‘Free’ Thinking and ‘The State of the Game’

Listening to the debate about “the state of the game” has got me thinking. 


As an Eagles fan I have been fortunate. 3 of our games against Geelong, the Swans and the Dockers have been great to watch. Tough, fast and hard. Our floggings of the Bulldogs and Suns were passable, but the Eagles put them away in one quarter and the rest was predictably mundane. Hardly of any interest to the non-partisan.  The Carlton game was straight out of the remedial reading classroom with only Carlton fans pleased they seemed to now be at Dick and Dora, even if Fluff and Spot were beyond them.


Having said that, the Derby was interesting more for its’ competitiveness than the skills (other than tackling) on display. A for Effort. D for Execution.


I went to see the Western Force play Rugby at Subiaco a few years ago with a Kiwi mate. He asked me how I enjoyed the game, and I told him it was a better game on TV because live I couldn’t see the ball in the mass of arms, bums and legs smothering the ball (and the view) in every contest. The Force may be gone, but the Eagles and Dockers have taken their place. 


I was raised to spend most of the time yelling “ball” or “throw” at games, but long since worked out those rules no longer apply. Pavlov’s dogs in the crowd slavering for “ball” have been chasing parked cars for several years now. 


My lack of interest in umpiring decisions is not about rule changes or interpretations. I just don’t see that free kicks offer much penalty/reward. The time taken for the umpire to run in and signal his decision; set the mark; return of the ball and indicate the line for the player to go back on – all allow plentiful time for the “penalised” side to reset their Maginot defensive line. Kick; spoil; scrimmage; ball up; rinse; repeat. To me free kicks (and marks) only matter in the forward/defensive 50’s.


There have been a lot of suggestions about returning to more traditional/frequent free kicks of “holding/dropping the ball” and “throw/incorrect disposal” in the belief that free kicks will move the ball on more. My belief is that this only shifts the same problem further on, but doesn’t remedy it. 


So here’s some riffing on my theme that what makes footy attractive and higher scoring is run, fast ball movement and long kicking to genuine marking opportunities.


My suggestion is when umpires pay a free kick they just yell “Free kick Eagles” (hopefully – or whichever team is awarded). If the Eagles are in possession that player (not just the player affected by the offence) can play on immediately and run 10 metres without being tackled or impeded by the penalised team.


We have now “team defence” so shouldn’t we move away from outdated concepts of stopping the game to back and penalise/reward individual players? Shouldn’t we just make them team penalties/free possessions?  


Umpires nearly always call the ball back behind the mark for a set free kick these days because it is too rare/unpredictable for a team to get a real “advantage” when a swarm of opponents always ready to tackle.


Let’s make the penalty/reward for an offence something significant to both genuinely deter offending and genuinely open up play by moving the ball on quickly and significantly in ways that give forwards real one on one opportunities. High marking even (explain that to your kids).


If the ball is with the opposition or on the ground when the free kick call is made, the umpire blows the whistle to signify that the free is an immediate turnover (“free kick Eagles”) with the resulting 10 metres “free running” advantage.


I would be interested in what other fans and umpiring aficionados like Rulebook make of my idea. Are there unintended negative consequences? Would we need to empower umpires to genuinely enforce the rules and award more free kicks for this to have the desirable effect of opening up play?


Now the caveats. I’d only apply this “real advantage” free kick outside the forward/defensive 50 metre zones.  Free kicks inside those areas are already a “real advantage”. I like the skill of set shots for goal (even if modern coaches don’t give it much attention). And I don’t want umpire’s decisions overly deciding games by providing more direct scoring opportunities. Leave it as it is inside the 50 (the interpretation of rules should be the same everywhere – just the nature of the penalty/reward changes).


My idea creates a grey zone just outside/inside the 50. At 49 you effectively get a set shot from 55 out. At 51 you can run to 41 and have an unimpeded shot on the run. In general I don’t like the idea of zones which prevent players running freely where they want. To me, that is against the open spirit of the Australian game as originally conceived and played. This is a “zone differential” about the nature of the penalty/reward much like in soccer where a foul just inside rather than just outside the penalty area is differentially rewarded. Seems to work ok in the biggest sport on the planet. And I can’t see an opponent at 51 saying “let him run past – we’ll tackle him where he can’t play on”. So, the differential penalty shouldn’t be open to coaching manipulation or tactical “gaming”.


A note on marks. One obvious suggestion – kicks backwards outside the 50 metre zone should just be play on.  The umpire doesn’t blow his whistle for a mark and just calls “backwards – play on”. 


But I’d add one thing – marking distance going out to 20 metres as teams currently get away with too many 10/12 metre stagnant chip passes. We want a game of movement not stagnation. We can maintain the interchanges so long as continuous play is genuinely tiring for the modern athlete.  


