AFL 2019: What happens when you press Ctrl-Alt-Delete in the AFL?

This has been a mighty hard AFL season to make sense of, so far at least.  It’s not that some of the teams people thought would be good turned out to be bad, or vice versa.  That happens every year.  What seems particularly strange this season is the game-to-game variations.  Every round is throwing up aberration after apparent aberration, to the point where it is clear that they are not aberrations, they are something like the current normal.  The question is, why?


My strong suspicion is that the answer lies in the rule changes we have this year.  Not the specific rule changes themselves – but the simple fact that there is a pretty large suite of rule changes that have come into effect and substantially changed facets of the game.  In one sense, it’s like the AFL decided to press Control-Alt-Delete and restart the game.  The idea behind most of the changes was to free up play and increase scoring, but in such a complex system as an AFL game / season, it was always hard to predict exactly what impact they would individually and collectively have in practice.


Coaches in particular tend to seek to find any exploitable angle in rules, and also to be very conformist with each other once something looks like it might work.  Therefore, they were always going to try to find a method that works for them as quickly as possible.  By ‘works’, I mean that it enables them to have a nett scoring advantage – so stopping the other team scoring is just as good as scoring yourself.  I assume the rule changes were designed with this risk-averse instinct in mind, and that the view was they encouraged scoring more so than allowing scoring to be blocked.


This is where it gets interesting through.  This AFL season the rule changes have been a constant narrative in the interpretation of every game, and many individual plays.  It’s actually very rare to have either major rule changes in sport, or such a large suite of rule changes simultaneously.  In AFL people are talking about the 6-6-6 rule being most analogous to the introduction of the centre square in 1970s for example.  The best other major example that springs to mind was hockey abolishing the offside rule in 1992, which must have utterly changed that sport at the time.  Golf had a lot of rule changes this year aimed at speeding up play, but speaking as a regular golfer they didn’t really change the fundamental nature or strategy of the game (and it’s arguable if they have had any effect of speed either).


In most AFL seasons there are several different paradigms happening across the 18 clubs.  Some have a well-established method or game plan that they are merely hoping to tweak or refine, but that they expect to make them competitive.  Some are on the multi-year journey to develop that sort of method, while a handful are gamely hanging onto one they don’t yet realise is past its use-by date.  A couple are rebuilding, with young lists that they don’t really expect to be competitive; and one or two get hammered by injuries and are forced to rejig their method on the fly to cover the loss of some instrumental player or players.  Just a couple tend to have what they think are competitive lists, but all new game plans – usually along with an all-new coach, but occasionally just with a change of idea.


The thing is – with this balance of where teams are at, its mostly predictable how they are going to play.  It might not be perfectly predictable how well they will do it – hence the glorious upsets that happen most rounds – but you can usually have a fairly good idea how two teams are going to go about their business.  Certainly the coaches and players have a pretty fair idea what to expect of their opposition when they step onto the ground.


The big difference in 2019, with the AFL doing its Ctrl-Alt-Delete thing and the raft of new rules substantially impacting on the games, is that pretty much every one of the 18 clubs is to a greater or lesser extent suddenly in that last category.  Every coach is having to experiment with what works for them, watching the others, watching what happens when two clubs or styles meets, and trying to make sense of it.  Not only don’t they have a well-oiled method that they are trying to repeat week-in week-out, some are clearly actively trying different things in different games.


The upshot is, while we tend to look at the upcoming weekend’s games through a filter of a normal season, the underlying mechanics of this season are quite different.  Each week there is the distinct possibility that one or both teams will come out with a new take on the game plan, or in some cases entirely different and unpredictable ways of playing the game.  I think the root cause of the unpredictable games lies as much in this change of mechanics as it does the rule changes themselves.  When two teams run out, no-one can be exactly sure what they are going to try this week – and it might work, might not, and might get gazumped by whatever the other team tries.


Over time, I expect that some greater predictability will come into the season, as clubs decide on what they think works for them and try to settle into doing it consistently.  By the end of the season I would be surprised if a more normal degree of stability doesn’t come into the results, as the good teams fairly steadily beat the poorer ones (whichever those teams turn out to be).  By then we might have a better sense of the overall impact of the rule changes – but for now I reckon it’s just way too early to tell.  For the moment, it seems likely that we will keep seeing these strange and completely unexpected games when one team comes out and totally takes another by surprise.  Glad I’m not doing any tipping comps this year!


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  1. John Butler says

    Dave, this piece at least made me feel better about my tipping.

    Despite the AFL’s continual attempts to micro-manage their ‘product’, it still feels like the law of unintended consequences overwhelms their intentions.

  2. David Bruce says

    Aussie Rules just has so many degrees of freedom, I feel like it is probably impossible to predict exactly what effect rule changes would have – both immediate and persistent. Given how the game evolves, the impact of these changes will also change over time I presume. What I thought was most interesting at the moment was the aggregate impact of so much change to every team at once, which is pretty rare.

    As a non-tipper, I think this season has been less frustrating for me than a lot of other people I’ve spoken to!

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