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AFL competition thatís better than ever Ė but is the game? (footyology)

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AFL competition thatís better than ever Ė but is the game?

Rohan Connolly 
footyology.com.au
6 March 2018 

Uncertainty is a word AFL footballís administrators donít mind hearing on the eve of a new season, at least when it comes to the business of on-field prognostication.

Anyone who has attempted to put together a ladder for 2018 will know exactly what weíre talking about. Because surely in football history premierships have never been more up for grabs than they are right now.

The last two flags have been fairytales. Richmond last year won a first premiership for 37 years after having finished the previous season 13th on the ladder. The Western Bulldogs in 2016 won their first for 62 years and their second ever two years after having finished 14th.

The gap between best and worst has never been narrower. Last yearís ladder leader, Adelaide, accumulated less points than any top team since 1997. Wooden spooner Brisbane had more than any bottom side since 1998.

Basically, any team these days is a chance of at least a finals spot with a little luck and a decent run with injuries. And the element of hope is what keeps fans coming through the turnstiles, turning on their TVs, and buying memberships in ever-increasing numbers.

Uncertainty, though, is also a word which can be applied to the direction of the game theyíre now watching, on a number of levels. And perhaps that isnít necessarily such a good thing.

Romantic storylines and greater optimism about our teams aside, what about the actual product itself? Is the quality what it was 30, 20, even 10 years ago? Are what were historically the most fundamental elements of the game as integral as they used to be?

Are the most reliable indicators of success now qualities which help define Australian footballís uniqueness, or borrowings from other sports which have only helped homogenise our product?

Iím not firmly wedded to one or other answer to any of those questions. Iíve also been a big believer in the natural evolution of the game and the capacity of inventive coaching to continue to shift how the game is played.

But I do worry there are aspects of football of which weíre not seeing enough, and others less desirable weíre finding it harder to budge. And about what the consequences of that are to the longer-term spectacle.

Big marks and goals were once a given in our game, and probably the major selling point. Do we see enough of either now? Iíd argue not. The ďscreamerĒ is a rarity these days (perhaps with the exception of the miraculous Jeremy Howe).

And scoring certainly ainít what it used to be. The last four AFL seasons have been the lowest-scoring football has seen since 1970. You donít even have to go that far back for a stark contrast.

The 1993 season, 25 years ago this year, is universally acclaimed as one out of the box. It certainly wasnít short of goals.

On average, all teams were scoring about three goals per game more than they did last year. Tony Modra, Jason Dunstall and Gary Ablett senior all finished that season with goal tallies of 120-plus.

Last year, Lance Franklin won the Coleman Medal with a tally of just 69. Franklin remains the only man to reach the 100-goal mark in the past 13 seasons. Indeed, itís more likely than not heís the last weíll ever see.

Congestion, that scourge of the modern game, remains the obvious answer to the scoring shortfall, but solutions to that issue thus far have been in short supply.

The rule makers have dabbled at the edges, focussing most heavily on interchange numbers and the hope that greater fatigue will open games up and make finding the pathway to goal easier.

By 2013, average interchange numbers per team had skyrocketed to 133. A cap of 120 curbed that only minimally, ditto the 90 to which the cap was subsequently reduced and has been in operation the past two seasons.

Some insist more radical slashing of that limit will do the trick. But 133 to 90 is at least a cut of one-third. And the average points per team in 2013 of 92 was the last time that number was higher than 80-something. Iím not convinced the logic about reduced interchange stacks up.

And speaking of stacking up, itís forward pressure which has replaced marks and goals as AFL footballís new black.

Getting the ball forward and locking it in forward lines with intense physical pressure has been the modus operandi for both the Bulldogs and Richmondís premiership wins of the past two years.

Itís football as a swarm. How aesthetically pleasing is it compared to watching a team transfer the ball from end to end with quick movement and precise skills? Iíve got my reservations.

The hope in our game is always that tactical evolution will continue to find new ways of beating the status quo. Itís the fear that the current mechanisms are so efficient and effective that they canít be surpassed which is the fear.

Heading into a new AFL season, thereís absolutely no doubt the competition is tighter than ever. Thatís great. But as we prepare for 2018, we must also ask whether, fundamentally, the game itself is as good. Me? Iím uncertain.

http://www.footyology.com.au/afl-competition-thats-better-than-ever-but-is-the-game/

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