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‘They should be pinged’: AFL boss urges umps to pay holding the ball

“I think we need to be tougher on holding the ball. I think prior opportunity needs to be tighter because our players are so skilled and they are assessing it and taking the tackle. But I am one voice, I am one person out there, what would I know?”

The AFL had previously done significant research on the state of the game, with Steve Hocking and former league analyst David Rath exploring a range of options to address trends in the game, and introducing rule changes, including starting positions in zones and kick-in tweaks. These have not altered the course of trends in the game.

Rath has since left the AFL to work with St Kilda. The league employed former North Melbourne coach Brad Scott to look at game innovation but he has been stood down due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The AFL argues that this season is such an extraordinary one due to the COVID-19 hiatus, the training restrictions, shorter quarters, no crowds and hubs, it is impossible to draw conclusions for the game and what will happen when conditions normalise.

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Others suspect it is a continuation of the existing trend to defence-first, congested football.

Richmond great Kevin Bartlett, who served on the rules of the game committee until 2014, has long argued that the biggest change to the game, with the most devastating consequences, was the hijacking of the interchange bench, from emergency use to cover injured players, to being a tool to minimise the impact of fatigue in the game.

Bartlett argues that fatigue is the most important ingredient in sport, not just football, and increasing fatigue by radically cutting the number of rotations would have the most consequential impact of any changes suggested.

“Fatigue is the governor of the sport,” Bartlett said. “It only came in, in 1977, to cover for injured players, it has not been around forever. In the 1980 grand final Richmond made two interchanges.

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“If the people that made the change knew how it would be used they would never have brought it in.”

Bartlett rejected the idea of reducing the number of players on the ground to 16 a side as a way of de-congesting the game.

“It is in the official AFL charter that there will be two teams of 18 players, so you can forget about that change, it is fundamental to the game,” he said.

Bartlett said the problem was the defence-first attitude of coaches where scoring was an afterthought, only after they stopped the opposition scoring and the denied them the ball with keepings off.

“My phone goes off constantly with text messages from former players during games saying how bad and boring games are,” Bartlett said.

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