But I’d allow a “real mark” (forward kick and over 20 metres) to have the same advantages as the “real free kick” described above.  When the umpire blows his whistle to award the mark the player can run untackled and unimpeded for 10 metres to create all the same genuine rewards for kicking and marking skill.


I want to see a running, kicking and marking game with more goals. Not Rugby Lite. A game for the skilful player not the control freak coach. Thoughts?



  1. Peter warrington says


    Much food for thought

    Get on the Committee! They should also get Cometti on the Committee…

  2. Some interesting thoughts here PB.
    But I cannot say that I agree with all of them, for I am in the camp that believes that the game evolves naturally and that it will all sort itself out. I am not a believer in artificially imposed rules which change the fundamental nature of the game.
    The media are a large part of the problem. This circus around the game is far too large and continually feeds upon itself, raising issues and non-issues that are analysed to the nth degree. For example, after Rd 1, most of the analysts wanted Nathan Buckley out. After one game! Media memories are too short. And the huge contingent of ex-players have selective memories. There have always been good and bad matches throughout history.
    Only twelve months ago, after 5-6 rounds everyone was saying that 2017 was the best season in living memory.
    For what it is worth, I believe the rule which should be implemented immediately is to penalise the “third man in”. It happens far too often that a tackle is laid and then a team-mate of the tackled player jumps on top of the other two players. The only purpose of this action by the third player is to “lock the ball in” to force a stoppage. This must be culled immediately – and it can occur without fundamentally altering the rules of the game.

  3. Dave Brown says

    Interesting ideas – can’t wait to see them trialled in the SANFL first…

    For the most part I’m with Smokie, let the game sort itself out. I reckon the discussion about the game is as much a function of too many media talking heads finding something to talk about (and an ongoing backlash against the memo in the AFLW).

    Instinctively I like the backwards kick play-on idea. But if it encourages players to kick down the line rather than to open space won’t that just make the game more congested?

  4. John Butler says

    Thoughtful as always, PB.

    I’m generally in the same philosophical camp as Smokie on these matters, but I have to say you’ve got me thinking.

    I’ll be back to you….

  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    The removal of the third man up – what did that do for congestion?

  6. PB – probably in the Smokie camp too, but agree that kicking backwards should be play-on. However, if you have that rule you then have “kick reviews” in the middle of the game to see if a ball may have drifted behind the kicker. Way too hard. Leave the rules and let it sort itself out.

    Having said all that, I think the game needs to go back to the old 19th and 20th man, rather than the interchange. It would pull the speed of the game back (and probably head clash injuries), it would force more one on one play rather then 36 around the ball, and, as fatigue takes hold, would open the game up to more scoring. We might see Peter Knights v Paul Vander Haar contests again!

    The modern interchange is a disaster and another example of how meddling with the rules is stuffing the game.

  7. Oh yes, further reducing interchange numbers would assist.
    And without even changing a fundamental rule of the game.

  8. Dips – goes without saying that I would ban video reviews entirely. The modern disease of seeking the unattainable. Fix one problem and create two. Go with the umpire’s call and their mistakes are minimal compared to players.
    The “science” of “finger deflection” and “ball rotation variation” on a 2D screen in a 3D world is as credible as phrenology, astrology and alchemy. And the interminable waiting at the ground (without all the tv replays) is like waiting for black/white smoke of papal elections.
    I hear the “lets wait and see” arguments above and agree, but wanted to broaden the scope of debate. In political life we want to preserve the constitution, as if it was god given tablets of wisdom, rather than the eventual compromises of blokes 120 years ago (much like footy rules). If we want politicians to think about the long term interests of the country, don’t sack them every 2 and a half years. And don’t think 10 Tasmanian Senators represent either their State (rather than party/personal) interests or as representative a sample of the national interest as those from a more representative sample in the bigger states.
    My point is that logical rules for 1890 don’t necessarily work effectively in 2018. When I started watching footy in the 1960’s Neil Kerley was the best ruckman in SA at 6’1″. Rovers were of dipsian proportions.
    Would Gary Wilson and Robbie Flower or Lindsay Head or Paul Bagshaw get drafted or be stars in the modern game? I have my doubts. Too skinny or too slow. Not athletes and I doubt that you could have trained it into them (or at least without changing a lot of what made them sublime to watch).
    Yes the modern game is exciting in a gladiatorial style, but I’m too old for WWF. I preferred Muhammad Ali. Skill, class AND athleticism. Is the modern game the result of natural selection and evolution or the genetic modification of modern science and nutrition? Does the game evolve or devolve? Is the future Malcolm Blights or Dustin Martins? Great to watch one of Dusty, but I don’t think I’d want to watch or play 22 of them. 22 Blights or Abletts – yes please.
    Yes lots of people watch and enjoy the game. But we are all creatures of our environment and we don’t always notice the pot/atmosphere boiling. Croatians drink oxidised wine because that’s what their family has always drunk – it tastes good to them by subjective history more than objective choice.
    One of the things that has really made me consider where the game is heading is the Avenging Eagle saying she is glad our nephew got sick when he was a State Under 18 and missed out on the AFL draft. Its just too brutal. And listening to a mother talking about her 30yo son with brain injury from regular small concussions in the state leagues. Unable to work and on life long medication. Its the constant small collisions that jar and damage the brain as much as the “big hits” that get all the tv/tribunal attention.
    Big bodies constantly colliding at speed.
    Australian rules football is not an “indigenous” game. Its a brilliant, hybrid compromise largely drawn from rugby and soccer elements in the late 19th century.
    I prefer aerial/tackling soccer to aerial/kicking gridiron/rugby. My hunch is that is what the founders were seeking but nutrition, sports science and rigid coaching have evolved the game into the latter more than the former.
    No need to rush to change, but if we aren’t getting the sport we want to watch and play without unacceptable long term consequences it’s time to experiment (pre-season; AFLW; junior comps) with fundamental change to encourage that result in the 2020’s – not the 1880’s.

