Game of Zones - The Disaster awaiting the AFL in 2019

Footy fans, as we enter the home straight and prepare for the mad scramble for top eight placings, I implore you to soak it up and embrace it. It may be the last time you get to witness the game in its current form.

As you sit back and enjoy the 2018 season playing out, you must also brace yourselves for the most frustrating AFL season of all time set to take place in 2019 – the AFL’s season of havoc. As Steven Hocking gets backing for his game-changing plans, we will hear more about the way the game will be styled and cajoled. Worse, we could see some of these changes implemented, or at least trialled as early as next season.

Last month, The Mongrel analysed the nine potential changes that may be implemented next season as part of football manager Steve Hocking’s quest to ‘fix’ the modern game and supposedly return it to its former glories. “Let the players play” has been a catch cry heard more than once in Hocking’s crusade on congestion backed by AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan and urged on by host broadcaster, Channel 7 to combat declining football ratings.

Since our analysis, Hocking’s list has been refined further with the former Geelong defender publicly confirming that he will initiate multiple changes to the game, declaring the age of the rule tinker over. He’s stated "my view would be it definitely won't be one thing, because it won't be enough. I'd sooner do nothing.” The AFL under Hocking will undergo wholesale changes next season with “three or four” changes set to be implemented, barring a last-ditch blast of common sense, with one of these changes ready to propel the competition into season of madness.

That change revolves around the infamous Z-word.

Zones have been long feared, long mocked and long despised, but AFL fans should prepare to see the Under 8s blue and red cones dusted off as our football operations manager plans to introduce zones at AFL level next season. Under a host of other softer names like “starting points”, the man with seemingly unlimited rein on Australia’s most sacred document – the Australian Rules Football Laws of the Game Rule Book – envisions zones at AFL level from 2020 (at the latest) onwards in a polyamorous marriage with a host of other radical rules to create the perfect cocktail of confusion for the football supporting public, who, believe it or not, enjoy watching the game they are currently attending in record numbers.

These zones are not just “starting positions” which some seem to be coming around to, where players must be begin centre bounces in the positions as listed on the coaching whiteboard. No, the zones that Hocking favours also extend to in game once the ball has bounced, where five players from either side must be located in a half of the ground at every stoppage. Two of these players and their opponents must also be inside the forward 50.

The rules are in place and have been for some time in the Victorian based under-18s competition the TAC Cup as well as the AFL Under 18s National Championships. In the recently completed National Championships, the ‘anti-density rule’ (another creative phrase used on us silly members of the public because we’re too afraid of the word ‘zones’), the rule was nothing short of comical. How good is it watching the future stars of the game showcase their talents by having to run back to an imaginary line at the half way mark of the ground every time there is a repeat stoppage? And doesn’t look like they are having a ball doing it too? Looks like they were having just as much fun as they did when they were forced to play it when they were five.

“Let the players play?” Pffttt.

Throughout the whole championships the rule was only enacted once; during the unofficial Grand Final between South Australia and Vic Metro. After receiving a “warning”, Vic Metro transgressed again and gave South Australian Captain, MVP and genuine AFL superstar in the making, Luke Valente a free kick 35 metres out directly in front. His ever-reliable set shot goal kicking sealed victory for the Croweaters.

The penalty of an automatic free kick 35 metres out directly in front is strange, especially after a ‘warning’. When zones are introduced into an AFL season, possibly as early as next year, the penalties could be even stranger such as docking interchange numbers and restricting the use of a runner, as floated by Hocking himself.

Field umpires may well need to be increased to four from three next season in order to effectively adjudicate the new zone-rules. Four field umpires have been trialled multiple times by the AFL in season in recent years including for rounds 13 and 14 this year. It resulted, as did previous trials in AFL games, in more free kicks paid and more than a few moments of frustration for umpires as they were overruled by their colleagues. If the AFL does decide to change to four field umpires per game, it will need to expand its field umpire squad from 34 to as many as 54 for next season. How good will watching the quality of umpires slip by 60% be next season? Also, do we really want the umpires’ attention focused on ensuring players are behind an imaginary centre line?

