The game has faced several crises in its lifetime. We’ve had betting scandals, illicit drug headlines, the very culture of the game has been questioned, challenged and changed as a result of issues of sexism and racism.
We’ve also had to deal with the epic Essendon supplement saga that plunged the sport into constant state of despair for the best part of five years. Yet, the game plays on, seemingly stronger than before, as it is the best game in the world. That is why we are currently in uncharted territory as for the first time in recent history, Australian Football’s core - the game itself, is being ferociously attacked by those who claim to love it most.
Lack of scoring, the full-forward’s increasing obsolescence, the injury influx and the supposed devil reincarnate - congestion - are stuck up on the angry dartboard in Channel 7’s head office as the host broadcaster compartmentalises footy’s declining ratings.
As the AFL takes hits left, right and centre from those with the loudest voices, it has initiated a masterplan to combat this apparent abomination that is the modern game of Aussie Rules.
The AFL has established a ‘look of the game committee’ composed of Australian Football Hall of Fame Legends such as Leigh Matthews and Malcolm Blight as well as respected journalists Mike Sheahan and Gerard Whateley. This new ‘look of the game committee’ joins the ‘state of the game’ committee which features the likes of Eddie McGuire and Patrick Dangerfield. The AFL via football operations manager Steve Hocking has announced that there will at least two more ‘of the game’ committees with the best potential changes to be put before the AFL Commission with the intention of implementing them in 2019.
Death by committees.
So, what has the AFL’s endless array of committees come up with thus far? The various committees have discussed an abundance of different changes to our game. Some such as 16-players a side and zones in general play have been cast aside as far too radical due to being outside the AFL charter of honouring the game’s heritage. However, others remain firmly on the table.
We run the ruler over 10 potential changes that the AFL may use to fix footy, whether it is broken or not.
1 - LAST POSSESSION OUT OF BOUNDS (MISS)
This is the proposed change that is gaining significant momentum with its recent implementation in the SANFL and AFLW. It has dramatically reduced stoppages as well as the length of games in the SANFL and is almost certain to be put before the AFL Commission. However, through much tossing and turning I have graded the rule as a miss. Its primary advantage is that it would provide greater (or some) consistency in reducing the already unreliably-umpired deliberate out of bounds rule. If that rule is umpired correctly I do not think the last touch rule serves a real purpose. Also, I fear the rule may halt the momentum of the ruckman revolution led by Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy. Less throw ins means less influence by the big men.
2 - A FOURTH UMPIRE (MISS)
A four-umpire system will be trialed (again) this year in rounds 13 and 14 with the view of implementing permanently next season. The idea behind the fourth umpire is to ensure the longevity of our umpires through softening their running requirements per game, as well as introducing another set of eyes to the play. The proposal is a miss on the basis that in previous trials it has seen a significant increase in the amount of free kicks paid, which is bad news for everyone. With an umpire stationed at either end of the ground, each looking for holding free kicks, we may see a record number of frees paid. Add to that the fact that we simply do not have enough quality umpires in the current AFL system to sustain the increase, this may make things a lot worse before making anything better.
3 - REDUCE INTERCHANGES (MISS)
When in doubt, reduce the interchanges. But has anyone ever questioned this common held football ideology? Some committee members wish to half the interchanges permitted from 90 to 45 next season, but with threats of strike action occurring as a result of the AFL’s introduction of a 120 cap back in 2014, a halving of the cap is hardly going to go down well with the players. Nor will it with the coaches with some claiming capping the interchanges will only increase injuries. Since interchanges were first capped in 2014, I would argue we have seen a decrease, not an increase in the standard of football. Why are we trying to tire our players as much as possible again? This leads to a greater focus on fitness rather than skill level and tired players also mean more congestion and isn’t that supposedly the problem in the first place? Scrap the cap.
4 - A NEW FOOTBALL (MISS)
A weird one per the great Malcolm Blight who wants to increase the amount of grip on the football to allow players to be able to pick the ball up quicker and easier. Surely, it has not come to this? Why not some Velcro gloves and a couple of material patches on the ball? Blighty is a legend, and readily admits he has some bad ideas thrown in with his good ones. I’m glad he does, because this one is a miss.
5 - AN EXTENDED GOAL SQUARE (HIT)
Hit! We have a hit! An extended goal square appears the rule change most likely to come to fruition next season and it will mean that for the first time since 1986, when the 50m arc was introduced, that the markings of the ground will be altered. The proposed rule will see the goal square effectively become a goal rectangle as it may be increased so it is 25m from the goal-line. The genius behind this rule is that it will allow kick-ins from behinds to travel to the wing as opposed to the half-back flank. This breaks down the forward fifty press and will mean that all thirty-six players will not be swashed into one half of the ground at kick-ins.
