AFL Needs a Rejig

The basis of most hysteria and discussion, followed by "knee-jerk" rule changes are generally one of the following;

1: "A really bad look for footy".
2: "A bad example for kids footy".
3: "Wrong message to send players including kids".

I have a novel idea that should have been introduced 20 years ago when officials took their oath to destroy the game as we knew it and adopt a community minded and vigilant approach to footy.

How about make a distinct gap between AFL and EVERY other competition in the land from juniors to seniors, country to metropolitan, women to men and seniors to reserves.

There is no doubt in my mind that the AFL executive and Commission completely lack courage and conviction and do not truly understand what they stand for and what the game fundamentals are. It seems the AFL executive is most interested in junior footy and every other league and uses the AFL to define it, rather than perhaps the other way around?

In their bumbling attempts to represent the community and be the lighthouse for society standards they are destroying the fabric of the game and diluting its greatest differentiating factor.

When anybody from overseas came to see our game they were gobsmacked with its physicality, intimidation and power. It was a tough, relentless game.
Before anyone jumps to the defence of today's players let me make this crystal clear – they are easily as tough and brave and courageous as any other era, they just don't have the rules or the coaching to allow them to display it on a regular basis.

I find more recently that people from overseas no longer hold that gladiator type view. Instead they just think its highly skilled and athletic, very difficult to understand and the rules are hard to follow.

This change in perception would be considered a major success by the community conscious AFL leaders.

Simply – in my mind – the AFL should be the big boys, the gladiators. All other competition's outside the AFL should not be allowed to have the same rules, interpretations or guidelines.
Use all other competitions and grades to send the message to society about safety.
That's not to say the AFL does not have that overlay, it just isn't bound by them. Similar to pro boxing and amateurs. One has head gear, bigger gloves and less time the other doesn't.

What has been happening over the last decade or so is this; players are becoming very poor at awareness and self-protection because the rules have been so heavily weighted to "clean footy". The by-product of this is players do not know how to protect themselves at all times. The have relinquished that duty and think its the AFL's job. An example is, "I'm allowed to drive heard first into a contest because I'll either get a free kick or the umpire will protect me."

An example would be the recent Toby Greene incident raising his leg into Dahlhaus' face to protect the area whilst marking. Dahlhaus 10 years ago would've expected contact from Toby Greene and prepared accordingly. There are many incidents where players are being concussed because they just do not have the awareness or self protection in the first place and rely too heavily on the rules and umpires.

AFL is still the most dynamic, skilful, intense game going around however it could be 20-30% better if they stopped being the moral compass for society and advertised AFL as a dangerous, powerful and unique game with "pro rules" as distinct from all other grades. People want danger, they like to witness sportspeople overcoming adversity and handling fear.

The head can still be protected, punching and thuggery would still be completely outlawed however the element of danger needs to rise and the responsibility for self protection must lay with the professional gladiators – not the Commission, executive, rules committee or umpires.

After that, all we have to do is convince the coaches to change their risk averse, interest-sapping, un-Australian, boring tactics/strategies and we will return to the lead as the most amazing game on the planet.

Coaches Culpable for Concussion

Let’s make one thing very clear, coaches determine if players hold on to the ball or release it. 

Game reviews are brutal both as a group and one on one.  Coaches hate the ball released to a 50/50 situation or – worse still -directly to an opponent. Coaches like to control the game to within an inch of its life and in doing so demand that players hold on to the ball, create a ball up and start again. 

Coaches have become so risk averse that the game presents a neutral Mexican stand off on too many occasions. 

Interestingly come serious finals time the shackles are released and teams take many more risks. 

Players can release the footy in a nanosecond – believe me. They do it when it suits but when it doesn’t they revert to holding the ball close to their chest & absorbing the tackle. On most occasions it’s a ball up, “let’s structure up and start again” – mission accomplished. 

The rule doesn’t say you must have a team mate in the direct vicinity to release the footy to, however coaches demand it, players fulfil it and umpires accomodate. 

By holding ball close to chest the tackler is able to wrap the player up completely and subsequently he has no hands free to protect the fall. The result is sometimes concussion. 

There was a phase when players raised their arms to avoid being wrapped up and released footy to team mate.

