Who do you penalise when every attempt to make a game better, or, at least more fluid fails? When the ball movement is so restricted that for minutes the same thirty players have barely moved. Though the ball has passed through enough hands to have travelled the length of the field twice.
This is the state that the AFL has found themselves. One a long time coming.
I believe I have revealed before that Australian Rules Football is ‘the’ oldest code of football in the world. Yes that is “in the woorrlld!” to be read in the voice of Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear fame. For more information I implore everyone to read ‘A Game of Our Own’ by Geoffrey Baliney it is filled with the story of the establishment and constant evolution that is Aussie Rules.
From Amateur to Professional.
I was born on the western coast of the Australia, in Fremantle a proud bastion of Aussie Rules that has developed great talent and passion for the game. It is a statement of pride to say my earliest football moment was at an East Fremantle game with my Grandmother. I remember those games and going to see Old Easts (now the Sharks) play. It was a game for running and bouncing the ball. It was a fast game with high scores and many goals. It was a game in transition from amateur to professional.
Today it is a professional game where hopefuls dream about making big money, playing on the MCG in September and winning premierships. The money is bigger, the game is bigger, the pressure is bigger. Especially on those in charge of the game. And, there is an issue of power in the game that has been a result of these pressures and the professionalism that is now required. Who has control of the game?
A Grumbling of Rule Changes.
My Mother passed a group of ladies grumbling about the way the rules have changed recently. They were not in favour of any of them, even the change in naming rights to Docklands Stadium. They were just behaving like most fans are right now. That is because the new normal is change.
There is a stricter definition on prohibited contact penalising the use of clenched fists. This will impact some players more than others. Especially those with history of being overtly aggressive. While the weight of this new definition fell on James Sicily of Hawthorn a few weeks ago, others will bear the brunt of it too. For me it was the case of first player to break it gets hit the hardest. Was he made an example of? I doubt it. However the cost in the mids of Hawthorn supporters was that the umpires decision cost them the game.
With AFL this year contentious decisions are never far from happening. The sliding into rule is being defined right now as any player that topples over another player will be penalised. I remember the old cry that AFL will become no different from Netball. Of this I am unsure but the situation is not easy and the stakeholders will have to work this out, together. Though I am not that sure this will happen anytime soon.
Penalise the Coaches.
Who owns, or at least, who governs the game. Players, Coaches, Clubs, Officials, the Media? There was a comment made recently that one of the major rule changes was to penalise the coaches. This was to ban the overuse of runners.
For those who do not know runners, run out onto the field to give players information. The original job description was to tell players they were being interchanged or moved to a new position on the field. Runners are often past players, they know the flow of the game and can relay strategies to players. In the mind of some they are a coach on the field.
The new rule allows them on the field ONLY after a goal was kicked. This has resulted in a set of innovations from numbers used to signal who is to be taken off the field, to a ‘+’ and ‘-’ to indicate tactics required. Despite this the intent of the AFL officials was clear, the coaches are part of the problem. Similar to James Sicily, the coaches are being restricted. For coaches it is their access to the players during the game.
In the change from amateur to professional the pressures have led coaches to more and more defensive measures in playing the game. While rule changes about players and in game conditions have been considered they have been worked around by the coaching group. It is their job to find creative ways to win. As innovations are trialed and tested they push the game down paths that may not be to the traditional spirit of the game.
What has been exchanged?
Which leads us back to the ladies my Mum met this week. Back to the old game I watched with my Grandmother. Back to a time which was not that long ago. The games I remember looked like the 1986 State of Origin game between Western Australia and Victoria. The final score was W.A. 21. 11 (137) VICTORIA 20.14 (134). Can you imagine that today?
I first asked, who do you penalise? It is the wrong question. Perhaps the right question is; what was exchanged to get to here from there? There something in the amateur spirit that the professional climate suffocates. Those same stakeholders how do they see themselves as masters, with dominion over the game or as custodians? If we expect those in charge to lead by example, what example is on display?
Phillip Hall is a long time supporter of East Fremantle and still expects that football can return to something like its former glory. Try the last 13 minutes final quarter of the State of Origin Game on youtube