  9. Totally agree with your version of video reviews PB, they should be banned just like DRS in cricket should be. Think of referring to video to decide on the legitimacy of Fred Swift’s mark on the goal line in the dying minutes of the 1967 Richmond v Geelong grand final? Or whether Wayne Harmes kept the ball in play in the last quarter of the Carlton v Collingwood 1979 GF?

    Also like the idea of no mark given if the footy is kicked backwards, but I would apply that to the whole field of play.

    Dips refers to re-introducing the 19th and 20th man in the hope that tired players will open up opportunities for more scoring through less congestion around the ball. My thought is that the game has evolved so quickly over the last decade or so, that 18 players on the field is too many. Players are super fit, can run faster and harder and longer than before. This may potentially contribute to congestion – so many more can get to the contest….then the next. Do we need 4 players in the middle? Could we consider not having players on a wing, for example? Even though the argument is that there’s very little old-school structures/ set positions played these days, is it time to only have 16 players on the field per team instead of 18?

    Zones could be another consideration, where each team must have a certain number of players inside their forward & defensive 50’s but I see that being difficult to manage – and how many more officials do we want? And could lead to a more prescriptive (therefore boring) game to watch.

  10. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Enjoyable and thought provoking,PB I would be really interested to see how the changes suggest would go.I admit I am not as in love with the game as I once was I favour 16 a side and yep play on re kicks backwards ( except in a teams attacking 50 ) not sure re reducing interchange is that contributing to more injuries? PB I posted the article on my face book page,John Fidges comment is interesting.
    Thanks PB would be interesting to see your changes trialled

  11. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Thoughtful stuff PB.
    I like seeing players run and bounce along with one-to one contests. Play on kicking backwards definitely has merit.
    18 players on the field 19th and 20th as per Dips’ suggestion and maybe two emergencies to replace legitimately injured players. The game will open up when they are too buggered to zone and press anymore. Coaches have had way too much defensive influence since Eade’s flood. While we’re at it. How many bloody assistant/specialist coaches do we really need? Just an employment pathway for players paid for by fans, really.

  12. Dan Hansen says

    Two interchange and two reserves. The ball moves faster when the players get tired.

    Problem solved.

  13. There’s been a couple of studies based on NFL that show that late- career smaller injuries produce concussions if you have had them before. Head collisions would be reduced with fewer players around the contest. As soon as a third player gets involved in a tackle,whistle ‘play on’ but only between the arcs

  14. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I saw a suggestion to the effect that reducing the number of interchanges would lead to (even) greater emphasis on endurance over skills. But I’m not sure how to reconcile this with the days of very low interchange numbers, unless the increased time on the track and the impact of the phys edders means that the Greg Williams types are still getting a game, they are just fitter too.

    I’ll have to ask Prof Kev Norton what he thinks (Elizabeth High legend and good ordinary Centrals player in the early 80s)

  15. Agree about the kicking backwards, should encourage Run Spot, Run.

  16. Mark Duffett says

    “marking distance going out to 20 metres as teams currently get away with too many 10/12 metre stagnant chip passes” is a revealing remark, pardon the pun. Never mind taking it out to 20, just enforcing the current statutory 15-metre minimum distance would go a long way (oops, did it again). With today’s tracking technology it should be straightforward to analyse marked kick distances over the course of a match. If there aren’t at least 10 paid per game that haven’t travelled 15 metres, I’ll eat my hat.

  17. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Being only a baby to the game, 18 years in, I don’t have so much backstory to compare today’s game to … but I do sympathise with congestion fatigue.

