The wall looms closer now than ever. The league brought in six-six-six starting positions at centre bounces, but it has had only minimal effect. Now, in the fine print of rule changes (mark 75,648) announced on Wednesday, the AFL is poised to bring in even further zones in 2022.
A rule will be trialled in the seconds next year that asks for three pairs of players to be in the two 50-metre arcs (with one pair in each goal square) whenever there is a boundary throw-in or kick-in. How that is policed is still to be decided.
To keep the games moving, teams will have to be quickly punished for not having six players each in the two arcs. Thus it is effectively permanent zones – you have to hold six players permanently in each end of the ground.
If it is generously policed, the games will be long, slow and drawn out and players won’t need the breaks they get from interchange rotations, because they will get regular breathers at boundary throw-ins.
Though it will be trialled in the new second-tier competition next year, there are plans to bring it in to the AFL in 2022.
But the AFL has already allowed defenders to play on from a kick-in and demanded players drop into zones, with six players in each third of the ground for the restart after a goal is kicked. And still the problems persist. Still the broadcasters ask, “Where are the goals? Where are the ad breaks?”
More immediately, the AFL has taken another baby step and further cut interchange rotations next year.
They were 90 per game this year but were not reduced further when game lengths were significantly cut to handle the packed fixture due to the COVID-19 hiatus. Next year games will be longer than this year and rotations cut to 75.
The AFL reasons that the more tired the players are, the less they can run end to end on the ground in a rolling maul and therefore they will stick to their nominal ground positions.
In other words, if players fatigue like they used to before the interchange explosion in the late 2000s, football will be played like it was in the early 2000s.
Logically, it should happen. But it hasn’t.
Since the AFL started reducing interchange rotations, scoring has continued to dive, congestion remains unsightly and defence is still king.
So far the problem is not being fixed by the chosen cure.
The league has also tinkered with other things. Players are more punitively punished for deliberate out of bounds; the rule has morphed into “you haven’t tried hard enough to keep the ball in” instead of “you meant that”.
Now the question for the AFL, as they buckle into the DeLorean and give the time dial another whirl in an attempt to get back to the future, is this: have they been too timid with the interchange rule? Or are interchange rotations actually irrelevant?
Don’t cut rotations to 75, cut them to 40 – 10 per quarter. Or why not 20 – five per quarter? If that fixes the problem, good. The AFL won’t need to fool around with more rule changes.
It won’t need to bother with meaningless tweaks like the ones brought in for next year. For instance, the player standing the mark cannot move laterally or he gives away a 50-metre penalty. Genius. So instead, the player stands half a metre back from the mark and runs wherever the hell he wants. That rule took all of 10 seconds to counter.
The other one, pulling the player on the mark at a kick-in back another five metres – does the ball get bombed five metres further away from goal and clear the area because players have that fraction more time? Doubtful.
If they have that much more time to run further out before kicking it then they will have to take a bounce or they will have run too far. If they bounce, they risk getting caught.
My hunch is the AFL will find the interchange was never really the problem and so couldn’t be the answer.
But will a wall make the AFL great again?
Maybe. But it’s coaches who need to be the ones wearing the red caps, not the AFL. Coaches need to be brave enough to challenge the orthodoxy, where it is a heresy to call yourself anything other than a “defence-first” team.
The most successful teams each year are always top-four for defence, so rivals see defensiveness as a path to success. But invariably, the best teams are also top-four for attack. This point tends to get overlooked.
Coaches need to be encouraged to change their mindset. They need to be rewarded for attacking play – an extra point for scoring more than 100 points in a game perhaps? – not just punished if they rush their players on and off the ground.
They can make the game great again. And it won’t be by building a wall.
Michael Gleeson is an award-winning senior sports writer specialising in AFL and athletics.