Australian Football is indeed a sport that is eccentric in its nature to the outsider. With the frequent comparisons to Rugby, the lack of protective gear on players and the general ferocity of game play, it’s not surprising that the sport leaves novices to the game profoundly starstruck. US media group Vice Sports described the sport as “Violent and Chaotic”, and suggested that to the untrained eye, the game resembles”Aussie No Rules Football”. However to most Australians, our national game is simple in premise- Score more than the opposition at the end of the four quarters.
This concept is arguably the only thing that has remained forefront since the first official match of the sport in 1858- rapid change and evolution of gameplay has transformed the game to resemble the Australian Football we see today. Veteran radio commentator Gerard Whateley, commenting in James Coventry’s Time and Space, a book that looks at the development of tactics that have shaped the modern game remarked “What began as sneaking, storming and dodging saw the game ultimately invaded, stretched and pressed”.
It’s fair to presume that the game will continue to change and progress into the future- we’ll say goodbye to the press, spread, webs and clusters just like we did to the flood, the paddock and huddle.
The future of Australian Football hold unimaginably immense possibilities, so here are five potential factors that could influence change in the future.
The advent of this new form of footy has the potential to heavily influence the style of play seen in the AFL, with the demise of Ruckman in favor of a shorter and more athletic seventh midfielder part of a potential overhaul of the game as we know it.
AFLX could also prove to be the beginning of the end for one of Australian Rules’ most savored and unique spectacles- the specky. We barely saw any large scale displays of contested marking in the first edition of AFLX, with teams favoring short passes to players in space over kicking to a tall in a pack. This was also executed by teams due to the choice of the smaller more agile player over tall, marking types such as the Ruckman, a trend which could carry over into the AFL if such an uncontested and dynamic game like AFLX was to take off. This will truly be a loss to the game in terms of appeal for those who make the game what it is- ultimately the fans.
The last touch out of bounds rule, previously trialed in the NAB Cup, could easily be brought into the AFL in the future, which would undoubtedly help in speeding up the match in an era when quarters push past the 30 minute mark consistently due to the heavy levels of congestion.
The concept of specialist AFL players and franchises as seen in Twenty20 Cricket, a clear inspiration for the AFL’s new format, could also prove to be interesting revelations. Players with particular skill sets not suitable to the traditional game could be utilized, similar to what T20 specialist Andrew Tye does when he lines up for the Perth Scorchers despite not being a regular in the WA Sheffield Shield team. To see non AFL listed players who have missed out for reasons such as lack of body size given a second opportunity would be refreshing and could also provide their AFLX team with an X-Factor. A franchise league in competition with the BBL during the summer school holidays could also be a way forward for the AFL if the format can take off and reach new heights, something footy fans in the Big Bash’s young demographic wouldn’t mind seeing sometime in the future.
2. The American Influence
Since the 1990’s and the advent of the Internet, Australians have taken a greater interest in American Sports, with the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL setting many trends which have been carried across into the Australian sporting scene.
Many AFL coaches have looked at outside sports for inspiration in terms of tactics. David Wheadon, a development coach at Geelong when they won the Premiership in 2007, introduced the premise of “run and carry” based on the “Triangle Offence” system campaigned by NBA coach Tex Winter. This ultimately lead the Cats to their first premiership in 44 years, belting Port Adelaide in the Grand Final and thus starting a storied dynasty.
A tactic that we could see in the AFL very soon and something that is already emerging in AFLX can be seen in the offense of the NBA today. Bleacher Report proclaims “Teams are no longer trotting out five-man units consisting of funny-sounding positions like “power forward” and “shooting guard”…Today’s NBA consists of three positions: ball-handler, swingman and big.” Teams in the NBA are combating this by switching defenders on the pick and roll attack, allowing smaller players to guard larger figures. In AFLX the traditional mantra of position football is completely eliminated considering the game is so focused on attack, which is something which has also appeared in the traditional game through tactics such as the forward press and flooding. AFLX is very reminiscent of Basketball, with its “Your turn my turn” style game and tip-off start, which is why we could see a system of defence like this in the future in AFLX or maybe in the regular season, with smaller teams in size with more skill.
We’re already seeing the beginning of the end for set position players like the Ruckman so it would be interesting to see this concept of defence come to fruition. To see more athletic Ruckmen like Geelong’s Mark Blicavs would be a big win for the game- an increase in the level of skill league-wide will overall make the game a greater spectacle for those experiencing it.
Other American sporting innovations such as the return of the Mid-season draft/ trade period (Scrapped in 1993), which could allow for the recruitment of players who either missed out on the draft or are in good form in the respective State League competitions. Even for teams looking to push for finals who have been crippled by injury or lack an A-Grade superstar to get them deep into September. The Mid-season trade period has long existed in American sports with success, and given the theme of Australian sport riding on America’s wave it’s only a matter of time until the AFL add this to the competition. However, the implementation of a draft may pose some issues for State League clubs already in competition with AFL aligned reserves sides, who may lose their top talents to an AFL team looking to restock. Therefore it seems more logical to bring in just the trade period rather than the draft which would further destroy the once mighty breeding grounds of talent in the state leagues.
The idea of Time outs and ejections (or send offs) also seem to be something that could possibly be implemented in the AFL in the future, although the addition of timeouts won’t appease those already with a distaste for the current length of games. The send off rule also seems like something that should be considered in the growth of AFL for freak incidents such as Barry Hall’s sucker punch in 2008 that resulted in a seven week suspension and a huge amount of negative press for the AFL. Removing players from the game who have committed atrocities deserving of a “sin bin” sentence seems only fair considering the pain they have inflicted on the victim, while also allowing for the Umpires to stay in control of the game. It will also make penalty decisions for the AFL Tribunal more equitable and consistent by setting precedents which are easier to follow.
3 . Concussion
In what is proving to be a huge issue over in the NFL has also become an issue here in Australia. Given the fierce, bruising nature of AFL, the issue of concussion, defined as a “traumatically induced strain to the brain,” is one of rising concern across the league. In 2016, injuries as a result of concussion increased from 4.2 per club in 2015 to 5.6 in 2016, proving the severity and danger concussion poses to players.
Players sustaining numerous heavy head impacts have been forced to retire, such as former Brisbane Lion Justin Clarke who in 2016 was forced to retire at just 22 after a training accident that left him with headaches, memory loss and dizziness which continued 8 weeks prior to his incident. He has been left with severe head trauma and the knowledge he can no longer play contact sports because his brain will not be able to sustain another hit. Jack Fitzpatrick of Hawthorn also faces a similar predicament, as does St Kilda young gun Paddy McCartin who will be forced to retire if he receives another hit to the head- In 2016 he was involved in 3 separate incidents of head trauma.
This factor ultimately will cause some sort of change because of the danger of repeat concussions for players. Although their is no way to eliminate concussion entirely from the game, as has been shown by the NFL whose helmets have not stopped the concussion issue but arguably have made it more dire. In a perfect world, the mandate of compulsory helmet use would completely eliminate this problem, but in a reality that’s not going to eventuate, so a possible way we could see the game develop is by introducing more stringent congestion rules which could open the game up (As seen in the U18 National Championships where a certain number of players are only allowed to be around the ball at certain times.) and offer some sort of control on the impact on concussion. Unlike other factors on this list, this development won’t occur naturally, only the league can change this in the future. The concussion issue is a potential landmine for the AFL, so the quicker the issue is somewhat mitigated the better.
The puzzle piece that joins all these factors together. Congestion is one of the AFL’s biggest issues currently, and is something the league has attempted to rectify with removing rules such as the “last touch” rule in AFLX and AFLW and 7 a side games in AFLX to try and speed the game up to create a better fan experience. An attempt to quell the swarm the players in contest for the ball which could also be used to limit concussions is a similar “zone” system to that which has been used in the past few iterations of the NAB AFL Under 18’s Carnivals.
A rule like this could entail teams being required to have at least six players outside of their and the opposition’s attacking halves at all time, which would create less congested forward halves and faster and more high scoring matches that will be much more appealing to current and potential viewers of the action.
The use of this rule can only bring positives to the flow of the game- unlike the stringent zones set in junior versions of the game like Auskick the use of such as a rule allows for players to still retain their freedom to move across the field (something that makes Australian Rules unique from other sporting codes which have offside rules to limit attacking) while still maintaining and creating a more orderly style of game that will gradually evolve as coaches adapt to the game and innovate with new tactics.