Change is coming.
On Wednesday, the AFL Competition Committee meets for the second time to discuss, among other things, potential rule changes to combat congestion that may be introduced as early as 2019.
AFL boss Gillon McLachlan recently said he expected some rule tweaks to come into force next season -- including the possible introduction of starting positions, an expanded centre square and/or reduced interchange rotations -- and I think most in the footy world understand that some change is actually necessary, and will be made sooner rather than later.
I wholeheartedly agree that we need to remove some bodies from each stoppage -- there are nearly 100 stoppages per game -- to ensure a more speedy and exciting product. Of course, personally, spreading out the players and encouraging more attacking play suits me down to the ground - as a forward, you pray for one-on-one situations so getting more of those is a big win for us.
But it's not about me, or any other key forward who wants to kick more goals. It is solely about what's best for the game long-term. And we -- and when I say we, I mean those making the calls at AFL House -- need to think very carefully about how the alterations are rolled out.
Some clubs have already had the opportunity to trial some proposed rule changes but still, many teams have barely been consulted. Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley was strong in his views when he demanded every club be given an opportunity to view the training footage. He's right - everyone should be able to see what went on.
However, a problem with making decisions based off training is, I can assure you, many of the players will be rolling around at well below 100 percent commitment and energy.
Training throughout an AFL season is tough at the best of times as many players carry knocks, niggles and often more serious injuries. The intensity of training sessions, despite the best of intentions, will not simulate what we will see in a real AFL contest, and that could pose a real problem should the rule changes come in for Round 1, 2019.
An idea was raised on On The Couch a couple of weeks ago when Patrick Dangerfield, Phil Davis and Nathan Jones took the spots on the sofas alongside host Gerard Healy. Healy asked the trio whether playing a few games late in the season with new rules in place would compromise the competition. All three players said it would be too much of a compromise.
A few nights later, I was in at Fox Footy for Player Takeover round and I worked alongside Dangerfield. After the show I quizzed him on what would actually be compromised by implementing the new rules in a game where two non-finals-contending teams were competing and, as usual, he was stumped. The natural answer is, yes, changing the rules of an AFL game would be compromising the competition but when you actually take the time to think about it, the positives of seeing what the new rules look like in a match environment as opposed to any compromising of games is far outweighed in favour of viewing the future.
Enough people (fans, players, AFL management) believe there needs to be change and I can see both opinions. I do think the game could evolve and sort itself out but I also have a strong view that with upwards of a dozen full-time coaches at each AFL club, then the defensive struggles with intense pressure and little opportunity for time and space will ensure we continue to see low-scoring, scrappy games.
As I said, change is coming. But it needs to be done right.
Once we make what will seemingly be quantum shifts in how we play our great game, we cannot put our hands in the air in 12 or 24 months' time and say "we've stuffed this up."
We need to see these changes in real, live, meaningful AFL games, not from training sessions or pre-season matches.
As we stand here on the eve of Round 19, Carlton and Gold Coast will certainly miss finals while it'd be safe to assume Brisbane, St. Kilda and even the Western Bulldogs will find it very, very difficult to feature.
That presents us with a unique and vital opportunity to trial the new rules in some rather meaningless games at the end of the year, such as the Suns vs. Lions and Carlton vs. Bulldogs clashes in Round 22 - should all four sides be eliminated from September action, then we simply have to enforce the trial rules for these games. We need to see how the rules stand up under the intensity of real AFL footy. Next year's pre-season competition will not cut it, nor will match simulation at club training.
We have a duty of care to the game to make sure we get this right.
What happens if, for example in Round 6 next season when we've slapped these rules into the rule book without proper preparation and coaches come up with new tactics or schemes to counteract exactly what the rules are trying to create? With so many coaches at each club, you can never underestimate their ability to tactically find an advantage or a way round most scenarios.
Playing at least three or four real AFL matches towards the end of the 2018 premiership season would help us see exactly what we are dealing with and whether it will actually help the game.
Another aspect the AFL must improve is its communication channels. The game was let down when the appropriate stakeholders were left out of the decision-making for the substitute rule and we saw that eliminated within five years. It was an embarrassing situation for the AFL and one we should remember when making decisions for the future.
As a player, I feel like I have had no opportunity to have a view on how the game could evolve or should be massaged. I'm one of 800 so I am not crazy enough to expect my opinion to be a decisive factor but as players, I'd strongly argue no one has a better feel for what will and won't work than those actually executing the game from week to week.
It's not exclusively about the fans, nor the players, nor coaches or executives, nor is it about those highly-paid people working at AFL HQ - it's about our great game. It's about being sure, being certain and being positively all-in on how we've trying to improve the sport.
Let's leave nothing to chance.