Pitch drops, Torps and Bumps

Sport is an enthralling thing to watch. It can pull you in, making you feel like you are a part of the action, letting you ride each bump. This is not for everyone though – for some, the thrill needs to come from spectating something less physical. The resultant dichotomy can put a strain on relationships.

Don’t anybody worry though – I have the solution and it’s something we can all watch and derive meaning from.

It’s called a pitch drop.

And no sports fans, that’s not a baseball pitch that we’re talking about.

It is, it’s true, fascinating to watch a baseball pitch drop – The Boston Red Sox pitcher Koji Uehara’s splitter pitches for instance are a sight to behold as they plummet off of a virtual cliff right above the plate. This kind of pitch though isn’t what I’m talking about here – Instead, I’m referring to pitch, as in the collective of tarry substances that are viscoelastic polymers.

This kind of pitch is a substance that looks and feels like a solid – If you dropped a lump, or gave it a solid bump, it might well shatter. In addition though, the substance will also behave a bit like a liquid in that it will flow, albeit slowly.

Very slowly – here in Australia some bitumen pitch was once heated (melted) and then poured into a funnel. Once cooled back to room temperature, the stem of the funnel was cut, allowing the pitch to drip into a beaker below. So far 9 drips have dropped.

In 84 years.

The 9th drip in particular took 13.4 years to form and then fall – Although technically the drip only achieved separation after an accidental bump. That probably seems like a long time for sports fans but it isn’t really – When the 8th drop fell, Koji’s Red Sox were 82 years into a 86 year World Series winning drought. Which is not the same as saying that the Red Sox were static for 86 years – They were moving alright, just in a way that was sometimes hard to discern.

This is what we all can get from watching a drip of pitch drop – change happens, even with seemingly rigid frameworks.

Which brings me to the Australian rules football and its showpiece Australian Football League (AFL). This football code is quintessentially Australian – it is endemic to this island and many of us think that it has come to embody the very spirit of this great southern land. It is rugged and harsh, yet with elements of sublime form. It is quirky too – the platypus of sport – a beast so seemingly patched together that some argued that it could not be real – that a stunning joke of taxidermy had been played.

Yet the platypus is real and it is fierce, with hind spurs that deliver wicked injury to the unlucky. That’s Aussie rules – the ball is oval and it gets kicked, punched and bounced, sometimes haphazardly – plus, it can deliver some wicked injuries for the unlucky.

But that’s ok because this is Australia and that’s who we are. We will not change our game, any more than we will change our spirit – we will remain set in our ways.

Like a funnel of bitumen.

Which isn’t really truly set in it’s ways because it flows. Maybe it does this slowly, but it is inexorable.

As it happens, Aussie Rules has been changing this way for nigh on 156 years. It was rapid at first, as we poured the elemental makings into a flask, but then the material cooled and seemed to set, with the drips funnelled slowly through the narrowing views of how we saw our fledgling nation.

However slowly though, those drips still fell – The drop kick, a kick beloved 50 years ago for it’s complexity and elegance, drifted from the game in the late 1960’s, while more recently the torpedo punt, yet another kick, this one marrying grace and distance, has been fading from use.

That latter change has been a difficult one for me to take but I understand the logic behind it – A torpedo punt, sometimes known as a torp for brevity, is an astonishing working of physics – The ball is kicked in such a way that it spins along it’s longest axis, somewhat like an American football pass, and this gives the flight a curve like a shell from a rifled barrel – Long and ballistic.

It is however a difficult skill to master – The extra range comes with an increased risk of something going wrong – The ball skewing horribly off target or it just being ornery to mark when it spins down. It is therefore a high risk technique to deploy and one with a lower rate of return. Yes, you may get an extra 15m of carry, but like as not the ball will not be getting to where you intended it to go. Given this, most coaches would surely prefer that if you have the ball 65m from goal, that you don’t unleash a hopeful torp and that instead you go all Maverick and Goose, i.e. Fly it into the danger zone – Around 10m out, at the top of the goal-square.

It’s a matter of evolution. The game breeds winners and as much as I long for players to just have a crack with a torp from 65m, I know just as surely that I’ll be ragging on them when the kick goes awry, the selfish bastards.

This is how I feel about the bump.

*Awkward silence.

The bump is the reason for this post. It has long been a part of Aussie rules – A visceral hip-and-shoulder shunt of an opponent, such that he is carted from Saturday into Sunday, off of the ball and temporarily out of the game. It’s a solid, simple manoeuvre – It holds no malice nor bears no grudge – Could you ever get angry at being bounced by somebody wearing one of those inflatable sumo suits? Possibly you could but then Aussie rules are not for you – The ethos behind the bump will surely confound the likes of you – It is portrayed as fair but hard.

