Will International footy reshape Australian Football?

Will international footy change the way the game is played in Australia, from the MCG to Subiaco, from Football Park to the Gabba and on large and small grounds around the country?

This article explores the possibilities.

Change in footy is hardly a big deal. The coaches change the game every year – often copying the defensive, tackling or ball-moving styles of the premiers, and then the rules committee keeps up and adjusts the rules to limit the malformations of the game that can result from the coaches’ use of possession games (keepings off) and packs, scrimmages and blocks.

At the same time everyone laments that they should ‘leave the game alone’ and grumbles about change abound, as they have always done. The good old days (‘kick the bloody thing!’) were inevitably better than the handballing, running present. They were also harder, which is a nice myth. Even despite the rapid change of recent years, it changed from the beginning, regarding rules, balls, umpiring, free kicks and marks. It also influenced the early years of Gaelic football which started with point posts as well as goalposts and....

It changed again in the Great Depression and in the violent years around the end of World War 2. It would be reshaped again by handball from the 1950s, and then in the fitness and running era of the early 1950s onwards. In the 1970s it would be influenced by the Hawthorn tackling era, the Carlton mosquito fleet moment in the 70s & 80s. Now, as in the use of handball, interchange and possession football, it is almost unrecognisable due to numerous techniques imported from basketball, soccer and rugby which have been modified for a different running game on a different field.

Most changes come from coaches’ strategies and tactics, often borrowed from other field or invasion sports. When they have a negative impact on the game the rules committee then rejigs the rules to limit them, eg running over the line to concede a point to keep possession which was banned in 2009 after Hawthorn’s use of the tactic in 2008.

However, some change can come from events related to circumstance and to chance, rather than to the designer inventions of coaches. One of the reasons Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin was the fact that some mould grew in a petrie dish in a lab by accident. Can accidents and local innovations, designed to fit different spaces and sometimes different cultures, show us the way ahead for footy?

I think the international game, in all its variations, can do this.

How can a more amateurish, small-scale version of the game, played by an Australian minority (of wise heads and old knees, often in their 30s or more) and a majority of novices, shape the future of the great game of Australia?

The reason is space and numbers forcing change. Small playing spaces and small numbers of players with basic skills mean that in much of Europe, 9-a-side has become normal or at least frequent. Similarly in Japan on rugby, baseball, and soccer fields, teams are often of 12 to 16, rather than the full 18. 18 is not sacrosanct – the VFA used to play with 16 and there were no reserves in the late 19th century. And players once stayed at their end of the ground, playing a different game to now.

The international experience of 9-a-side footy has been good. The result is often a fast high-scoring game, in part because players new to the game are also more excited by its creative possibilities rather than by defence, even if they do love tackling. The second reason is that, like rugby sevens, less congested play makes for faster running and more scoring. Now that AFL footy has at times declined into a mire of mauls, scrimmages, and mess with the ball often not leaving the pack of players for a couple of minutes, and, with 18-24 players around a secondary or tertiary bounce, feverish tackling keeps it in, there is a need for change. If not footy will be returning to the scramble of the 1860s or will become the less attractive part of rugby – the running maul.

The Finnish small-team experience as described by Craig Primmer, a Geelong boy who teaches genetics at university in Turku, suggests the possibilities. Small team games can have an average of a goal kicked every 2 minutes 47 seconds, one example of the change and how it works out up north. Such changes are desirable as the highlight of most sports for many players, particularly for kids, is scoring a goal, and already that happens in Australian Football more than most sports.

Why is change essential, as well as desirable? Because the running game will mean some good footballers lacking in aerobic capacity will not play at the top level. Because flooding and mauling harms the creative side of the game. Unless the rules committee demands a minimum number of players up each half of the ground (even 6 per team) we will continue to see up to 24 players around a bounce and nearly all players in one half of the ground, most of them inside the 50 line.

Why will smaller team footy also happen in Australia? Smaller playing areas in new suburbs, busier lifestyles and competing demands may often make smaller teams a good solution. A team of nine can travel in 2-3 cars as well. As today, the future is about change, on and off the field. What next?

We need feedback from other competitions around the world, men’s and women’s, senior and junior, which have experimented with variations, in team size, in playing space, and even in the rules to make the game work most effectively.

What has been happening… ?
• elsewhere in Europe
• In Asia
• In North America
• And in the Pacific
• And, similarly, but differently in Australia - Masters Footy, once called Super Rules, for those who have retired; and in summer the new ‘touch’ game for small mixed gender teams, Recfooty.

Over to you for your descriptions and responses.




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