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Posted on 4 Aug 2015 in Non-Fiction |

JAMES COVENTRY Time and Space: The tactics that shaped Australian Rules – and the players and coaches who mastered them. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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timeandspaceThis is one of the most important books yet written on the evolution of Australian Rules football.

Australian Rules football is a simple game that perhaps has been made more complicated than it needs to be. James Coventry’s new history of tactics unravels its complications and makes a vital contribution to understanding the evolution of the code.

From its beginnings in 1858, a team captain, captain-coach, and then the non-playing coach guided strategies, but over the past 30 years, in particular, a far more horizontal management structure has been established. In the professional era the coach might still be a general and Mick Malthouse might study Erwin Rommel’s battle plans in a search for winning formations, but he has any number of brigadiers, colonels, majors and lieutenants to support him. In more recent years even the role of captain as on-field leader has been lessened and the office divided with co-captains and members of leadership groups.

In this atmosphere it is not surprising that the coach, with his assistant coaches, line coaches, fitness advisors, medical support teams and others, is forever seeking new measures to gain advantage over rival teams and adopting counter-measures to nullify advances made by opponents.

Malthouse’s ‘box’ and ‘forward press’, Ross Lyons’s ‘frontal pressure’, Alastair Clarke’s ‘cluster’, Mark Thompson’s ‘run and carry’, John Worsfold’s handball through the centre square, Paul Roos’s ‘tempo football’, Rodney Eade’s and Terry Wallace’s ‘flooding’, Denis Pagan’s ‘paddock’ and Robert Walls’s ‘huddle’ might sound like reinventions of the wheel but they really represent the advantage of men with time on their hands. As Coventry writes in the book’s closing paragraph:

Arguably the most impressive aspect of Hawthorn’s back-to-back flags (2013, 2014), however, was that they were achieved in an era when one game plan was no longer enough. Whereas strategies such as run and carry and the cluster had dominated for a season or more, tactics were now being measured in weeks rather than years.

Older forms of Australia’s indigenous game might have lasted longer, but nothing ever stays the same forever and one of the most impressive aspects of Coventry’s analyses are the connections he makes between past and present.

Thus Tom Wills, the most influential of the game’s founders, is seen as an innovator in several examples. In an 1860 match between Richmond and Melbourne he creates a coup de main (‘sudden attack’) by placing his men in a line down to the goal; in 1874 Wills uses the modern-sounding term ‘scientific football’ to describe encouraging his young Geelong charges to run to space; and in the same year he orders all his players into the back line against Ballarat to create a rudimentary form of flooding. Wills would fit easily into today’s game.

And there are more connections. The long runs by Ray Gabelich, Phil Manassa and Lance Franklin in the 1964, 1977 and 2010 grand finals have an antecedent in Henry Harrison’s runs and dodges of the 1860s, before law changes compelled him to bounce the ball every ten yards. Before Pagan’s ‘paddock’, which allowed space for the aerial supremacy and body strength of his star forward Wayne Carey, Hawthorn coach John Kennedy withdrew his forward lines to enable full-forward Peter Hudson to engage in man-on-man duels with his opposing full-back, and Melbourne coach Frank ‘Checker’ Hughes had used full-forward Norm Smith as a decoy by drawing him up the ground to give space for other forwards. After Jack Worrall had gained five premierships with Carlton and Essendon between 1907 and 1912 with a high-marking and direct long-kicking game, came Jock McHale with eight flags at Collingwood, and Fos Williams at Port Adelaide with nine premierships, using similar methods.

There are also surprises. No single person in a club has ever matched Worrall as supremo at Carlton when he combined the roles of secretary, manager, treasurer, recruiter and coach. Despite their successes, Worrall, McHale and Williams seem to win few marks as tacticians and Geelong’s Bob Davis (by his own admission) was lacking in that department. One of the strengths of Coventry’s text is his resurrection of names long forgotten: German gymnast Hermann Reichmann at Geelong as fitness advisor, club secretary and selector during its period of dominance in the 1870s and 1880s; Jack Reedman as captain of South Adelaide and North Adelaide, and coach of West Adelaide through eight premiership wins from 1892 to 1908; and Len Smith (brother of Norm) who had no premiership success but whose influence has been the greater, and whose methods have been  adopted and modified by Ron Barassi, Malcolm Blight and others into the 21st century.

A common division has been to classify coaches as either skills or pressure coaches. In South Australia Fos Williams’s ‘minimum approach to goal with the maximum body power’ was downgraded over time by contrast with Sturt coach Jack Oatey’s emphasis on accurate short-passing to space. In essence this comparison could be unfair to Williams as defensive pressure is, itself, a skill and on their small home ground at Unley Oval, Sturt centreman Bob Shearman’s majestic long dropkicks would regularly bombard the goal square.

Among the great services this book provides are the explanations of rules and practices along with terms such as ‘hacking’, ‘little marking’ and ‘flick passing’, which have long since disappeared, and others like ‘followers’ and ‘ruck’, which have changed their meaning. Describing ruckmen in the first years of the 20th century, Coventry writes:

They needn’t have been the tallest, however, because of a key difference in the law regarding boundary throw-ins. The pre-VFL rules stipulated that the ball had to touch the ground before being in play. The four followers from each side would gather where they expected it to land, and the subsequent scrimmage was known as a ‘ruck’. In practice, this bore a closer resemblance to today’s rugby union rucks than to the dynamic ruck contests of the modern AFL. With eight players’ fists and boots flying in all directions it was a dangerous place to be.

Aside from his exceptional text, written in an admirably clear and direct style, Coventry’s inclusion of 22 diagrams depicting team positions and tactical manoeuvres is an essential addition. I presume the author designed most of these diagrams himself as they underline his deep understanding of his subject.

This is one of the most important books on Australian football yet written and keen students of the game (having read it) will reward themselves further by poring over the diagrams in isolation.

James Coventry Time and Space: The tactics that shaped Australian Rules – and the players and coaches who mastered them ABC Books 2015 PB 368pp $32.99

Bernard Whimpress is an Adelaide-based historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is The Official MCC Story of the Ashes, 2015.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.