While doing some research for a joint article with Tom Viney and Martin Gibson for our Top 3 favourite footy matches, I was watching a clip of the last 15 minutes of the 2009 Grand Final on You Tube. As I sat watching, enthralled with this unbelievably hard fought spectacle, I noticed something about this game.
While it was tight and low scoring (the Cats got up over the Saints 80 to 68) and the Saints were renowned as a high quality defensive side, there always seemed to be forwards at either end of the ground. There was an incredible fight to win the ball around the ball ups, but when it got out there was space to move and, importantly, players forward for the man with the ball to kick to.
While staring in bemusement at this strange anomaly of having the forwards of each team camped predominantly in their respective forward lines, it actually took me a while to remember that, back in 2009, I hated watching St Kilda teams coached by Ross Lyon. I considered his style of play boring. Yet there I was watching a St Kilda team coached by Ross Lyon and I was lost in a sea of reverie at glory days past.
There has, of late, been more of an inclination towards moving the ball quickly and running with it. This I like, but it is only after the ball has been able to be extricated out of an enormous congestion of players. There often seems to be ball up after ball up and tackle after tackle as the space is simply not there for the players to get free.
Most annoyingly in today’s game is that there are often no players forward of the ball, so that even though there is more of an inclination to run and move the ball, there oft times is no one for the ball carrier to carry the ball to. I hate this so much. I understand that defence is a vital part of footy, but is not attack also important? Can you win without outscoring your opponent? Must every tactic implemented increase the ugliness of the game?
Here I was watching a game from only five Grand Finals ago and marvelling at the difference between footy from then to now. Many of the players were similar; of course they were, it was only five years ago. The ground was the same, and even the coaches were coaches that still coach today, but the game was better.
I thought I’d try another example from the recent past. Finding 2008 unpalatable due to the winner, I skipped back another year to 2007, to see just how it was that Geelong dismantled Port Adelaide by 119 points; by breathtaking brilliance, apparently. The ball flew from one end of the ground to the other with more speed than the speed that David Wojcinski’s speedy legs could carry his body. Oh the speed, and the space.
When the skill of the Cats was used to move the ball into space, the space was such that the ball could be moved and decisions could be made to feed the ball to players. These players, of course, were ahead of the ball, exactly where you would want them if you intend to kick enough goals to win by 119 points. It was astonishing looking back at this match of only seven Grand Finals ago and seeing how differently it was played to now.
I want it to go back to that. I want to see the players with skill and flair and daring and all the stuff that I love to watch having the opportunity to do those things that only they can. I want there to be space, and forwards who can lead at the ball, or into the centre and not to the pocket to avoid a crush of humanity.
I want to see exactly that brilliance that coaches coach to have not defeat them. I want the coaches to fail, because I believe that players are capable of providing us with so much more. I don’t want to live in a footy town that thinks that Round 13 was a great round of footy. It wasn’t, it was just better than the rubbish that was dished up before it.
But you can’t expect this, I am told. Experts on the radio and the TV tell me that part of footy is evolution. It changes from this to that by this coach, and once that coach works out how to beat that, then he will implement this to combat it. This is the nature of footy and it must be accepted, I am told. Well piffle to that, I say!
Why must the coaches be given the right to change our game and leave us powerless to prevent it? Why must they make everything worse? There is one simple thing that must be done to counteract the damage they are doing, and that is to drastically reduce the amount of interchanges allowed in a match.
As of this season, the AFL has brought in an interchange cap, and it sits at 120 rotations each side per match. At the time the rule was announced towards the end of the 2013 season, the AFL average was 133 rotations each side per match. That is an insignificant change to what has been a fundamental shift to the game implemented by the coaches.
Last year I interviewed former Collingwood rover Mick Bone and he recounted for me his first game in the VFL in 1962, in which he was named 19th man. He understood that he was there only in case of injury, and fully expected to sit the game on the bench. The coach had picked his best team, and those 18 blokes would, all things going well, play out the game and win.
This was the original intention of the interchange bench, to be used as cover for injured players. It was 1930 when a substitute for injury was first brought into the game, and it wasn’t until 1946 that a second was brought in. As we know, this was changed from being a substitution to a free interchange of players, but few would know that this was as recent as 1978.
I’m shaking my head at that; it’s only two years before I was born. A third interchange was added in 1994, and a fourth in 1998. As time had gone by, the interchange had come to be used as a method of punishment for misdeeds on the field, and also for tactical reasons.
A coach would bring a player off to give him a mouthful and then send him back out with a head full of steam, or he would bring him off for good, replaced with another player to fill his role. The bench was not used for a rest, as you always kept your best performed players on the park. Robert Harvey and Anthony Stevens would go at it for two hours without a break; what a sight.
Alas, the amusing “GET HIM OFF!!!” is a call long gone from the stadia of the AFL, as the players now want to come off. They require a rest so they can get back out there fresh and ready to stop any attack the opposition might dare to conceive.
So what was the interchange average in the year recounted above when things were oh so exciting? Well, in 2007 the average number of interchanges per team per game was 56. That’s right, we have capped it in 2014 at 120, when only seven years earlier each team used the interchange on average only 56 times.
Did you see that? If you didn’t, I’ll show you again:
I understand that not all games back in 2007 were a feast for the eyes, but we are kidding ourselves if we say it hasn’t gotten worse. The congestion is killing the ball’s ability to move, and this congestion is being maintained by the use of the bench to keep the players fresh.
We must get the averages back to around this 2007 mark, or even fewer. The AFL should bring in an interchange cap of 60, and see if we can get the game back to being played with freedom and flair and style. If the reason for not changing the game back to what it was is fear of causing injury to the players, then I say there will only be an increase of injury to players if the coaches don’t coach their players responsibly under the conditions. They must adjust to the rules, or they will lose.
I honestly couldn’t care one little bit about the protection of coaches in the game. As far as I am concerned, they have to manage their teams under the conditions provided by the rules, and the rules should limit their ability to use the interchange to destroy the aesthetic appeal of the game.
And I stress there is nothing at all wrong with liking how the game was played before. It was great, and it doesn’t make me or others Neanderthals for not blindly following the path forged by self-serving club employees. They may be innovators, but they don’t have the interests of the game and the fans at heart. They don’t make the rules, and they should never be allowed a say in them.
For what it is worth, the three games chosen by Tom, Marty and myself in our Top 3 Games are the 1995 Second Semi Final between Richmond and Essendon, the 1994 State of Origin Match between Victoria and South Australia, and the 1989 Grand Final between Hawthorn and Geelong, They are three classic games, the most recent taking place 19 years ago, and none of them probably featuring more than 35 interchanges.
Here is the clip I found of the 2009 Grand Final that shows just how brilliant the game was:
Don’t you want to go back to when everything was awesome?