When was the last time you saw a player raise his arms in this manner? Interesting isn’t it. Coaches have decided it’s unreliable and asked for more security by creating a ball up. 

In essence players are putting themselves into vulnerable positions at the request of their coaches. 

Unfortunately, media, AFL & others are looking at the effects and ignoring the causes. The effects are dramatic. Nobody wants to see concussed players. Like boxers, AFL players need to protect themselves at all times. 

The answer is to pay holding the ball to any players that are caught with the footy standing up. The upside is the ball is kept alive and released to a contested situation. This is what gets fans on the edge of their seats. There is nothing more deflating for the game than a ball up. When the ball is kept alive it creates a manic anticipation & excitement for fans  – albeit too much for the coaches to handle. 

If the ball is released just prior or during tackle – irrespective of where it lands – the player has his arms free and can protect his fall or even better still, tackler will release otherwise a free kick will be the result. 

Players are concussed and it’s somewhat of a badge of honour because its avoidable. Coaches need to have the courage and conviction to direct their players to release the footy. This is not the tacklers fault. 

Nick Riewoldt

Guangzhou China November 2005;
It was our final day before departure after an amazing cultural and training experience. The players were keen to pin their ears back, enjoy a few cold Tsingtao’s and perhaps introduce themselves to the local club scene. The 3 week session was incredibly taxing so the last night social was eagerly anticipated.
“Sunshine we need to thank our hosts tomorrow for their wonderful hospitality at the training camp.
They’ve struggled for 3 weeks trying to understand English so I thought it may be a nice touch for you to do the presentation on the clubs behalf in Chinese?
It would be good for your development and show great leadership.”
“Yeah I’ll give it a crack.” says Nick.
The following day Nick delivers a (near) faultless display thanking our Chinese friends.
What we didn’t know is that Nick gave up his right to go out with his 40+ team mates and sat in his room all night researching and putting together his 60 second Chinese thank you.
That says something.
People have said that Nick Riewoldt runs his opponents into the ground – rubbish.
He has never had a preconceived idea to run an opponent off his legs. He is such a competitive, driven beast he is on a never-ending pursuit of winning the footy. I’m not even certain he could name his opponent after a game – such is his fanatical focus on winning the ball.
The fact his opponent usually drops off is simply this; after 50 or so inside 50’s Nick has probably made multiple leads on all of those. That amounts to somewhere around 150 top-end sprints of varying distances. They are not to drop his opponent off, they are to win the ball.
That says something.
Nick has three primary qualities when meshed together provide a outstanding sportsperson.
Firstly he is a sponge for knowledge, information and development – he wants to get better, he wants to be the best he can be.
Secondly he is incredibly driven – hates failure and lack of effort.
Thirdly he is the pro’s pro – the ultimate professional. Leaves nothing to chance and dedicates himself to the task (sport) and challenge.
When you have a very good learner, who is motivated to succeed and prepares themselves in an “elite” manner, you have a superstar.
That says something.
Nick came to see me at my office in 2012, somewhat down in the mouth and on the precipice of throwing in the towel.
“Thomo I’m a bit flat and wanted to have a chat about my footy. How do you think it’s going?”
“Well Rooey I have a view as usual but it doesn’t really matter what I think – what do you think?”
“I think I want to start enjoying my footy” said Nick.
In essence the grind of successive Grand Final defeats was taking its toll.
“So you want to give up, toss it in, walk away? Because as sure as hell I won’t sit here and listen to this crap from you when you still have so much to give and do” I said (with a few more statements added in).
Needless to say Nick received a little “reality” about his desire to “enjoy” his footy. Nick was left with a decision to either retire from the game there and then or dig deeper into his heart and mind for an even greater effort and commitment to his game (which I wasn’t even sure was possible to be frank).
His response on the field was dramatic. He clearly understood that football enjoyment was an outcome not an input. Nick understands the cause and effect theory very well.
You don’t have a career for 17 years without a few of these hiccups. Nick is defined by the way he handles pressure and stressful situations. He’s had his fair share. The agonising and bitter circumstances around those close Grand Finals were used as a catalyst to dig in, recalibrate, re-align and go again.
That says something.
Nick Riewoldt is an amazing athlete playing footy. He has taken more marks than any player in the history of the game, and he did it with raw courage.
Not the type of courage we all admired at the SCG against Sydney when he put himself and others in serious mortal danger. Without consideration for his own circumstances he launched himself at a football he had no right to contest. Robert Harvey kicked the ball towards Stephen Milne and Nick wasn’t that far from Harv’s when he kicked it but he put his head down and sprinted with all his muscles pumping in unison to get him to a severely dangerous contest some 40 metres away. How he didn’t hurt himself or others is still a mystery. I was only able to watch from the coach’s box with one eye closed and the other squinting in anticipation of a dreadful outcome. In a strange way it defines Nick; his grace, his courage, his athleticism, his artistry.
That says something.
You see I have heard more opinions about Nick Riewoldt than I care to remember. The mystique around him is palpable. Through every publicised event during his incredibly successful career. Today at his press conference he put it all to rest. He joined the dots for all those fans who thought they knew Nick and wanted to believe he was something else.
He is just a remarkably talented guy from terrific family network that loves his chosen sport and was prepared to do anything to extract every ounce of potential out of his body. Simple to him. Extraordinary to us.
That says something.

