The Godfather: Peter Corris on AFL at the crossroads
There is talk of the AFL making changes to the rules of Australian football to make it a more interesting and watchable game. Something such is sorely needed. Attendances are down and many people, including players, confess to turning off the television coverage.
In years gone by, players like John Coleman, Doug Wade, Peter Hudson, Jason Dunstall and Tony Lockett regularly kicked ten goals or more in a match. Now, at times, whole teams struggle to kick ten goals in 80 minutes of football. The reason is not hard to find.
Often AFL commentators remark that all 36 players are in one half of the ground. Once the glory of the game was that, unlike other codes played in a marked out area, Australian footballers played over the whole ground whatever its size or shape. Players had space in which to play.
In those days the function of the ruckmen was to connect at the ball-up at the start, after a goal was scored, and when the ball went out of bounds. It was not about attempting to score at one end or defend at the other, all within a very short space of time. Similarly, the role of wingmen was to patrol the sides of the ground, attempting to keep the ball in play and to prevent half-backs from getting the ball to half-forwards. Not to be present at centre boundaries and boundary throw-ins to form congested scrums remarkably like those in the rugby codes. Indeed, commentators sometimes refer to these gatherings as ‘mauls’ – a term adopted from rugby. This has caused former Richmond star Kevin Bartlett to speak of ‘a hybrid game’ and deplore it. The result of these changes (and others discussed below) is to deprive players of what used to be the attractive feature of footy – space in which to perform. With forwards obliged to chase the ball up the ground and tackle, is it any wonder that fatigue causes them to miss easy shots for goal?
In my opinion there are three causes for this change in the profile of the game – rotations, tackling and flooding. Previously teams had emergencies, who replaced injured players. With players now able to come off for rest spells (plus, it must be conceded, their greater fitness), they are able to dash from one end of the ground to the other and be continually in contention wherever the ball is in play. I’m not sure when tackling became a central (and praised) feature of the game. I seem to recall a team recruiting a rugby coach and this unhappy element creeping in and becoming important. Previously, in most instances, players contested for the ball, attempted to regain it if outplayed by bumping, slapping the ball away or smothering the kick. Now players are wrestled to the ground violently in confined spaces; they twist and turn and soft-tissue injuries are the result.
I may be wrong but I have the impression that the present method of flooding players into the defensive half of the ground was devised by Rodney Eade. Whatever the source, the result is unattractive.
As someone who has not played football in more than 60 years, it’s presumptuous of me to suggest ways of improving the game but I’ll do it anyway. I suggest that rotations be done away with and that that each player should be expected to play 100 minutes unless injured. Emergencies to be limited to three to prevent coaches succumbing to the temptation to use them as de facto rotations. This could prevent players from clocking up Olympic-standard kilometres and being present at innumerable contests. My other suggestion is that at the centreline, the wings and the centre be eliminated. As things stand, these players become immediate midfielders or on-ballers (formerly known as rovers) and this contributes to congestion.
With six fewer participants, players more constrained as to how much territory they can cover, centre bounces and boundary throw-ins are likely to be more open, contributing to the players’ capacity to demonstrate their abilities of clean hand- and foot-passing, running and bouncing and one-on-one marks, with the modern equivalents of the Colemans, Wades, Hudsons, Dunstalls and Locketts able to take marks and kick goals in an era where grounds, training, medical treatment, equipment and umpiring have improved and some of the unsavoury elements of the old game – king hits and racial and sectarian insults – have been greatly reduced.