Four ponderings and a conjectural (the State of the Game)

Footy seems to have changed in 2011, and at this early stage it seems mostly for the better. I don’t just say that because this year the Eagles look worthy of holding a spot in the top 16, but it helps.

Saturday night’s game between West Coast and Sydney was a thoroughly engaging and entertaining one. They have played a lot of engrossing games in the last few years, but rarely one that is enjoyable to watch. Both teams played a game that demanded commitment to the structure to create defensive Pressure; and then required exacting skills and individual acts of brilliance to get past it. Any time a team dropped 5% off the defensive Pressure for a few minutes they got hammered, but every time that happened they found the will and energy to regroup, and there were two or three momentum shifts every quarter. I haven’t looked at it, but I imagine the score worm looks a bit like the classic Loch Ness Monster profile. Personally I would have liked it to have finished 5-8 minutes earlier – or maybe 5-8 minutes later – but you can’t begrudge either side winning that one.

I know JTH has both attributed the improvement in footy this year to the new interchange / substitute rule and claimed credit for the change, and it does look like it is having the desired effect. In rugby league they have had concerns about the introduction of fresh bodies up against tired ones late in games, and I reckon that is a legitimate concern. While coaches could always have kept a player totally fresh under the old system, none did. The almost enforced injection of a strong fresh player into the game means you suddenly have one bloke operating on a different plane from the others late in the game, which feels a little disjointed to me. Nonetheless, it is hard to complain about the way the game seems to be working in 2011.

Aside from the interchange modification, part of the improvement in the way the game feels overall is attributable to Mick Malthouse and Collingwood finally erasing much of the sorry Rodney Eade inspired Great Flood Epoch. While the ‘Press’ and the ‘Flood’ have a lot in common, it is far more satisfactory to watch it being done in the forward line than the back line. I always hoped against hope that one day when a team that was being beaten did the full Flood that a player on the other team would just sit down on the ground with the ball at half back and wait to see what happened, if anything. You can’t really do that against a Press.

I do wonder though what would happen to Collingwood if a team played 5-6 forwards in the old fashioned positions against them. Would they have the confidence to Press if there was a full-forward with a crumber in the other goal square and three guys across their half forward line? Obviously it would be a challenge to get the ball out and to them, but it would be an automatic goal every time if you did. They would probably have to show it at least some respect, and if they dropped even 2-3 back then the Press might not be strong enough to work any more.

I don’t know if that would work, but I would love to see someone actually give it a go. I could never understand why AFL coaches wouldn’t develop any creative solutions to the Flood, and I would hate to see the Press phase turn out in the same one-dimensional way that the Great Flood did. Aside from sitting on the ground at half back to show utter contempt, another strategy I would have thought could work against the Flood was to pack several tall marking players about 35m out in one pocket, with 3-4 smaller forwards as well (maybe even more). A kick long to that group in a defensive zone would almost certainly result in a mark, or at the very least a shot on goal. The defenders would HAVE to go to that pack and compete or they would be made to look fools. As soon as they do that, the Flood is over and there is plenty of space for the rest of the forwards to operate in. Dismantle it once, and no one would bother to Flood ever again.

As well as the Press being more satisfying for it’s happening in a team’s attacking part of the ground, it also looks like it is something that only good teams will be able to do effectively for long periods, whereas the Flood was capable of being executed tolerably by poor teams. If the Flood has been consigned to history and the Press eventually goes a similar way, which it presumably will, it remains to see what it is that comes next. Probably, it will be the game plan of the 2015 premiers, as it will likely take about that long for someone to develop a strategy and then a team capable of executing it well enough to become the new blueprint.

I hope it is a more traditional position-based game myself. The main difference between Aussie Rules and other football codes is that there is no offside rule, and so there are infinitely more degrees of freedom for coaches and players, but also for individual passages of play. I’d love to see a game between Real Madrid and Manchester United with no offside rule, just to see how it would unfold. I’m not saying soccer would be better without it, it wouldn’t actually be soccer without it, but I’d be interested to see what it would look like at a high level.