Daring, Bravery Trumps All

Roger Federer said “Be free in your head, be free in your shots, the brave will be rewarded here.”, and “play the ball, not the opponent”.

What he meant is; he was not afraid to lose and was prepared for that outcome in an attempt to win.

He had many more unforced errors but also many more winners than Nadal, who is renowned as a defensive brick wall, keeping the ball in play. This seduces opponents to play the same – just keeping the ball in play and getting it back in. The problem is Nadal is the best in the business at this.

In a similar seduction the Swans and Eagles went through a bore fest during 2005 and 2006. Both teams exerting maximum negative, defensive tactics on each other and willing them into low score defeats.

When you are afraid to lose you provide manic support behind the ball, congestion at stoppages, control the ball movement patterns and maintain possession by passing the ball backwards and sideways.

There is a lot of sport these days that engages in an Indian arm wrestle of conservative counter punching – too afraid to deliver winning shots, knock out blows, 3 pointers, length of ground tries, dangerous passes, daring touchdowns and magnificent goals.

Basketball is a classic example. Whilst its a tad unfair (nevertheless the point is made), that its only worth watching the last 3 minutes of a basketball game because only then are they interested in actually winning the game.

I am of the view that if the Patriots were a bit closer to the Falcons in SuperBowl ’17 they would not have succeeded!

It was the enormous gap that provided the coaches with the daring and the players with the freedom of spirit to concoct the unbelievable cocktail we all witnessed in Super Bowl ’17. If it was closer, the entire mental dynamic over the game would’ve been different. Falcons are still driving the nail in the coffin and Patriots are still under the pump trying to release themselves and get into the game.

When sportspeople do not stay in the exact current moment and they start to think about the outcome (predict) or delve back into the past by either salivating over good performance or stressing over poor performance, incredibly bizarre things can happen. It happens in a nanosecond, may not even be a conscious thought you remember – but nevertheless the effects are catastrophic.

Without doubt the Falcon’s quarterback Matt Ryan was already on the dais accepting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. He will not acknowledge that fact but take it to the bank – its fact. 

Both teams thought the game was over, however one team reduced their intensity to coast to the line whilst the other team rolled the dice and said “we have nothing to lose”, “lets make the score a bit more respectable through daring”, “who cares what happens now, lets just flick it and chance some things”.

It’s with the aforementioned in mind that I ask with bewilderment why is Suns coach Rodney Eade asking AFL to implement zones to counter congestion?

I was of the understanding that coaches dictated game strategy? Why doesn’t Eade just keep 3 keys forwards in his F50 zone and 3 key defenders in his D50 zone?

What is stopping him?

The answer is that unless other clubs do the same, coaches are concerned the negative, defensive tactics applied by opposition coaches will not allow their team to score as effectively or efficiently. So why bother?

The AFL are in charge of most things and are far too controlling of the game but to suggest they are now in charge of playing patterns, strategy, tactics, ball movement and structures is a bit much for me to comprehend.

