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Rule changes: Simple, effective. Can we at least try this first?


Tim Watson and Tony Shaw scramble for possession, but an early whistle sees a ball-up before any more players arrive on the scene. Picture: CHANNEL 7

Rule changes: Simple, effective. Can we at least try this first?

Rohan Connolly    

I’m really torn about this whole debate on rule changes. After Tuesday’s news that one of the likely recommendations of the AFL’s new Competition Committee is a 6-6-6 formation at centre bounces, I did some thinking.

Better still, I thought I would try to demonstrate visually what I’m talking about. To that end, I got on YouTube and randomly selected a home and away game from the mid-‘80s, this one a Collingwood v Essendon clash at Victoria Park in Round 15 of 1985.

It’s a 10-minute clip. Watch it and see what you think. If you have the patience, I think two things stand out, and to me they’re both pivotal to the current discussion.

One is the almost non-stop nature of the action. Far, far fewer stoppages, plenty of space. And players taking the game on. There’s not a heap of scoring, but it’s still exciting, fast and in my view, the sort of football most people would like to watch.

To me, that’s an argument for some form of rule change in a game which in recent years is a lot more congested and as a result, slower overall. We know the indicators like contested possession, tackles and stoppages continue to rise or stay around the same mark. They’re not being reversed. I just don’t think natural evolution is going to take care of the problem.

But there’s also two important moments in the clip which to me demonstrate the potential problem with rushing through rules on “started positions”, “designated areas”, “zones”, whatever you like to call them. Or, for that matter, extended goalsquares.

My problem isn’t with the philosophy, but I think the fact that there are simpler, less dramatic changes which could be made to current umpiring guidelines which could actually have a bigger impact on play than the zones being discussed, which, were they to be implemented only at centre bounces, would still occupy only a fraction of game time.

So, those two moments? Blink and you’ll miss them, but watch particularly for two ball-ups which are called at about the 4:50 mark in the clip, and then again at 6:05.

In the first incident, a ground ball is converged upon by just two players, Essendon’s Alan Ezard and Collingwood’s Gordon Sumner (no, not Sting from The Police).

They wrestle for the ball for no more than one second before umpire Denis Rich blows the whistle, runs in and bounces the ball to restart play. Three other players circling don’t even have time to enter the scramble before the whistle blows, play starts again, and the ball is cleared.

In the second incident, at around 6:05 in the YouTube clip, Essendon’s Tim Watson is lucky not to be pinged for holding the ball, but as the ball hits the deck, he manages to dive on it at the same time as Collingwood’s Tony Shaw.

It’s another stalemate, and the ball doesn’t come free, but again, within no more than one second, umpire Ian Robinson calls for a ball-up well before any other players can encroach into the area, the game restarts, and we’re off and away again.

Contrast those two moments with any disputed ball in an AFL game now. A two-man scramble quickly becomes, three, four, half-a-dozen as umpires allow play to continue, the throng often getting so large it really does resemble a rugby union rolling maul.

There is the beginning of your congestion. And the continued improvement in players’ pressure and tackling skills is such that once it develops, it’s proving even harder to break free from.

The “bees around the honeypot” disputed ball stuff has been going on so long now we’ve become conditioned to and not shocked by the spectacle of it. But contrast it with this footage from 1985 and the difference is stark, to say the least.

My point here is this. If that cluster of players around the ball is the start of the problem, is there a more effective way of nipping it in the bud than preventing them converging at the contest in the first place?

I reckon I first had this debate with then umpires’ director Jeff Gieschen around 2005-06. His contention (and I’m not rubbishing him for it) was that umpires’ felt that by allowing play to continue, there was a reasonable chance the ball would spill free, and that was preferable to the chance of a secondary stoppage.

In short, there was a belief that blowing the whistle for more stoppages would cause more congestion and take more time than allowing the ball to come free naturally.

Maybe that was the case in 2005. But it’s certainly not now. Imagine if those 1985 standards of when to call for a ball-up were applied in 2018. Look at how quickly umpires Rich and Robinson blow the whistle and restart the game. Would that not have an obvious impact on keeping the game open and keeping it flowing? Surely it would.

It’s such a simple suggestion and yet we really don’t seem to have discussed it much, if at all.

There has been talk about the time umpires take to throw the ball up, complicated by indicating the direction in which they’re heading once they do throw it up, and of course the silly (in my view) nomination of ruckmen for each contest. Clearly, that has to be dispensed with.

But this is more than that. It’s not just about how long it takes once the ball-up has been called for, it’s about for how long play should unfold before the ball-up is called. And I sincerely believe were that to be reduced dramatically, back to the standards of the mid-80s, we would be a long way towards improving the game’s aesthetic.

I’ve always been sceptical about the impact further reductions of the interchange cap would have in opening the game up. And this latest idea of starting points might be OK, but I’m also pretty confident that if it is only at centre bounces, the impact will be minimal, if any.

I defy anyone to watch that short 10-minute sample of a run-of-the-mill game from 1985 and conclude it isn’t a lot more entertaining as a spectacle than a lot of the football we see now. It’s how we get there that obviously is the issue.

