HPN Chat – Is AFL footy broken in 2018, and do we need to change the rules?

Hammersley Chat is hopefully the first in a series of pieces where HPN chats about the big and small issues of the day. This week, we talk about the game’s scoring drought, and whether rule change is coming to “fix” it.

Cody Atkinson (cody), Sean Lawson (arwon) and Ryan Buckland (ryanbuckland) are the parties involved below, the latter making his HPN debut.

cody
So, is Australian Football in 2018 broken? And if so how broken is it? For those unaware, scoring is down from 89 points per team per game to 83 points; a reduction of two of the most expensive 30 seconds of advertising in the country.

ryanbuckland
It’s a bold statement, and one I specifically railed against earlier in the year, but as the year has gone on I beginning to come around to this view.

arwon
One less goal a game per team? That’s what all the angst is about? You could fix that by having umpires pay slightly more frees to full forwards for holds and blocks. One a game!

ryanbuckland
Yeah, if it’s all about clawing our way back to some sort of arbitrary numbers of advertising spots, the fix is pretty simple. I reckon it is a bit more fundamental than that though.

cody
Go on.

ryanbuckland
The meta-game seems to have evolved into an aggressive, trapping defensive mindset as the go-to tactic. And offence flows from there.

Mainstream pundits like to talk about the “turnover game”. Creating turnovers and then scoring from them. If everyone is playing a turnover game, preparing for ways to force a turnover rather than taking the initiative, then we enter a sort of negative equilibrium.

You might remember I very specifically said I didn’t think we were in this negative equilibrium earlier this year but as the season has gone on and all sorts of metrics point in the same direction, I reckon I was being too flippant.

cody
Generally, about 2/3rds of all points are created from turnovers – and just around a third from stoppages.

arwon
Here are the teams with the least turnovers by game.

ryanbuckland
Hang on I have another view of that.

arwon
The Eagles and Carlton have bottom 4 disposals too so that’ll go some way to explaining things. Richmond have the fifth most turnovers, interestingly.

cody
Three of those four sides are in the current top four, and all look like locks to play finals football. The fourth, Carlton, best resemble a sieve of all the kitchen implements in defence. Also in consideration – colander, slotted spoon.

Still, it appears that the prevailing wisdom from various media commentators that despite the small magnitude of the decline in scoring, changes will be made.

ryanbuckland
Turnovers, for & against, adjusted for time in possession, sorted by differential. That’ll be $300 thanks.

arwon
Bringing that back to excitement and whatnot, aren’t a lot of the teams near the top of that (lots of turnovers) generally regarded as the aesthetically pleasing ones?

cody
Yeah, I reckon so. Carlton play pretty ugly, conservative football (sorry Ken).

ryanbuckland
North (who’re on the record as being a bit Richmond-like) are #2, Adelaide close behind, and Richmond are 4th. West Coast has the second fewest turnovers in its games

cody
West Coast also play pretty deliberate football, and have the benefit of several solid marking targets around the ground.

arwon
It might help if we knew which teams the pundits and punters regard as exciting, too. Which is Richmond?

ryanbuckland
Yeah, I wrote about them a few weeks back, they also have the lowest tackle rate (for and against) in the competition.

arwon 
Richmond were 100% the more defensive and dour team of the two grand finalists last year, I didn’t see too many people calling for them to lose for the good of the game.
So are they exciting or no? Would the game in 2018 be better if everyone was trying to replicate Adelaide?

ryanbuckland
The sneaky thing about Adelaide is they were just as high pressure as Richmond last year.

cody
Again, I think everyone likes the way Adelaide plays.

ryanbuckland
They were just more content to play in their back half.

cody
Adelaide rebounds quickly from defence, and are content to ping a long goal. Who doesn’t love a long goal, or an Eddie snap from the pocket? That being said, it’s not like Richmond aren’t exciting either, just not to the same degree.

