Now, that is changing.
While the stats don’t show a dramatic rise in one-on-one contests in the forward 50, that can be explained by the fact the ball is moving so quickly that defenders often aren’t in position to make a contest with their opponent.
They’re so used to guarding space, rather than an opponent, they’re being caught out.
There are a couple of players worth a closer look – not because they’re the worst culprits, but because they’re two of the best players in the competition, who might need to adjust.
Dylan Grimes and Harris Andrews would be among the first picked in any defensive setup. They have the ability to both nullify their opponent, and also zone off.
But have they’ve been hurt by footy’s new rules?
Shorter quarters last year mean that isn’t a fair reference point. But comparing a few key statistics from the early rounds of this season with their averages of 2019 there is a clear difference.
In 2019 – an All-Australian year – Grimes conceded, on average, 11.2 disposals, 3.8 marks and 1.2 goals a game. After three rounds in 2021, it’s 15 disposals, 6.7 marks and 1.7 goals.
Andrews, meanwhile, has gone from conceding 11 disposals, 4.7 marks and 1.4 goals a game to his opponent two years ago, to 12.3 disposals, 4.7 marks and two goals a match in 2021.
Interestingly, both have seen their average of one-on-one contests jump with Grimes going from 20.7% to 33.3% of his contests and Andrews 25.5% to 33.3%.
As always, statistics can be deceiving, but it begs the question about whether this is an anomaly or a trend.
How much will defenders – even of the calibre of Grimes and Andrews – have to adapt?
If the current trend continues, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a shift in how defenders are viewed at the junior level, in terms of their ability to shut down an opponent, and also how they’re coached once they’re in the system.
Right now, I assume every coaching group would be spending more time focusing on one-on-one contests, positioning and bodywork.
But that coaching is two-fold.
The best defenders, like Grimes and Andrews, are constantly making decisions about when to stay with their opponent and when to leave them to help team-mates.
Those decisions are no longer as simple.
Having said that – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – I do have a level of sympathy for the current defender.
The way they’re being umpired makes things that much harder.
The great defenders of the past, guys like Bruce Doull, David Dench, Glen Jakovich and Stephen Silvagni, got away with plenty.
They’d scrap and fight for every contest.
Now, though, there seems to be more ‘ticky-touchwood’ free-kicks being paid against defenders: whether it’s a slight arm around the body, or holding of the arm.
Often, you’re left wondering what their alternatives are.
Still, the current defender could do worse than channel a bit of Doull or Dench in making sure they beat their opponent first and then attack from there.
Darcy Moore is one player who’s got the balance right.
While Joe Daniher probably got the better of him the other night, Moore, this year, has shown he generally knows when to play tight and when to leave his man and fly for the footy.
So how do Grimes and the Richmond defence respond?
When Alex Rance went down with injury with injury before retiring, Grimes was the man that stepped up to take control of that defence.
But he also had a willing partner in Nick Vlastuin who could play the third-man up role to perfection and, as we know, Vlastuin is out injured.
It means Friday night’s clash against a potent Port Adelaide forward-line looms as an intriguing test. Could this be the round we start to see a shift in defensive thinking?
Keep up to date with the best AFL coverage in the country. Sign up here to our Real Footy newsletter delivered to your inbox on Mondays and Fridays.
Two-time AFL premiership captain and columnist for The Age.