The first step in recovery is acknowledging that there is a problem.
For the AFL competition, scoring is a major problem.
While this has been a topic of conversation for decades, as the 2020 Home and Away season draws to a close, it’s time to take stock of how we got here, and what can be done going forward.
In the first 16 rounds of 2020, the average score was 60.6 points per game. 2020 football is being played with shorter quarters, so adjusting to 2019 game length brings this up to 72.9 points per game.
72.9 points is down from 80.4 in 2019, and more than 20 points less than the highest of the last decade, 93 points in 2011. By historical comparison, the last time the average score was under 73 points was 1964.
|2020 R1-16||72.9* (Adjusted)|
It must be acknowledged that the severe disruption to training, shorter breaks between games, increased fatigue and injuries, as well as the chaotic nature of the 2020 season, would be contributing factors to this year’s decrease.
That said, it continues a trend that has been in place for the best part of a decade.
1. Evolution of the Player
While the size of our field and the number of players on our field has not changed in 120 years, players are increasingly physically bigger, stronger, faster and able to cover more of the field.
This has come in part due to natural evolution, and due to the increasing professionalism of the game in the last 15 years.
The genie is out of the bottle – players won’t get shorter, lighter, slower or run less distance going forward.
2. Evolution of the Coach
Since the mid-2000s, greater emphasis has been placed on coaching defensive systems, resulting in increased difficulty of ball movement.
In 2007, the best team at defending the opposition moving the length of the ground, the Sydney Swans, would allow 30.7% of opposition Rebound 50s to become Inside 50s.
By 2012, 30.7% would rank 15th, with the best now at 18.3% (Fremantle).
By 2019, 30.7% would rank 18th and be more than 4% worse than 17th. The equal no.1 teams at preventing full ground ball movement in 2019, North Melbourne and Hawthorn, conceded Inside 50s from just 16.7% of their opposition’s Rebound 50s.
The vast majority of teams compress the ground in defence to lock the ball in their forward half.
Very few teams look to test their opponents by stretching the ground with length, particularly from set-play situations.
Coaching has become aggressive defensively and ultra-safe offensively.
3. Evolution of Tackling
Along with increased defensive coaching, AFL teams have placed increasing focus on their tackling technique.
Grappling and wrestling training are a common part of pre-season, and many clubs have employed part time tackling coaches, often from rugby or martial arts backgrounds.
This has contributed to the ball not spilling out of contested situations as easily.
4. Rule Changes
While the large volume of rule changes in the last decade have had the intent of “opening up the game”, many have had the opposite effect.
Most notably this applies to the capping of the interchange and the intent to fatigue players.
It is an inescapable fact that in the four years prior to the 120 interchange cap, the average score was above 90 points a game.
At the height of rotations, where they averaged 133.3, scoring was at 92.8. In 2019 rotations were down to 93.2 a game (a 30% decrease), and scoring down to 80.4.
An unintended consequence of the capping of interchange has been increased structure around player rotations, meaning all players are given a set time to come off the ground each quarter.
This removes the ability to leave a player who is dominating around the ball or has kicked the last two goals on the field, as it will disrupt the rest of the rotations.
Other rule changes have penalised or made the game more difficult for the player with the ball.
- A tighter policing of the 15m rule for marks (creating chaotic play on situations)
- Reduced time to move the ball on after taking a mark
- Changes to the holding the ball interpretation that penalise players attempting to take possession (“dragging it in”)
- A Ruck nomination rule that delays ball ups and allows more numbers to gather around the ball, as well as more time to get set defensively.
5. Media and Club Scrutiny
Club personnel will often say they don’t listen to the media commentary around their club.
That is not true, they do, but more than that, influential people around their football club listen to it as well. Administrators, board members, past players, coterie groups.
One of the biggest knocks a coach can have on them is to suggest they “don’t value defence”.
Since 2006, Premiership teams have ranked no lower than 6th for Defence in the home and away rounds.
Offensively only two teams have ranked lower than 6th (Richmond 8th in 2017 and Western Bulldogs 12th in 2016) but still gone on to win the flag.
|Year||Premiers||Offence Rank||Defence Rank|
When a new coach is appointed, they will talk about having a “defence first mentality”, and from a teaching standpoint, more educating is required around the defensive side of the ball, as players instincts are more offensive in nature.
That said, for a new coach, installing a new defence can also be a justification for a lack of scoring and a lack of wins early in a tenure.
It will take a strong coach, and an even stronger club board and administration, to absorb the criticism for emphasising offence to the same level as defence.
It is clear from the last decade that administrative intervention by way of rule changes alone will not increase scoring.
Too often rule changes are made and then not rolled back if they are ineffective.
It’s time to simplify the rules and simplify the game.
- The holding the ball rule needs a re-write, and to come back to its very first point, that the ball carrier is given an opportunity to dispose of the ball as a priority.
If the ball carrier does not dispose of it legally when tackled, the tackler should be rewarded.
Let’s do away with the ruck nomination rule, call ball ups quicker when a pack forms and execute the ball up immediately before numbers gather around the ball.
Remove the interchange cap and give clubs the freedom to rotate as much or as little as they see fit.
Encourage scoring without impacting game rules by introducing a bonus point for scores over 100 points (with quarter lengths returning to 20 minutes)
As a football media and broadly as an industry, let’s encourage attacking football and be harder on teams that emphasise defence without a balance of offence as well.