So is focusing on the turnover game the problem or the solution?

arwon
High turnovers might well correlate with excitement. Who knows? The thing about arguing about aesthetics is it’s really hard to get everyone to speak the same language.

cody
So the other alternative is that the modern strategy has gotten football to such a state that the rules need to be changed. Jake Niall’s column last week in The Age suggested THIRTY FIVE rules were discussed at the Look of the Game committee.

arwon
Most of the suggestions in Niall’s article seem to be about regulating stoppage structure.

ryanbuckland
Haha yeah I saw that – bit of a head scratcher. I did manage to clarify how this whole process is working with the AFL though.

cody
Yeah?

ryanbuckland
All of these ad-hoc committees – the Legends Committee, the Recently Retired Players Committee, and the coming Fan Committee – were literal think tanks. Were or are. There was no set agenda. The participants came to the table with ideas, which is where the 35 came from.

cody
So like the Grattan or Australia Institute but for footy.

ryanbuckland
More or less yeah, and they’re reporting through to the standing Competition Committee, which is the group that’ll feed through to the AFL Commission.

cody
Today Leigh Matthews will be playing Matt Cowgill.

ryanbuckland
😂

cody
Cue the “who the hell is Matt Cowgill?” tweet from David King.

cody
So it was reported by one of those members, the now-mononymous Whateley that only four changes are being discussed seriously.

ryanbuckland
Yeah something about the AFL wanting to respect the Charter of the Laws of the Game.
Which all things considered is a good development. Free movement of players seems to be the one fundamental issue the AFL wants to respect.

cody
AFL Charter pictured here

cody
BTW, the charter actually states the following:

arwon
That would seem to straight up imply poor defence is preferable.

cody
So the general belief is that there will be some rule changes. Ryan, you wrote about one in your piece for The Roar yesterday, around the square?

ryanbuckland
Yes! The change I am 150% claiming credit for if it comes in

ryanbuckland
I first wrote about it in 2015, around the time where this congestion issue first came to a head. David King wasn’t a fan.

cody
What did Kingy say?

ryanbuckland

He was on the last touch train, which appears to have left the station.

Anyway, my idea around the goal square is to make it six times larger – double the length and triple the width. All other rules around the square are the same. If an attacking player takes a mark inside of it the mark is set dead in front of goal. And the defensive team gets to kick out from the edge of the square in the event of a behind.

It has two main benefits: it stretches the ground out because the space close to goal becomes way more valuable. And it helps teams kicking out of defence by opening up more of the ground. You might even consider introducing a rule where a defensive mark in the square creates the same situation as a kick out (without the point conceded).

cody
Will it merely just relocate the contests however – and reduce the opportunity for the short escape kick to the pocket? The long clearance kicks are almost always not centred on ground areas but targets – the tall marking options who can drag in a mark or at least create a second stoppage. Almost all of those guys aren’t that mobile.

The centre of the ground is ignored right now because the safety option isn’t present, and that will continue – maybe more so. At the same time, defended area near the goals will disappear.

cody
Maybe I just need to find a new slant.

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arwon
I also feel like a larger square would look silly. Maybe an arc? Or a trapezoid?

cody
I think the attacking option is valid however – better angled set shots will increase scoring.

cody
I believe in the early days of Australian Football there was a kick out line – at the twenty metre mark – like the rugby restart line. Could that be the next evolution of the idea? Does it need a next evolution?

In the original 1859 rules:

In case the ball is kicked behind the goals, anyone of the side behind whose goal it is kicked, may bring it back 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the kick-off posts and shall kick it as nearly as possible in the line of the opposite goal.

arwon
Rob showed us how much more space there is between 50 and 70 than between 30 and 50 just because of the maths of the area of an ellipse, I suppose extending the area you need to defend from a kick out makes it harder to “lock it in”.

