In 2018, West Coast were able to navigate through a wild finals series to claim the flag, minimising the relative weakness of their midfield to get enough ball to their dominant forward line. More than any other side in the league, the Eagles chose to move the ball by foot rather than hand – averaging 1.74 kicks per handball against a league average of around 1.32.
In fact, there was about the same distance between West Coast’s ratio and Gold Coast in second (with 1.48), then there was between Gold Coast’s ratio and the most handball-heavy unit of St Kilda (with 1.14). It is worth noting that Collingwood, the Eagles’ opponents on the last Saturday in September, were almost as handball-happy as the Saints, with 1.17 kicks per handball.
So, with two differing approaches between last year’s Grand Finalists, which one did the rest of the AFL follow this year?
As the headline above completely spoils, it’s the Eagles kick first, ask questions later style that has been more mimicked across the league. As per the start of this round, the kick per handball rate has risen from 1.32 last year to 1.44 so far this year. This is one of the biggest year on year statistical changes seen this season, and the fourth biggest change in the past two decades in this specific category. If it holds, it represents a significant shift in the style with which the ball is moved in football.
In addition, four sides (Gold Coast, Brisbane, GWS and Carlton) have rates higher than the Suns’ second placed ratio last year. As can be seen by that grouping of sides, kicking more isn’t a indicator of quality or success, but rather, it’s more suggestive of style, structure and tactics. The shifts can suggest which sides are trying to keep up with the Joneses. Even Collingwood are kicking significantly more than they did last year, with the only two outliers being the Bulldogs and North – sides not playing well enough to be a model of playstyle for other teams.
But what about the past?
The more interesting thing is that the league often shifts in the direction of the premiership winner, or in the case of a consensus upset flag winner, it’s the losing Grand Finalist setting the trend. With a few notable exceptions, the champions seem dictate the ball movement shape of the competition; not the other way around.
This chart shows the two Grand Finalists in each of the seasons back to 1999 with their kick to handball ratio, in blue. The leaguewide average is in red and league average the following season is in yellow. In most seasons, the league shifted in the direction of the premiers – with the red dot sitting closer to the blue than the yellow one was. This seems to be the norm where the premier is a one-off winner and probably the strongest side that year – other teams follow their pattern the next season.
Two of the weaker premiers of the current era, Sydney in 2005 and the Bulldogs in 2016, saw movement in the opposite direction, perhaps an indication that their radically different styles were not easily replicated, or enough of a model to be followed. Instead, it was the losing Grand Finalist those years which dictated the next swing. Another good example here is the way that perhaps the strongest modern side to fail to win a premiership, the 2011 Colingwood side, set much more of a trend than their vanquishers the Cats. For the Kangaroos in 1999, they sit as an extreme outlier, with an extremely kick-heavy style that contradicted the rest of the competition and which they persisted with unsucessfully for several more years.
Interestingly, for most of the Hawthorn and Brisbane threepeat years, little change was noticeable on a year to year basis (with the exception of the first Lions flag). Instead, both sides were around league average in each year, with little overall movement. This suggests that it wasn’t a tactical first mover’s advantage that caused the ongoing success, but more on the available talent for both clubs. Even still, in most years the trend still moved with the champion sides.
To finish up, here’s the full set of Kick to Handball ratios since 1999, with premiers in bold and runners up underlined: