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Why ‘fixing’ the AFL may be both harder and easier than it looks

Jordan De Goey grimaces as he hits the ground, while Trent Cotchin completes the tackle

Have you heard the good news? Australian rules football is broken.

We can’t say we weren’t warned either. In fact, proclamations of our game’s demise have been broadcast annually for well over a century now, which means the origins of the annual “state of the game” debate can probably be traced to the late 1800s and an angry phone-in segment after a scrappy South Melbourne-Hotham match.

For as long as the sport has existed, so has a contingent of followers who insist it used to be great, it’s currently rubbish and change is required lest it somehow get even worse.

Indeed, despite the global consensus that this year has, in fact, been “unprecedented”, there is a pretty obvious precedent for the state of the game debates that have broken out after round four of the 2020 AFL season.

This year, the cries for revolution are more urgent then ever, reaching a fever pitch after those less-than-inspiring Melbourne-Geelong and Hawthorn-North Melbourne offerings on Sunday. It’s now or never, they say, and everything is on the table.

Set up the zones! No more kicking backwards! Fewer interchanges! More free kicks! Make the teams smaller! Bonus points! No more boundary throw ins!

These are just some of the “levers” to be pulled. Some of them are the “nuclear options”. Some are just “tinkering”.

Jordan De Goey grimaces as he hits the ground, while Trent Cotchin completes the tackle
A number of rule changes have been suggested as ways to improve the spectacle.(AAP: Michael Dodge)

None of it will really do anything. There are a number of reasons for that.

One of which is that there isn’t really complete agreement about what is wrong with the game, other than the fact scoring is down and we’re not seeing weekly remasters of the 1989 grand final.

Congestion around the ball is one major issue, and it’s true that a growing emphasis on pressure and tackling has led to way more numbers at contests, more repeat stoppages and some pretty fumbly and untidy periods of play. It’s not great to watch.

The other stated problem is “defending with the ball” — slow and conservative ball movement by foot that sees teams chip the ball passively rather than force a more risky attack. Again, it’s true that teams are primarily set up to avoid costly turnovers in dangerous areas, and defensive structure is king. It too can be a test of a viewer’s patience at times.

It’s a bit of everything, then. The main rules and objectives of the game haven’t changed that much over the years, and yet we’ve now reached the point where both inside and outside the contest, it’s no good.

That suggests the issue runs deeper than surface-level fiddling can reach.

Not just an Aussie rules problem

It’s fair to say then that the crux of the issue seems to be an overly defensive mindset from coaches and teams, one that is more fearful of conceding points than it is motivated by scoring them.

In other words, it’s a professional sport. And like almost every professional sport in the world, the balance between offence and defence will sometimes slip off kilter and the spectacle will be affected.

Todd Goldstein stands with his eyes closed and the ball in front of him with a player in yellow singlet holding onto his legTodd Goldstein stands with his eyes closed and the ball in front of him with a player in yellow singlet holding onto his leg
Scoring has been steadily dropping in recent years.(AAP: Scott Barbour)

Aussie rules is certainly not the only code to run into eye-test issues.

Look at football. Some of the most successful managers in history — looking at you, Mr Mourinho — have faced criticism for overemphasising pragmatism and sucking the individualism out of the game, while others — like Mr Guardiola — are accused of bringing the game into monotony with consistent, persistent, incessant possession.

Basketball has gone through countless reinventions and rule changes and still struggles to settle on a universally popular style of game. What was once too slow, too dominated by the big men, too low scoring is now too predictable, all about shooting threes, too obsessed with the metrics.

Rugby league’s recent rule changes are being held up as the shining example of what a tweak under the hood can do, but even it is not without its problems and there has not yet been enough time for coaches to devise ways to effectively counter it.

Which is really what all this comes down to. Coaches are paid to win games. If they do not, they lose their jobs. At the end of the day, especially for coaches of developing or struggling teams, doing what is required to bank wins is going to to be prioritised over putting on a show.

Footy’s circle of life

This is especially relevant in this of all years. Teams can hardly train together at the moment, and when they are allowed to gather as an entire unit, they’re now not allowed to touch each other.

Trying to formulate a cohesive, team-wide attacking strategy is awfully difficult under the circumstances. Much simpler is getting players as fit as possible and telling them which parts of the ground to clog up so their equally underprepared opponents can’t get a run on.

Connor Rozee takes off with the ball as Matt Rowell unsuccessfully stretches to tackle him.Connor Rozee takes off with the ball as Matt Rowell unsuccessfully stretches to tackle him.
Port Adelaide and Gold Coast have been the stand out teams in the past few weeks.(AAP: Darren England)

Games are shorter, players aren’t as fatigued. Some of them are living in hotels and training on golf courses. It’s a weird season, and it’s only going to get weirder. Pitching substantial reform in the middle of this mess may not be the brightest idea.

Also — and this really shouldn’t be forgotten — it’s not all bad. There are teams playing genuinely attractive and exciting footy against the odds this season.

League leaders Port Adelaide, the rising Gold Coast Suns, the hell-for-leather Brisbane Lions, the inconsistent but willing Saints. They’re not alone, but those teams are proving that there is reward in risk and have devised a method for dealing with the quagmire.

Because that’s what happens. The good teams find a way and the bad teams find a way to stop them, so the good teams find a new way and on and on it goes.

Footy’s circle of life demands that good will inevitably prevail over evil, a fact the list of recent premiers illustrates most clearly — how far back do you have to go to find an “unwatchable” champion? Does one even exist in this sport?

If given room to breathe, the cream will rise to the top and the rest will follow suit. This year, more than ever, time rather than tinkering may be our best bet.