkicks.

The rugby codes retain the place kick without cost to the appeal of their sports so there is no reason why its return for goal-shooting at least would not benefit Australian football. At the beginning of this essay I stated that I didn’t mind pauses in play and goal-shooting is one of these moments. Players have often stopped to pull up their socks and Essendon’s Matthew Lloyd inevitably broke off a stem of grass and tossed it into the air to check wind direction before shooting for goal.

In his foreword to McNamara’s book Sexton claims that the action shot of the author taken in a long-kicking competition at the Junction Oval in 1909 is the equivalent of George Beldam’s famous photograph of Victor Trumper jumping out to drive. Both he says ‘capture the Edwardian sportsman in full flight’. Australian football needs to regain some of its aesthetics. If it means a modern player taking a few seconds to make a small mound in order to propel a place kick seventy metres through the big sticks in the style of Dave McNamara I for one would love to see it.

About Bernard Whimpress

Freelance historian (mainly sport) who has just written his 40th book. Will accept writing commissions with reasonable pay. Among his most recent books are George Giffen: A Biography, The Towns: 100 Years of Glory 1919-2018, Joe Darling: Cricketer, Farmer, Politician and Family Man (with Graeme Ryan) and The MCC Official Ashes Treasures (5th edition).


  1. Dr Goatboat says

    graham molloy v Peter Eakins in a carnival….stood each other and both best for their team….

  2. bernard whimpress says

    That would be the 1969 Carnival when I think they tied for the Tassie Medal.

  3. Bernard Whimpress says

    From memory they tied for the Tassie Medal at the Perth Carnival of 1969.

  4. Bob Speechley says

    This is the type of article that makes The Footy Almanac a worthwhile enterprise. Does Dave still hold those long-kicking records or did Geoff Fehring blow them away? I still have strong memories of Fred Swift and Verdun Howell kicking out from full back – majestic!

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great article and I agree with the overall football ideas . I strongly disagree with the umpire bouncing the ball , it is the only sport in the world where you are asking a individual to master a skill which has nothing to do with the game .
    Bernard have you ( or any 1 else ) ever left a game and the talking point being what wonderful bouncing of the ball by the umpire . As a fellow maggot get rid of the bounce and throw it up at all times

  6. Bernard Whimpress says

    Thanks Bob, Malcolm

    Regarding your preference for throw-ups Malcolm I maintain my view that they look weak, especially one-handed. You can also admire a skill without necessarily commenting on it. It’s when it’s done poorly you comment. I certainly remember one SA umpire who officiated in several grand finals who was a poor bouncer so that ruckmen almost had to hit the ball underhand. My main reason is associated with the spectacle – a good bounce to me looks so much stronger. A good friend of mine who umpired a lot of senior football including country association grand finals says throwing up makes him want to throw up.

  7. Thanks for this piece, Bernard.

    I agree with some of what you say (long-kicking out from full-back is an almost forgotten art!), but really enjoy the athleticism, speed and toughness of today’s game.

    Really, you could argue that today’s footy is a totally different sport from the game of the past.

  8. Phil Hill says

    Laudator tempori acti, young Mr Wimpress is a problem we all have to face, as we get less younger, as the ancient past is all we can remember.

    Oh, for my short term memory to came back so I can remember what happened last Friday night on the Fox Footy channel. Even remembering who was playing would be a start.

  9. Bernard Whimpress says

    Thanks Smokie, Phil

    Yes, it is a different game. Not quite as different as T20 and first-class cricket but different. I don’t want to appear to be living in the past but that’s part of the problem of being a historian. Evolution/progress is not necessarily good nor, indeed, is it inevitable. Australian footy used to cater for players of all shapes and sizes but rovers (as in genuine little men) have become a casualty over the past fifteen years. Sure much handball is brilliant but a lot of it is crap and the loss of foot skills is to me the worst aspect of the modern game – not only long kicking but precision footpassing to a fast-leading forward. Malcolm above asked whether I had left a game commenting on the quality of bouncing by the umpire. No. But I have left games thinking I haven’t seen one piece of memorable play.