Still not sure you’d see the corridor opened up but I guess at least you’d make any corridor intercept an extra half kick from goal.

ryanbuckland
Yeah that’s the line of thinking. It’s harder to press from a set piece perspective. If it is general play I wouldn’t think you’d see much of a difference, because teams would still just blast a kick out of their defensive 50.

arwon
I should say as a Swans fan all these “make defending harder” ideas do make me feel a bit paranoid. To some extent we’ve been hearing this stuff for nearly 15 years.

ryanbuckland
It’s a real philosophical question isn’t it. Is there a “right” way to play. You sort of went this way talking about turnovers above Sean.

cody
Good defences should adapt to the changes the best, you’d think. Teams that rely on stunts down back (multiple spares etc) should struggle more.

arwon
Was it 2016 the year they bought in the 10m zone around the mark and stopped players defending the mark diagonally angled to goal (East West!!!)? Did that visibly hurt anyone in particular?

ryanbuckland
Yeah, they changed it at the 11th hour.

cody
I think the “right way to play” from a players, fans and coaches perspective differs so greatly, depending on how their team is doing, their style of play and when the person grew up. Even going back to the early days of the code, Tom Wills pushed hard for a more “rugby” style code, where Hammersley and Smith pushed against.

But… the one thing that nearly all people agree on is that beautiful goals are good. Aesthetics matter.

arwon
People can’t seemingly agree on what’s aesthetically good, though. Take that short chipping ball retention game for instance.

cody
Well I think any goal in the goal of the year nominations is generally an aesthetically pleasing goal.

arwon
It’s hard to have a goal that isn’t satisfying, by their nature they are the moments of release, relief, accomplishment etc.

But on the other hand, more goals isn’t really it is it? Nobody is talking about how beautiful GWS’ crushing of Gold Coast was. And Alan Richardson got the dramatic montage treatment after this weekend too – so there’s a pretty big risk in conceding that beautiful footy.

cody
Cheap goals aren’t pleasing, and they aren’t in almost any sport. A side running up the score is as ugly (or uglier) than not scoring IMO.

Let’s change tact a little bit. If there had to be a rule change (or two) what do you think they should be?

arwon
I’d probably start with better enforcement of the existing rules, for instance via a 4th umpire. More eyes on stoppages, more angles to view tackles and dodgy disposals and ball drops, an umpire closer to 1v1 marking contests and watching them earlier.

Reward rule adhering play that still clears all that congestion people hate, like midfielders playing the ball not an opponent, effective tackles on ball carriers, and contested marking.

I’m sympathetic to the argument we’re not enforcing HTB the way we used to, in particular. And certainly incorrect disposal isn’t what it was.

cody
The risk with the prior opportunity changes, and the ball drop stuff, is that the number of free kicks will dramatically increase, and I am not sure that is the right solution.

More free kicks will reduce the impact of contested players, and it is likely that players will shirk the ball on the ground, or picking up the ball in contested situations (or where they anticipate impacts).

arwon
You’d expect players to adjust to tougher scrutiny, but also, shouldn’t frees have gone up given increased tackles and disposals per game?

cody
They have risen pretty steadily in the past few years, and significantly so over the past 15 years. This year has seen the most free kicks per game since 1994.

arwon
Have they risen enough? The game has changed a lot, I wonder what sort of indicators they should be expected to be commensurate with?

ryanbuckland
I am also on the pay more free kicks corner.

arwon
Maybe less ruck and protected zone frees though.

ryanbuckland
There was a holding the man free kick paid against Scott Pendlebury in the Queen’s Birthday game and I was like THANK THE LORD.

cody
Doesn’t this go against the AFL charter statement however – reducing open and free flowing play?

arwon
I think free flowing play could potentially be aided by free kicks, depending on what sort are paid and when. Certainly if the alternative is a repeat stoppage. There probably isn’t a blanket call to be made on that question.

cody
But free kicks have a reset of play, which means the defence gets time to set up. Unless the advantage rule is also overhauled…

arwon
Oh man advantage is weird in footy.

ryanbuckland
There is no consistency, and I don’t think we can expect consistency, because there is so much subjectivity in Australian rules.

