Forget tweaks, the AFL needs radical change

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Scully backs Clarkson as a 'voice of reason' (0:53)

Tom Scully says the Hawthorn players are focused on the Giants, and not the comments of boss Alastair Clarkson. (0:53)

Knee-jerk reactions are rife in the AFL. We've had plenty of them in recent years after a spate of uninspiring games. But when those directly involved, and with a product to protect, start bagging the spectacle, surely the alarm bells start ringing loudly.

For me, those alarm bells have been ringing for some time now, well before the likes of coaches Alastair Clarkson and Chris Scott, and even AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan, started offering commentary on the look of the game.

I think football as a spectacle is in deep trouble. And I think the longer we wait to take meaningful action, the greater the damage being done to the prospects of future generations retaining nearly the same level of interest and emotional attachment most of us have known our whole lives.

It's just how much change we're prepared to put up with, and how quickly it can be introduced, which remain the thorny issues. In fact, you can add to that simply identifying the root cause of the problems. Or the potential solutions. None of which will make fixing the mess any easier.

Consider, for example, the various ideas already thrown up to make the game more attractive since those two awful matches in Melbourne last Sunday. Clarkson thinks paying more free kicks will go a long way. Scott believes reducing numbers on the ground is the answer. McLachlan singled out failure to pay enough "holding the ball" decisions.

Drastically reduced interchange rotations have been one supposed 'fix' for years. Banning the paying of marks for backwards kicks is gaining some traction now, ditto increasing the minimum kicking distance required to claim a mark.

My own personal hobby horse on this front has been making umpires call a ball-up far quicker than they do currently. Watch any game from the '80s or '90s and you'll notice that even with considerably fewer players clustering around the ball, umpires were much quicker on the whistle, never allowing any more than three or four players to hover over a disputed ball before calling for a bounce.

It worked. But would it still work?

Two or three years ago I still would have said yes, but so quickly has the defensive ethos strangled the game that in 2020, I very much doubt it. Nor, for that matter, would any of those other suggestions. Certainly not on their own.

Consider that only a couple of years ago, the single biggest enemy of attractive football was universally noted as congestion. Now, it's a war on two fronts. Because slow, overly-cautious ball movement is, if anything, an even bigger scourge. Certainly, it was the big enemy in those two dismal games last Sunday.

Congestion, denoted via numbers of stoppages, though still an issue, has actually eased, if only fractionally, since 2014. But defensive systems have continued to improve. It's made the forward press less effective, as current Champion Data figures show it becomes harder for teams to score, the longer the ball is locked inside an opponent's defensive 50.

Plus, improved defending has made teams even more hesitant going forward with the ball, always preferring to wait however long it takes to find an unattended teammate, and then, if finally forced to kick to a contest, doing so close to the boundary, thereby at least increasing the chances of forcing a stoppage. Which means? Yep, more congestion.

These systems and the defensive ethos are now so strong, so ingrained, and so seemingly impenetrable, that more fatigue, more kicks forward, whatever mooted "lever" you care to pull, will on its own be mere tinkering at the edges.

And yes, much like the introduction of 6-6-6 last year, which cleared congestion for a full 10 seconds at each centre bounce, which in a 12-goals-apiece game (plus the start of each quarter) accounted for just four minutes and 40 seconds in a game spanning 120 minutes, that's just window dressing.

If you still have faith in the natural evolution of the game sorting out the current malaise, two statistics in particular should make you think again.

One, of course, is scoring, which (pro rata in 2020 for shorter quarters) is again below last year's levels, at 80 points per team the lowest we'd seen since 1967. But for me, an even more alarming figure concerns the near-death of end-to-end transition football.

In 2005, which in a modern football context doesn't seem all that long ago, teams exiting their defensive 50 were able to get the ball inside the forward arc 38 per cent of the time. That figure has fallen dramatically since, so much so that the going rate in 2020 is just 19 per cent, half what it was 15 years ago. Even in 2010, just 10 years ago, the figure was nearly 30 per cent.

That is a staggering decline in anyone's language. And in practical terms, it means far less running and bouncing of the ball, far fewer flowing passages of play. It means more protracted periods of play in one part of the ground. It means more tackle, tackle, quick kick forward.

Which side of that equation sounds more like football as it was meant to be played? And yes, that is a rhetorical question.

So what would YOU do about it, I hear you ask?

Well, I'm a traditionalist, but for me that now means getting back to somewhere at least close to what the game has been about for at least 90 per cent of its existence. Running. Bouncing. Jumping. Marking. And scoring.

We're so deep in this rut, I believe, that only drastic measures will make the slightest difference. So my advice to the AFL would be this. Forget the tinkering. Forget the "levers", pulling one after another and spending who knows how many years waiting to see whether they might help while the defensive plague continues to strangle the product.

In my view, only two things will even come close to cutting it. Either zones, not just at stoppages, but for the entirety of a game, where at least two players per team must remain permanently inside 50. Or the preferred option of not just Chris Scott, but an official Legend of the Game in Leigh Matthews, that is, 16 per side, removing four players from the field.

Yes, they are seismic changes. Yes, the football public, much of which paradoxically bemoans the current state of the game whilst demanding the rules are left alone, will lose its collective you-know-what.

But, in my view, it's now come down to a choice. Leave the game as it is, accept congestion, treacle-slow ball movement and low scores as the new norm, and make the most of it. Or be prepared to accept radical change in an emergency attempt to return the game to something a lot closer to what it was designed to be.

I'm now very much in the radical camp. I don't think such drastic change in this case would be considered unnecessarily messing with the game. To me, it would actually be honouring what football should be about.

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