6 - PICKING THE BALL UP WHEN PLAYER IS THE GROUND PROHIBITED (MISS!)
Worst pick of the bunch. The proposed rule would prohibit players from picking up the football when they are on the ground. Yes, you read that right. The ‘thinking’ behind this rule is that it aims to stop the ‘rolling maul’ type of congestion as players would only be allowed to knock the ball on as opposed to gaining possession. There is plenty of problems with this rule. What classifies ‘being on the ground’ for a start? Shocker of a rule, players should always be able to go and get the footy.
7 - 25 METRE PENALTY (MISS)
25-metre penalty is also in the agenda however the proposal that is currently being considered would not replace the 50-metre penalty that has been a staple of VFL/AFL games for thirty years. Under the proposed rule, the 25-metre penalty would be utilised for less serious offences such as 10-metre rule violations. Miss for mine, as it will only cause more subjectivity and grey areas as the umpire only has to decipher what warrants a 25-metre penalty as opposed to the full 50. We need our umpires to make less decisions not more, and pay the clear decisions as opposed to weight up what type of penalties are involved
8 - 25 METRE ARC (MISS)
A second arc is a feature in multiple proposals currently being considered by the AFL. One rule change will see players forbidden to kick the ball within the 25-metre arc from a kick-in eliminating the chip pass to the back pocket. Unnecessary tinker that is hardly going to improve the betterment of the game. All it will mean is that opposition players won’t have to guard those in that 25 metre arc at kick outs.
9 - STARTING POSITIONS (MISS)
Another potential rule that features the adding some new chalk to AFL ovals in the form of a 25-metre arc. The proposition that is gaining traction at AFL house is 6-6-6 format at centre bounces. However, what we would use to call “zones” is strictly being labelled “starting positions”. One of the most favoured “starting positions” proposals ensures that three forwards and defenders are positioned between the goals and the new 25m arc and three forwards and defenders are positioned between the 25m and 50m arcs at both ends of the ground. The two wingers will also be forced to stand on the wings at the centre bounces will those inside the centre square will remain the same. I cannot see this proposition achieving its objective of decreased congestion because the moment the ball it’s the turf in the middle of the ground, it’s null and void.
The other option that players cannot enter the square until the eight players in there have cleared the ball is wrought with danger. Imagine the ball rolling toward the winger, and he and his opponent standing there at the line, waiting for it but unable to take a step toward it to pick it up? Not a good look at all.
10 - ANTI-DENSITY (MISS)
“Anti-Density” not zones! Definitely not zones! Well, it certainly seems a lot like zones. Anti-density rules are currently implemented in the TAC Cup and are planned to be introduced to the AFLW next season. This rule requires five players from either team to be positioned in the opposite half of the ground at a stoppage and at least two of those players in the forward 50. The penalty for breeching these anti-density rules is for the opponent of the offending team to receive a free kick 35 metres out directly in front of their goals. The rules have received a mixed response from potential 2018 draftees competing in the AFL Under 18s National Championships (who also adopt the rules) with the rules being significantly more favoured by midfielders than by the forwards and defenders who actually have to play the rules.
One key forward competing in the National Championships has been quoted stating the inconsistent adjudication of the rules is “frustrating” especially due to the significance of the penalty. While, another highly touted future draftee believes that the free kick should be paid “where the ball is” if it was to be introduced at AFL level but maintains the rule improves the standard of play through “opening the game up.” However, I share the frustrations of the forwards and defenders, zones in no form should be welcomed in our game. Strong miss.
So where does this leave us?
Change will happen. That much is certain. Businesses now employ “change management” professionals to continually “improve” their performance, even when it’s not required. The only purpose this seems to serve is to make everyone nervous and uncertain. The AFL is no different.
We can’t hope there’ll be no change at all – to do so would be naïve.
What we can hope is that, come October, those in charge will decide that our game will have less rules and those rules will be adjudicated properly. Tinkering with the rules and their interpretations, adding stipulations, or confusing explanations to counteract every emerging coaching tactic or craze has forced the game in a state where organic movement and growth has been stifled.
It is only when the powers-that-be simplify the sport’s laws and stop tinkering or making knee-jerk responses, that will see our game able to change again without the hindrance of a rule change. It will change organically; it will evolve… that’s how things survive and improve.