Except there is an element of luck to a bump and so it isn’t altogether fair and while it might be hard it surely isn’t smart. This has been brought to a head of late, quite literally and with some force.

Yep, bumps can cause a lot of damage if applied to the head. This should be pretty obvious – It’s not brain surgery, although that could result. All you need is for the target of the bump to drop, lowering their head, and instead of the buffer-to-buffer impact of shoulders, you’ll get a solid shoulder bouncing a head.

And then a brain. Or maybe a spine. Either one is bad and that’s a long-term prognosis too.

See, that’s not fair at all.

As for not being smart, well the bump is not always effective – Players will often ride it out – Even if they don’t and lose their balance, they likely still have the ball in their possession and will be able to rocket out a handball, even as they fall. At best you’ve slowed them down – At worst you’ve fumbled and wasted an opportunity to turn over the ball.

What you should have done was tackled the player – Wrapped him up in a bear-hug that stops him and the ball. If you were good and lucky, you’d have pinned just the one arm and pulled your victim down. That would be adjudged to be holding the ball and you’d have a free-kick – The ball and the play would be with you, free and easy.

That is the smart play and I reckon most elite coaches will back that up – Simply, if you’re close enough to bump, then you’re in the right place for a tackle. The latter is the percentage play. The former is the one I like to watch, the spectacular play, but it doesn’t win the ball as often and so it is dripping out of the game like a drop of pitch.

This change though, however driven by the natural logic of nature, is causing some concern for purists. This angst has been magnified in 2014 as the AFL seeks to crack down on the bump by pinging any player caught deploying it with contact to an opponent’s head.

Mostly this just meant low rumblings of discontent – Veterans of the game pronouncing the death of ‘their’ game, which incidentally happens to be Australia’s game too.

But then there was the Jack Viney bump.

Simply, Melbourne’s Jack Viney was cited and then banned for 2 weeks for a heavy bump to Adelaide’s Tom Lynch. This turned rumbles into open rebellion – Media darlings queued up to decry the death of Australian society and to propose drastic actions to save everything. This included a strident call from former Adelaide great Mark Ricciuto, who suggested that the decision should be reversed:

‘And I reckon they (the AFL) have got ’til the end of the week to do it, and if they don’t do it they (the players) should strike on Friday night.’

This industrial action might have worked for Tom Lynch – He’s sort of on strike anyway because the incident broke his jaw and he’s out for 6 weeks. It’s probably not wise to make him a spokesperson for the movement to save the bump though.

It might sound more like ‘shumblethumbumph’ coming from Tom.

As it happens, Mark’s strike and Tom’s mumbles were not needed – Jack Viney’s penalty was wiped out on appeal, mostly because he was more bracing for an impact wrought by a rotten bounce than he was negligently bumping Thomas. Simply, the original decision was not correct, or at least, not as correct, while Tom Lynch was just unlucky – The platypus in this case was forced into using it’s spurs for defence, rather than in the name of the sport.

Fair enough – A platypus has spurs to defend itself against predators – It surely isn’t using them for Aussie rules. If a platypus was to evolve for that game I reckon it would end up built for a tackle rather than a bump, with long, strong arms and an insatiable desire to win the ball.

That though is going to take a while – In the meantime pull up a chair and watch some pitch drop. Apparently it might shatter if you give it a solid bump, but if you let it go it will just flow on naturally.



Leftist sports writer, recreational astronomer, husband and dad. Believes in level playing fields and that people with a mental illness are stronger. Can be found in Perth, Western Australia and/or in a stupor.


  1. Dave Brown says

    Thanks Longworth, beautiful work. I wonder if the drop punt will eventually kill of the torp in gridiron in a similarly slowly dripping fashion.

  2. Thanks Dave. American football is at an interesting comparison point, mostly because it seems to be at a crossroads – The game must change and probably dramatically – The concussion issue is too large and immediate for tinkering around the edges – or it may not survive. With that kind of cataclysm, something like how a punter delivers the ball might just be left to the punters to decide on – They seem to be just a footnote to the game.

  3. Society changes the way sport is played.
    The AFL has changed dramatically from the seventies, when thugs like Leigh Matthews routinely belted people from behind.
    Footy had to change.
    Years ago I argued long and loud with a mate about the bump that put Koschitzche in la la land. I said it wasn’t in the spirit of the game to take our a man who wasn’t looking. Gia could’ve put a finger out to shepherd.
    I agree with what the afl is doing with the bump, as long as it is applied with commonsense…

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