Hey guys there’s some relevant breaking news.

arwon
CLARKSON YOU SCAB

ryanbuckland
hahahaha

arwon
Nah I think there’s been a few of these trials over the years.

cody
It is interesting that they did not say *how* the trial went. Which is usually a terrible sign – even the AFLX trial last year was said to have gone very well.

ryanbuckland
Yeah if it was a great success then you’d think they’d be singing about it.

According to the piece David Rath gave him a call.

arwon
Cody and I took part in an informal trial of a new form of footy recently. The hot take for us is the future of footy is INDOORS.

cody
We’ve also played AFL 9s with ex-AFL listed players (with on ground zones). It’s non-contact footy, but I’ll let you in on a secret – it (zones) just moves the potential stoppage around.

cody
Ryan, if you have to institute a rule change, what would it be?

ryanbuckland
Other than the expanded goal square for purely ego reasons?

cody
Yep, let’s lock that one in. Any others? Or what would you be most opposed to?

ryanbuckland
I think the league should progressively wind back and eventually eliminate the interchange bench. Go back to a full substitute bench.

cody
Hot take.

ryanbuckland
Scorching hahaha. Primarily I think it would add another tactical angle to the game.

arwon
I guess managing injuries and exhaustion is a form of tactics. On the other hand I can see the AFLPA going for it if it needs to doubling the size of playing lists.

ryanbuckland
I don’t fall into the group that think tiring the players out would help open the game up. I reckon it would just increase the emphasis on finding players who can run all day
in isolation.

cody
I don’t think it will increase scoring – similar moves in rugby league have had little to no effect, particularly in the 1994-2004 era.

arwon
A lot of RL games also fall apart as contests based on one side or the other copping injuries.

ryanbuckland
Ultimately what you’re trying to do is reduce the incentive for coaches to look for traps and presses and turnovers. So you eliminate or pare back the interchange, expand the size of the goal square, and pay more free kicks in congestion (and that would only be paying free kicks that are already there for holding the man, incorrect disposal, falling into backs and the like). The sum total of that, I think, would be the ground would be more open.

cody
Any thoughts on 16-a-side? Sheedy, Scott et al have been praising it, but I’m not sure it is there…

arwon
My sister’s comp in Canberra moved to 16 a side this year. Her take is there’s so much more running and less options to kick to. Watching her play, most sides seem to delete a forward and defender, which I think happened in the AFLW too? You’d assume AFL teams would approach it differently with their much longer kicking ranges.

cody
VFLW scoring is considerably higher than AFLW scoring, by the way, across comparable 18 a side v 16 a side seasons.

ryanbuckland
Yeah I have always taken the view that 16 a side wouldn’t do anything material.

arwon
Also AFLW has the last disposal rule complicating things.

cody
I had a look at what happened when the VFA first introduced it.

arwon
So that’s a switch to 16 a side for the VFA?

cody
The rule was introduced for the 1959 season, and there was a rush the next season – the goal a game per team that the AFL now wants. That was the only rule change of note.

Interestingly, it bounced right back to the average afterwards.

arwon
Could be something slightly there after year 1, but only very slightly. Certainly nothing conclusive there, but it’s always hard to find natural experiments.

cody

In 1991 v 1992 in the VFA, the change was just 4 points per team per game when they got rid of 16-a-side and went back to full teams.

arwon

Even a preseason or training trial using the same players as play AFL wouldn’t necessarily replicate real premiership points match conditions. AFLX would look different if a prized title were up for grabs, or even just a real prize. Coaching cynicism and player attitudes are big variables

cody
I’ll add one more change that I don’t think anyone is talking about, but I believe will improve the look of the game and potentially scoring per game.