  10. Max Tomlinson says

    I totally agree with your sentiments Bernard. I spent most of my TV time yelling “kick the bloody thing” at the screen, much to my wife’s bemusement. I blame technology for the shocking kicking nowadays. I was born in 1947 (before TV, X-Box, Playstation etc.). Every spare minute was spent kicking the footy in the street, down at the park or kicking rolled up socks in the passage when it was raining. God knows how many footballs we went through by kicking drop-kicks and stab passes in the street. The casing would give way first, allowing the red bladder to protrude before it burst. My point is, by the time we started playing senior football, we would have had millions of kicks with both feet and thousands of shots at goal “after the siren”. As a result, most of my peer group had pretty good hand and ball skills on both sides of the body and shots at goal were a breeze because we had had so much practice. Nowadays, I suspect young footballers spent every spare moment playing computer games or Facebooking instead of practising their skills. I suspect another reason for the poor skills today is because we have too many teams in the league. That means blokes who would not have got a game in the old 12-team VFL competition are now getting a game with the expansion clubs. As a result, I suspect the talent pool is spread too thinly.

  11. Michael Sexton says

    Several years ago I read a story about the National Basketball League in the US where a coach had demonstrated that a player taking a free throw had a significantly higher chance of making the shot if he used an underarm technique rather than an overarm one. In basic terms there is a natural pendulum like swing taking the ball from around the knees and releasing it at about chest height – the natural arc is into the bucket. The overhand shot relies on the player creating backspin with the hands and juding the arc high above the rim.
    Why then when millions of dollars are at stake is it that no one uses it?
    The conclusion seemed to be that it didn’t look great. Simply players were embarassed to use the style.
    To my knowledge the place kick is not outlawed in the AFL and judging by those monsters in the NRL who seems to effortlessly slot field goals (after sometimes enormously physical exchanges) it may have a higher percentage than the dropped kick.
    Who would be bold enough to have a crack at a place kick? Jason Akermanis might have but I can’t think of anyone else.

  12. Bernard,you need to watch the local sanfl footy,its a better game to watch and its not over umpired like the afl,the afl game is more like a rugby scrum now,too many players on the field,they should be zoned like some other sports,or have less players on the ground

  13. Max Tomlinson says

    You’re right Andrew. I heard two rugby league commentators describe a scrappy game of their code as looking like “a Aussie Rules game”. The ultimate idignity. I reckon they should drop the interchange rule and go back to 18 playersr on the field with two reserves to replace injured players. The AFL could also consider dropping the wingers and go with 16 a side.

  14. Michael – is a place kick still allowed in the rules?

  15. I totally agree with you max with 16 players on the field,the problem now is the game is getting too fast,alot of players are making more mistakes,players are less skilled,cant kick both feet,etc

  16. bernard whimpress says

    Thanks for the comments. In recent discussion I’ve had the general consensus seemed to be that the place kick is still allowed. As you said Michael Aker might’ve tried it. So might Fev. The appeal of our game for more than 100 years was its variety but the special highlights were the long kicking and high marking. A couple of years ago I watched a bit of top division Amateur League in Adelaide and preferred the football skills on show there. Of course, the players would be run off the park by the AFL and SANFL players with superior fitness levels but that little drop in pace made for very attractive games.

  17. totally agree Bernard,i love wathching good old country football and being able to go out onto the ground during the quarter and third quarter breaks.

  18. Stan the Man says

    Bernard, love your work. Thank god for you tube and my old video recorder which I still hook up to watch some of the games from the old days – not all the way back to the place kick but some good old fashioned “don’t think – do” type play. We turned up to watch Carman v Ebert magic, Wynne v Ray Hayes go hammer and tongs all day or little Greg Turbill get into another scrap with a bigger opponent. tTey didn’t go off for a rest every 5 minutes… and certainly didn’t go off for a rest after they kicked a goal.

  19. bernard whimpress says

    Thanks Stan. Yes, Greg Turbill was a tough little player and who would want to be on the end of a straight left from John Wynne or Ray Hayes?

  20. John vockson says

    Love to see place kick in the game, i reckon a a deadly kick seems to work well in rugby ? sure it would slow down game, look at how game has changed since I first followed game in the 50s may never happen, but who knows.

  21. To really appreciate the place kick we suggest your readers buy a copy of The Prodigious Place Kick, written by award-winning author Garry Hurle and published by Twin Orb Productions. It is a historical drama that features possibly the greatest place kick of all time.

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