What Rodney Eade is staying is this; 

Us coaches are petrified of the media, our board and executive and public criticism of performance. We want to keep our coaching role for a very long time so self preservation is our primary aim. There is no way I’m going to be the fall guy, test the market or try to break the defensive, congested nexus that envelopes the game at the moment. Why should I do it if all the others are just going to counterpunch, strangle and congest?

The easy way is to get the AFL to change rules so coaches have no option other than to play the game like Federer or the Patriots or any other great sports person or team that possesses the bravery, courage and verve to look defeat in the eye and suffer the consequences of trying to win – with honour.

Thank heavens for Bevo and Clarko!

Rules on the Run

Here’s the problem; “Gill McLachlan is the man charged with keeping the game great…”

WRONG!

It’s definitely not his role, nor the Commission’s role – thankfully – it’s also not necessarily the Football Departments role.

The game should not be manipulated, moulded, exploited, engineered or finessed to appease a “moment-in-time” anomaly. 

LEAVE IT ALONE!

There should be no contemplation to reduce teams to 16 a side. This is an absurd suggestion attempting to open space and reduce congestion created by manic coaches too fearful to allow their players the freedom to express their ample talents and instinct. Just because we are on the back end of an unfortunate phase where coaches had a misguided balance between attack and defence we should not knee-jerk into rule changes. It will pass – primarily on the back of the courage and verve shown by premiership winning coach Luke Beveridge along with Hawthorn, Geelong and the Crows to a lesser extent. Make no mistake, coaches are forever meddling with strategy and tactics to reduce player instinct and intuitiveness and control the ball movement and playing patterns.

The introduction of zones will signal the final death knell in an already, maniacally, over-controlled environment. 

One must ask this simple question; “What are the AFL trying to achieve?” 

Is it aesthetics?

Is it safety?

Is it participation?

Is it competing for sport dominance?

Sydney Swans coach, John Longmire has been vocal about full time umpires. His reasoning is awkward at best, reflective “sooky lala” more likely. Seems he blames a few umpire decisions for not winning the premiership. Crying over spilt milk doesn’t appeal and surely is a poor basis for an agenda to change how much time umpires are employed. I’d suggest “Horse” spends more time getting his ample list of coaches to educate, train and motivate his team to perfecting their skills or better still releasing their negative shackles which may assist the outcome of major games.

Imagine $150K a year umpires becoming full time? One can only spitball a salary of around $300K? 

We absolutely need to provide a stronger pathway career for former players to enter umpiring. To me that should be a vital component for the career in the future.

Calls for “reward the tackler” are on the back of a decade of “protect the ball player”. You can’t have it both ways. Now Gillon wants umpires to reward the tackler!

I have a novel suggestion. DEFINE THE RULE AND IMPLEMENT IT!

Rules that can have diametrically opposed interpretations are not rules. As fans we should be incensed that the AFL has the jusrisdiction to emotionally meddle with interpretation as they see fit, changing it back and forth depending on water cooler discussions and intimidation from perceived industry heavyweights.

“If in doubt, play free kicks”, says Gill the Guru. I think he means “pay” but the real point here is who the hell does he think he is giving that direction? The rules should be so clearly defined that they are not debated – they are merely enforced. The CEO has zero jurisdiction in my opinion to provide advice to umpires on how to interpret rules. Butt out. By all means direct a group of people to assess the current rules and provide findings. 

The rule book needs a massive overhaul by way of a summit with qualified people empowered to deliver a succinct, simple, definable and enforceable set of rules for the 21st century.

Gill’s next clanger is the scheduling. He wants to break into conferences. Can you imagine the impact this will have with history and the future? Why do people think they have to change things? I agree the current schedule warrants some attention but unless you can provide a scenario where every team plays each other once with an extended finals series, I have no confidence in other more extravagant options.

Next are his views on James Hird and the endless Essendon saga………..

Staggering. 

I’ll save my more detailed response for another article. 

AFL Rule Meddling Dangerous

Our game as a spectacle is compromised by the strategic and tactical overlay applied by coaching staff.

If the AFL think they can meddle with the rules, apply specified zones or “no-go areas” ala netball and achieve a better outcome they are both gravely mistaken and confirm the naivety they regularly display.