Removing the running bounce.

arwon
🔥🔥🔥

cody
The running bounce is used about a third as much as it was 10 years ago, and is a retardant to creative play.

arwon
Probably gets Franklin an extra goal a game so I’m all for it

cody
It is barely policed, and inconsistently so at that.

arwon
So many 25 metre runs.

cody
It used to be a 5m bounce when first introduced.

arwon
So the trend is there – 5 to 10 to 15 to infinity.

cody
Defences are better now, and it would force defenders to come off their opponent to stop running players.

ryanbuckland
Wooooooooooooooooow that’s spicy hahaha. What was the rationale for the bounce when it was introduced anyway?

cody

“Regarded as “the first distinctively Victorian rule” in the code of Victorian rules football (now Australian rules football), the running bounce was first trialed in 1865 and formalised on 8 May 1866 by a committee of Victorian club delegates chaired by H. C. A. Harrison as a way to slow down the player in possession of the ball and to create more opportunities for a turn over, thus helping to increase the number of disposals and encourage more dynamic team play. Harrison himself was one of the fastest runners in the game, known for his ability to evade opponents while running the length of the field ball-in-hand. Arthur Conan Doyle considered it “very sporting of [Harrison], … to introduce the bouncing rule, which robbed him of his advantage.” The original 1866 rule stipulated that “no player shall run with the ball unless he strikes it against the ground every five of six yards”.The rule was well-received by players and spectators alike, and considered attractive to watch.”

(via wikipedia)

ryanbuckland
What do you reckon it would change?

cody
I reckon it would open up the running game, and reduce last step bombs to the forward line. It would also mean that defenders would have to rush up to stop the run, creating more attack behind them.

ryanbuckland
Is the bounce stopping that from happening now though? Like you’ve said the rule is so inconsistently applied, and the guys that bounce the ball regularly are the ones who can do it well.

cody
There are about 3 bounces per quarter now. Three runs, each team combined, where a player runs for more than 15 metres. That is not a sign of open, free flowing football. The bounce was relevant when there was a couple of goals a game, and when kick distances topped out at about 30m. Less so now IMO.

arwon
The Shaw brothers set the bounce record in 2009. Here’s the bounce season records

bounces.PNG

Adam Saad had 4.23 a game last year, the most. This year he’s the best at 3.5 per game then McKenna also at Essendon with 2.56 and Heath Shaw 2.33. Hartung, Steven, Martin and Menadue the others on 2 a game or more.

I make it 35 players over 2 per game in 2009 against just eight this year.

ryanbuckland
Right, I see what you mean. I’m certainly not wedded to the bounce. It’s novel and a bit unique but if removing it resulted in more open play then let’s do it

cody
Its a novel rule, but by the same token runs past other parts of the Charter – restrictions on moving the ball and player movement.

 

cody
Finally, do you think change should be implemented in 2019, trialled first at state league level or postponed indefinately – a rules cool off period?

arwon
Depends on the change. If it’s four umpires they’re going to do it as soon as there’s enough qualified to go around. They do it in the bye rounds every year now. Something like abolishing the running bounce… I reckon float it as an idea and trial it preseason.

I don’t like state league trials because practically speaking that’s NEAFL or VFL where the AFL have direct control and those also serve as reserve competitions to prepare players for AFL level footy.

cody
At least you can do time series analysis there.

ryanbuckland
Yeah I think it’s hard to trial things at State league level. You’re talking about semi-professional leagues without the sophistication of the AFL and its clubs. It’s hard to get a true sense of the potential impact.

arwon
TAC Cup might be another petrie dish.

cody
Or at suburban league level.

arwon
Ryan’s goal square expansion seems like it would be straight forward to run in preseason or TAC Cup.

cody
Preseason trials have historically gone poorly because of the lack of care and effort involved in the games. There nearly needs to be a designated league each year that can trial these types of rules – at a somewhat high level. The benefit they would get is exposure for their players to AFL eyes (and scouting as a result).

ryanbuckland
As to your direct question Cody, based on the commentary we’ve seen over the past week or so I think we’re past the point of debating whether there should be change. It’s happening.

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