    Shaun Burgoyne suggested, briefly and delicately, on the Marngrook Footy Show the other night that if the third man up were to be allowed again, the 10 to 20 metre tap off the stoppage becomes a possibility again. Automatic congestion buster. And rather than a new rule, more tinkering, it would simply be a return to a pre-existing rule. KB and Abbey Holmes had to share a giggle over the unlikeliness of a rethink. AFL headquarters would find it very difficult to admit they got it wrong. Plus ça change …

  18. Peter Clark says

    Most of us agree the game is too congested and therefore not the spectacle we demand. No one wants to see too much tinkering by the rule makers but that is no excuse for just hoping the game will sort itself out without some intervention.
    Tackling the easiest issues first, the game needs to be rid of the unnecessary stoppages and delays caused by video reviews and centre bounce mishaps. Stop the video reviews because they interrupt the flow of the game are often not definitive. Enlarge the outer centre circle to at least a 12m diameter which should reduce the need for resetting the start of play with a ball up after a wayward bounce. That process is a bad look for the game. The game benefits from some degree of unpredictability. If you think otherwise we might as well use a soccer ball.
    Many interesting suggestions have been put forward this week to reduce congestion and to speed up ball movement for both player safety and the spectacle of the game. I’m not in favour of zones, although we do already have some zonation with centre square rules. I favour reducing player numbers from 18 to 16. It is not as “nuclear” a change as some say. With the increased number of teams in recent years, the depth of playing lists has declined, so two less players on club lists would not be a bad thing. I like the idea of emergency players being called in as reserves for seriously injured/concussed players. With the concern over head injuries and the sensible safety first approach now being taken to treating suspected concussion, teams are being too easily disadvantaged by the loss or one or two players early in games. Keep four genuine interchange players, but allow for one reserve to come from the list of emergencies as a replacement for a seriously injured/concussed player. PB’s play on from free kicks has some merit, but not when accompanied with differential zones. I think we need to encourage the ‘switch’ to break congestion and open up the ‘fat side’ of the ground but I worry that a play on rule for backward kicks might cause more tackling and more congestion. It would certainly cause more turnovers in the back half but could discourage the ‘switch’, hence more down the line kicking would result. I don’t mind gang tackling so long as umpires are able to penalise players from either team who drag the ball in, not just the ball winner who gets set upon. David King’s suggestion that the problem of too many players around the ball could be fixed by changing the prior opportunity rule is worth exploring. If prior opportunity were only to apply to the initial play maker and not subsequent receivers of the ball we would immediately see more free kicks paid for incorrect disposal. The ball gets moved on, freeing congestion. That makes sense, but how do you determine when the sequence ends and resets back to prior opportunity? And too many free kicks being paid generally spoils games.

  19. Dave Brown says

    No-one minds congestion too much when their team wins, particularly when they win a premiership. So a simple rule change would be at the end of each game both teams are declared the winner. Imagine how much premiership merchandise the AFL would sell when 18 teams are the premiers each year!

  20. PB
    Kudos to you for accusing the Croatians of ubiquitous insobriety. It’s high time someone on this site reprimanded Croatians for quaffing creations more properly used as an accelerant at weekend arson.
    However, I take pause at your criticism of astrology. The wondrous nebula… the slyly winking pulsar… I have been to Byron Bay recently (See my column tomorrow) and they seem big on astrology in that town. They’re rarely wrong. Are you sure you’ve got your facts right? Might we find the truth in Uranus?

  21. Joe De Petro says

    Some interesting ideas, PB. Frees, meh, they are what they are. My team never gets enough of them, the other team always gets too many, in my opinion.

    I don’t mind the state of the game. The one thing that I really miss are the old-fashioned duels between two skilful wingmen. Old-timers like me will remember Robbie Flower v Dougie Hawkins or Keith Greig where two guys with sublime skills competed one-on-one for the whole game along one wing or the other. The only solution I have for the return of this one is to draw a big circle on each wing and insist that two skilful players go in there and never come out. It goes without saying that everyone else has to keep out. Seems a bit hard to enforce to me but there have been plenty of stupid changes to the rules over the years, what’s one more?

    BTW, the reigning Premiers play the most open game in the competition at the moment, so we can’t blame them for this. And I love writing the words “reigning Premiers.”

  22. David Scott says

    Simple I would have thought.

    Modern players are much fitter faster so can get to contests much quicker than before. You can’t increase the size of the ground so you need to “decrease” the number of players at the stoppage.

    If the umpire calls a stoppage – free – kick if nearest player doesn’t immediately return ball to umpire – no waiting for or nomination of rucks – ball is thrown in the air straight away – one player only from either side is allowed to compete.

    16 players – three interchange – 45 rotations.

    Backward kicks – play on.

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