In many respects, the way AFL coaches have evolved the Game in the last 10-15 years or so, they have made it look like it DOES have an offside rule, with the play happening in a rolling band of most / all players on the ground. I would imagine that mapping player positions against the ground and the ball in AFL and in Rugby Union would not look that different at the moment. If Aussie Rules evolves back to a position-based invasion sport rather than a wave-based one for a while, it could be an interesting phase. I’ve found it harder to understand footy the last few years. It is still good to watch, but I often can’t actually tell who is playing well or how a team is trying to win it. With a more positional game, I think it is more understandable for the merely interested fanatic.

While the Game is looking better this year, there are two parts that are still a disaster: the holding the ball rule, and the advantage rule. I am happy that players shouldn’t be able to lie on the ball, but I hate to see the guy who actually goes for the ball getting penalised. Worse, it seems almost impossible to be holding the ball in general play now unless you get tackled unawares from behind. I am a big believer that if you can stand up in a tackle and dispose of the ball then you should have as long as you want to do so – make the tackle stick or it doesn’t count for anything. But, and it is a big but, you do then have to get it away legally. At the moment, the balance feels out, and I think the instruction to the umpires probably needs some refinement.

The new advantage rule is even more heart in the mouth stuff. The Eagles were penalised a shot a goal from 30m by the umpire playing ‘advantage’ to a player having an instinctive snap a second after the whistle at one point, and that is very unsatisfactory. The best advantage rule seems to be in Rugby Union, where the referee allows play to run for up to a minute to see if there is any advantage before bringing it back to the original infraction. Obviously that that length of time is impractical in Aussie Rules, but there has to be some way of allowing play to move on just a little and bring it back if necessary.

Overall though, I have to say that everyone I’ve spoken to this year seems pretty positive about the Game, and that might be the first time in a while.

However, there is one enduring mystery to me that I don’t have even a plausible theory about – which is why do about 60% of players who kick a goal immediately go off the ground? It can’t just be rotations surely? On Saturday night Eagles ruckman Dean Cox was resting at full forward, and then HE went off after kicking a goal. How come??? Does anyone know why this actually happens? Having done a degree in Sport Psychology, my professional opinion is that even if a guy was due to come off – if he kicks a goal he should stay out there for a few more minutes. Coming off seems worse than neutral, but so widespread there must be some (perceived) advantage of doing it. If I can understand this phenomenon, I will enjoy the season even more I think.


  1. The current interpretation of holding the ball is hopeless and so inconsistent. Hard to know if umpires are making bad decisions or following instructions. If the latter then it is definitely penalising the ball players.
    I’d suggest using a rugby interpretation that has opened up their game extremely well. Once on the ground, the tackler is not allowed to block the escape of the ball unless he is on his feet. This has allowed the ball to be mostly retained by the attacking team and has rewarded ball in hand play as opposed to kicking (which was blighting rugby).
    Therefore, allow players to dive on the ball, and penalise anyone who grabs them or lies on them (especially the third, fourth and fifth players, including teammates!!) who are preventing the ball from being released. However, if you can grab their jumper (like the old days) then immediate free kick for holding the ball.

  2. westcoastdave says

    Mark, I would have thought that it had to be umpires’ instructions, as it seems to be a pretty consistent interpretation now. Agree though that a rule along the lines of ‘once a player has been tackled to the ground, no player of either team can join in’ could be advantageous – it would mean the player with the ball really should be able to get it out, and you’d expect fewer stoppages. Like anything though, there would still be that line of interpretation about when it was legitimate to join the tackle and when not – so umps are still going to have to read the play sensitively.

  3. johnharms says

    WCD, So much here. Very thoughtful. From your how-to-beat-the-flood to discussion of implications-of-the-single-fresh-player to the Man U v Ars no off-side game (I too would be fsacinated).