Irrespective of what the AFL “serve” up to the game the over supply of coaching staff will work tirelessly to think of ways to wrest it back under their control.

It seems incredible that this glaringly obvious point has been missed over the past decade or so. 

To find a solution to a problem one must first understand the problem – the root cause. It’s not congestion, its not interchange, its not player fitness and it certainly isn’t sports science. The way we see the game today is a direct reflection of how the coaches want the game to be played. Controlling the flow, slow considered risk averse ball movement patterns and starting from a defensive mindset are all set plans to minimise the risk and retain possession. It is considered abhorrent to put the ball into a contested situation. 

There is no doubt that the current poor interpretation of the prior opportunity rule is contributing significantly to the situation. Cries of “why reward the tackler” and “protect the ball player” ring loud and clear on the paranoid ears of the AFL Football Department, who seem to have a never-ending desire to please society rather than improve the game. If the rule was applied as it is written most players these days would need to rid themselves of the footy in split second time (which by the way is ample prior opportunity – the rule doesn’t cater for the best available team mate option!)

Irrespective of what the AFL do, the coaches will always be one step ahead in trying to break the game down to what they consider is a controlling and manageable level. Unfortunately this is a furphy that does little more than create perceived comfort for the coaches and allows them to have a better hard luck story to tell in defeat. On top of all that it provides a very poor spectacle for the fans and shows a distinct lack of fibre from the people managing the players in my opinion.

The age old adage of “luck fortunes the brave” does prevail thankfully. Most coaches over the last couple of years are starting to identify the real keys to team success and are utilising their list strengths and talents as the cornerstone to their plans rather than a robotic approach which massively dilutes the true potential of AFL players.

Let’s hope the AFL shy away from their ridiculous aspirations to manage and control the game from the sidelines and put pressure on the coaches, clubs and media to adopt more aggressive tactics and take more responsibility for the direction the game is heading. Any way you want to cut it, the game is only 70% as good as it should be as we have negative, defensive tactics and strategies invading a game that is at its best when one dares to win.

Umpiring Outstanding – Well Done

A loose ground ball lays on the MCG. Easton Wood on one side and Dan Hannebery on the other. In a desperate attempt to win possession in the manner we have been raised for decades Wood launches himself headlong at the inevitably disputed ball. Hannebery is a split second later – perhaps wondering “do I dive in for it or do I keep my feet and follow the recent rule change?” In the end Wood wins the ball conclusively and Hannebery is taken from the ground with a potential ACL injury.

Why is this single contest so significant?

Firstly it shows the desperation and commitment from Wood irrespective of rules and regulations – THAT BALL IS MINE!

Secondly it shows the confusing implications of AFL interference under the banner of “brand”. Coaches knew, fans knew, players knew and thankfully the umpires also knew that you couldn’t penalise a player for trying to win a loose ball in a manic contest on the most important day of the year. This should vindicate the umpires to have the rule changed back to how it has been for 100 years.

The only more significant incident than the one highlighted would have been if the scores were level and the contest was in the goal square and Wood wins it to break the deadlock as the siren sounds. This scenario has been talked about ad-nauseum since the imbeciles in the looney house decided to change the interpretation post Adam Goodes diving in to contests and Gary Rohan severely injuring his left knee.

Owner or two isolated incidents do not warrant rule changes. Players adapt. Coaches drill. 

We all knew the AFL would not pay those types of free kicks on Grand Final day – or a cut-throat final for that matter. The decision was made simply to appease the general public and impress the passing parade of “doomsdayers” looking for a perfect outcome to a brutal contest.

We probably counted 10 similar incidents during the game and none of them were paid. Were the umpires intimidated? Did they truly believe in the rule?

The facts are umpires let most insignificant, borderline incidents go during the finals series. Speak to any person at the AFL Umpire division and they’ll say that’s because the best umpires are officiating. Absolute Rubbish. 

It’s all about attitude not ability. The attitude of umpires in big games is totally different. They do not want to influence or impact a game whereas during the season they can strut, impose, be technical, over officiate and think the games about them.

The umpires were brilliant on the weekend and for most of the finals series it might be said. Let’s hope they can continue on in the same vein from Round 1 next year.