And if we can a long way towards that goal with a very simple tweak not even of rules, but merely one umpiring interpretation, surely that is preferable to wholesale, fundamental changes to the rules.

In summary, I’m saying yes, we do need to do something to get football back to a better place, but no, we don’t need to go as far as we appear to be, particularly without sufficient length trials.

Can’t we at least give this a go first? It could well be the solution that pleases both sides of the current debate, freeing the game up, but at the same time not tampering with its fundamentals. Surely that’s worth a try?

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12 Comments
  1. Rohan,
    while I dont disagree with what you’ve written, why wouldn’t we try reducing the interchanges first?
    That’s probably the most substantial change in the rules in 20 years and appears to have had the most profound effect.
    Surely then we would know if it’s working or not and we wouldn’t have to tinker unnecessarily.
    This latest push to implement even further changes simply says to me that the AFL has lost the plot.
    I fear for our game.
    BTW when does the punter get asked about what should be done?
    JK

  2. I think you’ve got a good point but think the ball it up equally as quick is just as important. Call it quick and get it going again quick.

  3. Interestingly I agree with your conclusion and not your premise. I agree the umpires should be quicker on the whistle to ball it up. It would mean less time for players to surround the ball and there would be less free kicks. No chance for a player to drag the ball in.

    However I don’t agree that it is better football. Unless I’m wrong the margin is less than a goal with 10 minutes to go. That’s always exciting because the players are going he’ll for leather. There is also very little incisive kicking or skill on show.

  4. You are only close. Getting rid of nominating tuck and faster ball ups would help, but clearly in at least the second example there are heaps of players around the stoppage but it does move quickly. What you have overlooked is the poor quality of kicking and kick and hope method. There must be 10+ clangers in that clip easy. So as a player, good luck knowing where the ball is going, other than holding space as you know it is just as likely to turn over and come back. You are hoping the players stop being elite kickers, and won’t maintain possession allowing players to flood. Coaches will not let that happen. Tigers and most clubs have record memberships, the game can’t be that bad! Grounds are better, players fitter, there’s no going back. And all the tough stuff has long been taken out.

  5. How about you can not take possession of the ball if you’re not on your feet.
    I believe the Irish game has this rule

  6. As one of the fellas at work say, “Penalise the third man in” and that will stop the rugby stacks on.

    And I do like your idea to blow the whistle quicker.

  7. I think you make a great point here Roco, and hope it gets the consideration it deserves, but I fear that the AFL are too far along in grooming us to accepts zones.
    I however believe reduced interchange would also be effective. What are your arguments against it?
    If you can flick me towards a seperate article touching on this I would be very interested.

  8. Great stuff Rohan. I have never understood what the Afl obsession with changing the fundamentals is all about. It’s like they need to give Hocking something to do. Perhaps in a similar vein to your theory: I have always thought penalising the third man in would solve a lot of problems. Thoughts?

  9. THANKYOU for pointing this out. Ball-up for the vast majority of the post-war era were called to prevent players converging. As soon as two players were disputing the ball on the ground, the umpire would always call a halt until, I think, the mid-90s.

    Plus, don’t underestimate the impact of bouncing the ball. Have a look at old games – the bounces would go all over the place. Further, I think that was the point. I players don’t quite know where the ball is going to go, they naturally spread out and, of course, man up.

    Look at the opening bounce of the 1958 Grand Final, for example. Or the opening bounce of 1964.

    Sometimes, I think forget how the game used to look (or are too young to remember it). And I think we don’t pause to think about why the rules or interpretations we’ve abandoned were once part of the game.

  10. whilst I agree that the umpire called “ball-up” quickly he did so, in my view, because under the interpretation of the day the player only had to attempt to dispose of the ball by hand-pass or kick. They were not required to “knock the ball out” as is the case today. In the 6:05 minute situation it’s clear that both players who were fighting for possession virtually conceded the ball-up once neither had clear possession. Watson actually let’s the ball slip out of his hands as he looks for the umpire to blow his whistle. So under todays interpretation where players need to continuously attempt to dispose and knock the ball clear, the umpire would need to blow the whistle whilst the players were attempting (genuinely on not) to knock the ball out into play. This was not the case in 1985 – the players fight for clear possession but then concede. Once a ball went into “dispute” between 2 players the umpire could blow the whistle safe in the knowledge when neither could properly dispose of the ball, whilst they were in a tustle for possession, it was a ball-up. There would need to be a change to today’s interpretation that removed the onus on the tackled player to keep the football alive by knocking it out.

  11. The main reason the play is end to end is because hardly a mark is taken, so there can be no pause for that. Also it is near the end of the game, and the players are exhausted so can’t run from goalsquare to goalsquare. Now the coaches would run on 4 fresh players to follow the ball and slow it up, and the better kicking skills would mean a lot of chipping and marking. Reducing the interchange, and I mean dramatically reducing it should be the first change made. It is the change to the game that has had the biggest effect.
    The highly coached, skillful modern player who is much a better kick, can’t really be changed, we can’t ask for skills to go backward!
    I do agree that calling ball ups sooner would help, but not much. Reducing interchange would help more.

  12. Ezard ran too far, not penalised (before Harvey’s goal). But what else is new. Umps have rarely ever paid it.
    Also Kink threw it.

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