This is quite possibly the hardest sport to umpire in the world as it is. Umpires, especially the twenty new AFL umpires, have enough to focus on - namely the ridiculously overcomplicated ‘interpretations’ of rules the competition has already tinkered with, that have caused the problems we are facing to begin with.

Personally, I am overjoyed with Hocking’s declaration of the end of the rule tinkering, because over the past decade or so, rule tinkering has been often simply adding more rules to an already over complicated game, rather than changing or God forbid removing rules. There seems to be no rewind button at AFL House, though with the goal line technology, I am pretty sure they’re still using VHS recorders.

In recent history, all problematic rules have been further complicated with grey areas known as ‘interpretations’. The adding of new interpretations to combat every little possible change to the game has meant that the game is trapped in its current form and cannot change organically. Thus, the only way it can evolve is via the interference of a rule change.

This is unsustainable. We need to get the game to a state when the game is not reliant on yearly changes and is not restricted and permanently modelled into the one form. We need the game to a stage when it is able to evolve organically. This would be through the removal of ridiculous and unnecessary rules such as the 10m protection rule, the ruck nomination process and the interchange cap which do nothing to aid the actual game, itself.

Hocking’s rationale is flawed. He believes that “Whenever there is a stoppage within a game there is a place a player must stand within an area, whether it is a boundary throw-in, ball up, D50 stoppage”.

Coaching tactics change over time. Coaches are always looking for loopholes and wrinkles in the rules they can exploit. It’s the nature of the beast and it’s what makes great coaches great. However, forcing the game into a specific form forever by adding a rule that compels players to stand at every single stoppage within a game makes it much harder if not impossible for the game to change. It Therefore, when coaches work out a way to manipulate this rule change – and they will, the game is trapped and has nowhere to move.

The AFL will no doubt add more rules and the cycle continues until we are left with a game we do not recognise.

Hocking’s absurd “marriage” between his beloved zones and two or three other new rules such as four umpires, last possession out of bounds, another significant interchange cut, a 25m penalty, a 25m goal square or a 25m arc – will not work. A marriage between two rules that have never met will have unforeseen problems – has he not watched Married at First Sight? How does he spend his down-time anyway? Strikes me more as a Love Island kind of cat.

How could you possibly trust the AFL to make several extreme changes to the fabric of the game when they could not even handle slight tweaks? The AFL could do not manage to put a 30 second countdown clock on a screen without causing competition-wide confusion. The AFL could not get rid of the third man up without introducing a ridiculous ‘ruck nomination process’ that often sees a ruckman standing there unable to compete because he forgot to raise his hand like a good little boy. The AFL could not even introduce a score review system that is remotely reliable eight years later. The advantage rule, the deliberate out of bounds rule, deliberate rushed behind rule, 10m protection zone, contact below the knees, dangerous tackles – these are all comparatively minor adjustments to the game but the AFL completely and utterly butchered the implementation of each and every one of these ever-changing “interpretations”.

Could you imagine the havoc of multiple, simultaneous significant rule changes? They could not even handle the trialling of the rules! They actually refused to release the footage of the trials to the clubs not directly involved, effectively gifting those who did participate a four-month advantage on the rest of the competition if the rules trialled are implemented.

They haven’t even decided which rules to implement and they’re screwing them up already! At least Hocking has had the sense not to try to rush the all the rule changes through for next season. That would be an unmitigated disaster. In an interview with SEN, he stated that 2020 was more likely, and that there were many boxes to tick before new rules could be introduced. Still, 2020 is not too far away.

So, brace yourselves footy fans. You've got 18 months before the Hockings, the McLachlans and the other great houses of the AFL start to move their pieces into place - 2020 is going to be one hell of season, and 2019 might be a little too much like purgatory.