AFL's shortened quarters compromising integrity of 2020 season

Regardless of what happens over the rest of this extraordinary AFL season, we already know that 2020 will be the most different-looking we've seen.

Just 17 home and away rounds. A grand final (provided there are no more interruptions) in late October. And, of course, shorter games.

The first decision, made on the eve of the season back in March when even round one was in doubt, proved prescient given we ended up losing 12 weekends of potential games. The second date, as a consequence, is unavoidable.

But the third is beginning to stick in my craw. Even more so after the AFL's latest example of "rules on the run". And that's by no means a criticism, either, in this case.

The tweaking of the AFL's tribunal guidelines to refer to "any dangerous tackle" rather than specifically a spear tackle or sling tackle when an opponent's arms are pinned was a swift and necessary reaction to the fining instead of suspension of Shaun Burgoyne for his potentially dangerous tackle on Patrick Dangerfield.

The AFL is clearly not averse to implementing game policy and rule changes with the season underway. So why can't it now bite the bullet and for the remainder of the 2020 season restore our game to its intended length?

When we settled on 16-and-a-half minutes plus time-on, the thinking was understandable, the likelihood very real that in a heavily compacted schedule, teams would be forced to play a couple of games per week, maybe even three in 10 days.

But by the time we saw the first block of fixtures released, with Australia having done exceptionally well in containing the spread of COVID-19, the schedule was looking very normal.

That's not to say things won't change again with another delay. But in this of all seasons, can't we cross that bridge when we come to it? I didn't feel that way initially. I'm big on integrity of the competition, and once we played round one under the revised game lengths, I felt to change again a fundamental match condition would give this season too much of a "mix and match" feel.

But that, simply, is the world in which we now live. We're fortunate to be able to watch any football at all. Even a game as aesthetically dire as last Thursday's Collingwood-Richmond clash was a lot better than nothing.

And on reflection, would the integrity of this season's premiership be compromised much at all by reverting back to 20 minutes plus time-on given two rounds of shortened games and 15 of normal length, most importantly, the same conditions for every team?

In two rounds thus far, we've had a couple of games run as short as 94 minutes. In round one, the average length of games was just 101 minutes. Last weekend, that climbed fractionally to 103. Over the last few seasons, the average running time has generally been around 122 minutes. In short, we're losing about a normal quarter per game.

You certainly won't find much support for that among the fan base. There doesn't seem much from players or coaches, either.

"The game was too short," said Collingwood midfielder Taylor Adams after his team's draw against the Tigers. Brisbane coach Chris Fagan didn't appear a fan. And Essendon's John Worsfold said he'd support a return to traditional length even mid-season.

But I reckon there's actually also a fair argument the integrity of this year's premier would be compromised more by sticking with the abbreviated games than with a mid-stream change.

Already, there's a trend developing of teams bursting out of the blocks and establishing an early lead which they then work hard defensively to protect. That could make for some tedious second halves.

So far, the points per team average has been 25.1 in first terms, 20.1 in the second, 23 in the third, but just 15.6 in the last. That's a much bigger discrepancy between three quarters versus the fourth than we saw last year.

And will it work against teams with the required conditioning and strength to consistently do damage late in quarters? Like, for example, the reigning premier?

Richmond has been a habitual slow starter, and was again against Collingwood, conceding the first four goals. But the Tigers are a very good "red-time" team, last year ranking third on points differentials in the time-on period.

Strength, resilience and endurance have been key parts of our game for a long time. You'd hate to think, even if only for one season, that they would be at less of a premium.

Making another adjustment now doesn't require a whole lot of logistical tweaking, and certainly not much change in preparation, given 120-odd minutes is what players have trained their whole careers to play.

So why not? We've done well to have a season looking as relatively normal as its resumption has. But restoring the 20-minute quarter would be perhaps the most important step in making the 2020 AFL season as normal as is currently possible.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at footyology.com.au