Morphing of interpretation over time is an interesting dilemma.
Back in the day if you were caught with the ball it was a free kick. Everyone was acutely aware of how quickly you could get rid of it and most players had the awareness to know they were about to be tackled and would act accordingly.
Players knew this and would either get rid of it immediately (and haphazardly) or didn’t take possession and knocked the ball on.
In fact the ball was not handballed to them in the first place. (That is probably the reason there are 420 possessions a game these days and not 220 as was the case.)
The other interesting aspect was it nearly obliterated the need to have multiple handballs in a confined, contested-ball area because sooner or later the tackler would nail someone with the footy.
The other outcome was the ball being cleared from congested areas by hand or foot immediately.
The critically important effect of this contested ball mayhem was the need to have players forward of the ball to contest the haphazard kick, knock-on or handball.
Over time players – through coaching – have learned the art of bluffing umpires. Put simply players will not release the footy to space or opponents and if they do they will be front and square at the video review getting pilloried by coaches for releasing the footy.
I find it amazing the hand speed of players executing handballs to teammates in general play, yet equally astonishing how slow they are when a teammate is not available to receive it?
The rule does not stipulate prior opportunity “only when an option is available”. When there is no option watch players make a simple, nanosecond handball a long drawn out clumsy attempt that ends up being adjudicted a ball up by the umpires because he didnt have prior opportunity.
I find it equally amusing how players no longer raise their arms just prior to the inevitable tackle to release the ball. If their hands are free they must release the ball – which they dont want to.
They want a stoppage, reset, start again.
Players – Nathan Buckley & Chris Judd immediately come to mind – were outstanding at raising their arms keeping them free from being pinned by the tackler and able to release footy to a teammate on the outside. In this current tactical minefield, coaches have become paranoid of the footy being released in a pressure tackling situation. They believe the more controlled, conservative approach is to accept the tackle, create a stoppage and start again. This is a similar premeditated approach to moving the ball around the boundary line and avoiding the corridor so that at any point in time it is easy to get it out of bounds for another stoppage. It also makes the situation easier to defend.
This is the mindset all over the ground – defend first, attack second.
The upshot of all this tactical genius is a boring, manic-defence driven, conservative display to the fans. Coaches couldn’t care less about this of course. They think they are doing the best thing for their footy club – how wrong they are.
There was a time when teams believed the greatest form of defence was attack. Getting the ball into dangerous positions – corridor – was the best way to put the opposition under the pump. That’s not the case these days. Apart from finals football and definitely Grand Final day at the MCG.
Coaches – from both sides I might add – are comfortable to have a defensive, conservative, risk averse approach to their ball movement which is ably supported by 36 players in the back half and no options going forward on the turnover.
So what do the AFL do?
They form a committee of guru’s to think tank over 30 options to change rules. These possible options are seen as ways to unclog the game and make congestion more difficult.
What they haven’t considered is the ability of coaches – with too much time on their hands and too many involved – to counteract the potential rule changes with equally controlling, conservative measures that renders the new rules useless.
The option I consider most effective is detailed in the first part of this article; if you are caught with the ball it is a free kick, unless the ball is knocked out in the tackle without prior opportunity.
It is how the rule was meant to be but we have morphed it over time (decades) into giving much more time and flexibility to the ball carrier than they need to get rid of it.
Now before you jump to the ridiculous assumption that players will not contest the footy and will stand back and wait for a player to take possession to tackle him, think through your logic deeply. Take time this week to watch a game whilst applying the simple authentic application of the rule and I am certain you will see its ability to change the game dramatically. It will arrest it away from the conservative, defensive approach adopted by coaches and give the game back to the players and significantly improve the spectacle.
On top of this if teams do not have players forward of the ball to receive these “haphazard” kicks it will be at their peril. This will assist the structure of teams and the excitement with enhanced, multiple contested-ball situations.
Finally I am a strong advocate of leaving the game alone. Focus on the people – the coaches – that are adversely affecting the spectacle and hold them to account. The media needs to delve more deeply into the psyche adopted by coaches in their defensive set ups. Ask the questions and when you get your standard lame explanation ask “why” and then ask “why” again. Eventually you’ll get to the root cause of their strategy – fear and security!