Yesterday two AFL games overlapped and they were poles apart on so many levels. While Melbourne and Brisbane played out what could only be described as organised torture on the hallowed turf of the MCG, Port Adelaide and Adelaide put on a game for the ages at Adelaide Oval.
The Demons and Lions bumbled their way around the ground, combining for just 12 goals in perfect, still conditions. They went inside 50 just 80 times between them and kicked 12.24 while chalking up 181 uncontested marks and went at just 71% disposal efficiency. Short kicks were repeatedly chosen, often backwards and sideways and to no advantage. The teams tallied 44 clangers each and each team had one goalless quarter and a half where they scored just one goal. Put simply, it was the worst game we have seen in a long time. If not for Jesse Hogan, the film would be destroyed for good never to be seen again. If you haven't seen Jesse in action, the kid is a serious talent and dominated the game. It would have given the crowd of just over 25,000 something to talk about rather than flooding, chip kicking and turnovers.
Halfway across the country the Power and Crows also played in perfect conditions and in short put on a display of our great game for the ages. The teams kicked 35.19 between them despite tallying 11 less possessions than the Demons and Lions. They also went inside 50 on 80 occasions and while the disposal efficiency was just 70% there were reasons for this. Firstly, the Showdown featured two teams attacking through the corridor, kicking to contests and one-on-one contests at every turn. The clanger count was higher in this game, but again it was two teams playing attacking, positive footy rather than kicking it 12 metres sideways to little or no advantage.
Social media was aflutter with comments on both and here's a hint - people only enjoyed one of the games
These were two games of played in near identical conditions by professional athletes and being umpired the same way and yet they were poles apart as a spectacle. There has been lots of commentary of late around the game being ugly, unattractive and too defensive and plenty are advocating changing rules, introducing zones or doing everything to improve the game. Should we accept such a chasm in skills in such an elite competition? I say no - there are reasons why the continual attempts to change rules and tinker are just illogical and that the game should be left alone. We should be focusing on putting the players and coaches on notice to a degree and looking at some key numbers and factors that the issue is not with the game and its rules but those playing it.
Oh, and this is based on the assumption that the seemingly simple decision to remove the substitute and change the interchange cap is taken, as discussed here.
Since the beginning of 2013 the Hawks have won 52 of 65 games and are headed towards what seems an inevitable three-peat, making them the greatest team of our generation. While others choose to turn a game into a defensive slog and create stoppage after stoppage, the Hawks have drafted skilled players and rely on crisp, clean movement of the ball. Where they need a gap filled, they trade or seek free agents. They lead the AFL in possessions, marks, inside 50's and scoring and have done so for the last three years. No doubt they place emphasis on beep tests, skinfolds and fitness as much as the next team but above all they are skilled.
It is no coincidence that the league's most improved team in the West Coast Eagles are coached by a former Hawthorn assistant and have modelled their game on the Hawks. A deep, skilled midfield; a backline that play their role and a strong, multi-faceted attack is built provides an excellent basis for a strong team. Other teams would do well to take this approach on board. The days of being able to create stoppage after stoppage and turning the game into a grind, and still find a way to win on the biggest stage of all seem to have gone (for now at least). That's evolution, and to evolve at the moment is to do as the Hawks do.
Goal kicking and disposal efficiency
The one skill that hasn't improved in relation to the professionalism of the game is goal kicking. The number of set shots that are missed seems to increase year after year. Three of the top four teams on the ladder rank in the top 6 of goal kicking conversion while the bottom six teams on the ladder feature in the bottom half of the goal kicking efficiency table. How often after a game does a coach or player lament 'poor goal kicking' or 'missed opportunities' as a reason for losing a close game. The best teams have the most accurate forwards and make the most of their inside 50 forward entries; the others should be striving to improve in this area rather than be helped out by any rule changes.
The need for efficiency is also relevant around the ground. The top three teams in the league (Hawthorn, Fremantle and West Coast) make more mistakes with the ball than any other team while four of the bottom five on the ladder rank 1st, 4th, 6th and 7th for most clangers. It is a simple game at its core, control the ball and use it well when you have it; the number of teams who seem hell-bent on denying the opposition and focusing entirely on the defensive aspects of the game should be put on notice by the football public. To legislate to assist that style of play rather than challenging teams to develop methods to improve seems counter-productive.
Crowds are up on 2014, and those crowd were up on 2013. After drops of 5.5% and 9.7% from 2010 to 2011 and 2011 to 2012 as the Gold Coast Suns and Greater Western Sydney Giants (and their small fan bases) joined the AFL more and more people have attended and club memberships are continually breaking records. Fans vote with the feet and by handing over their hard-earned and while ticket prices are still seen as expensive, people are going to watch the game. This wouldn't be the case if the product wasn't enjoyed by the majority. Changing the rules won't solve the issue of the rubbish served up at the MCG yesterday, the onus is on clubs to keep fans coming and if they do the wheel will turn again.
Stability of rules
No game is more difficult to officiate that Australian Rules but it doesn't need to be so. The rule changers have created a situation where fans need to be educated and re-educated each year because a number of rules are changed, often on a seemingly reactionary basis. In just the last two years the league have changed the interpretation for holding the ball, cracked down on players ducking their head, governed on forceful contact below the knees and tweaked the rules relating to marking contests. Sometimes it seems as though the game is being over-governed for a reason that is not clear to anyone. A push in the back is a push in the back, a high tackle is anything above the shoulders, if you are tackled and don't dispose of it immediately when you have had a chance that's holding the ball. The powers that be would be well placed following the lead of soccer and just leaving the game alone. Not only would it make it far easier to watch but would give players and coaches the chance to develop skills rather than adjust to rule changes.
The AFL openly supports equalisation. The draft and salary cap are aimed at giving clubs and supporters hope that in a 5-7 year period they will be able to contend for a premiership and played at a sustained level of excellence. The concessions handed out for free agency might be inconsistent but surely must aim to compensate those lower-ranked teams who lose players chasing success or money elsewhere. There has been significant commentary on football department spend and whether that should be evened up, and whether location-based concessions like those given to Sydney are for the good of the game or just political tools. Why not just leave things as they are, introduce a lottery system for the national draft and encourage teams to be bold and try to win rather than assuring them of high draft picks for being bad.
So what do we make of the game today? Does the groundswell of opinion about the product have basis or is it an unwarranted reaction? Or is the onus on players and coaches to change their approach and the rules to stay put. The game styles of Hawthorn and the Eagles, epic clashes like yesterday's Showdown and the need to be able to generate scores to achieve the ultimate and win the premiership all lend support to letting the game evolve rather than legislating it for what seems to be no good reason. Lets make the players and coaches earn their money and embrace an attacking game rather than change rules until they do what is seen to be 'the right thing'.
We have seen three uncompetitive Grand Finals since 2004 while the rest have been a mixture of brutal, skilled, intense footy. The rules have changed but above all the game has evolved. Sydney introduced contested footy in the mid 2000's and the West Coast Eagles took them on with skill and flair. Geelong dominating by attacking from defence through the middle of the ground, and Collingwood brought intense pressure with the drawn Grand Final of 2010 being one of the great, contested matches of our time. In 2011 the brilliance of Geelong was revived one last time, Sydney found a balance between contested and skilled footy in 2012 and since then the Hawks have dominated with a style and skill level unlike anything we have seen.
What the Hawks do now is the 'right thing' but whose to say that will be the case in 12 months time. Rather than changing more rules to justify its existence, the league should sit back and see what will happen next.