  4. Andrew Fithall says

    West Coast Dave

    On your last point, I laughed a lot a couple of weeks ago (Geelong game I think) when St Kilda’s Milne thought he had kicked a goal and ran off the ground. Unfortunately for Milne and St Kilda it was a point. Playing one down, St Kilda was unable to properly defend the kick in and an end-to-end goal to the opposition resulted.

    On the matter of holding the ball, prior opportunity is only relevant if the ball is not released. It seems now the umpires are considering prior opportunity in assessing the means of disposal. Many more free kicks should be being awarded for illegal disposal.

    I disagree with you regarding players being able to stand up in a tackle. The rule states the player with the ball must immediately and legally dispose of the ball. I think they are often given too much leeway.

  5. John Butler says

    AF, that last point of yours is just a continuance of your anti-Judd crusade. :)

    The Milne incident typified how things are going wrong for the Saints this year.

  6. I think it would have been Terry Wallace who began the flooding disease in the late-season game against Essendon in 2000 — the Bombers’ only loss for the season. Eade probably developed the concept further and made it more structured.

    I agree wholeheartedly that holding the ball and advantage are two of the biggest blots on an otherwise refreshingly fast and skilful game in 2011. I’d add a third — umpiring of ruck contests.

    On holding the ball, I think the concept of limiting additional players piling in to a tackle on the ground, pinning the tackled players limbs and holding the ball in, would be a very good change. It’s pretty clear that umpires are judging a standing tackle differently to a tackle applied on the ground — something to do with “diving on the ball” or “dragging it in” I suspect. There’s something inherently unfair, in my view at least, in penalising a bloke trussed up like a Christmas turkey for not making a “genuine effort” to dispose of the ball. It is certainly an interpretation issue managed by Gieschen’s umpiring department — made worse when implemented by zealots like Steve McBurney. If a player can stand up in the tackle, he’s got a pretty good chance of winning a ball up, even if he’s made no effort to dispose of the ball.

    Advantage, the other blight, is inherently difficult in Aussie Rules due to the officiating norms. As you rightly note, rugby referees let the play evolve before whistling a penalty. In Aussie Rules there’s a whistle every 10 seconds and players have been conditioned to ‘play to the whistle’. To then announce “Advantage!” for a player who has serendipitously acquired the ball is, again, inherently unfair.

    On the wider question of the game adapting to the changed reserves bench, games generally are certainly a better spectacle in 2011. There’s still a lot of experimentation to be done on the substitute before a pattern emerges. The substitute brings a new tactical aspect to the game which adds interest, but reducing the interchange bench hasn’t reduced interchange numbers by any noticeable degree. Players are certainly more fatigued in the last quarter, so there’s clearly been an effect, but surely a straight cap would have achieved the same end result without the added complexity of the substitute?

    Thinking about interchange, I wonder whether the benefits of coming off the ground aren’t as much mental as physical? I heard someone (on radio, I think) saying that Dane Swan’s average stay on the bench is 90 seconds. When you consider that he may have run 100m to the bench, and then another 100m to rejoin the play, it would seem there’s little physical benefit to be gained in that 90 seconds off the field. If it is a mental edge that’s gained, there may be some value to the goal kicker immediately coming off although it seems to fly in the face of logic.

  7. westcoastdave says

    Andrew, that is a cracker of a story about Milne. I wish I’d seen it. I was doing the West Coast-North Rd 1 game for the Almanac, and I lost track of the times I wrote in my notes “XXX kicks a goal and immediately goes off. Why????”. The number of question marks increased to the point where I gave up.

    ARB (if you don’t mind the familiarity), at this stage your theory is the leading candidate, though I must say I hope that is not the reason. Confidence is usually a good thing in skill execution, and I have never seen any other sporting parallel for feeling that pulling someone out of a game who has just done something good.

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