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Out of bounds: The mystery and meddling of AFL rules

Football

Constant rule changes frustrate AFL fans and players alike. Michelangelo Rucci examines whether it’s driven by league bosses, coaches – or both.

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Crows premiership captain Mark Bickley always had a surefire knack of shutting down the annual debate of rule changes in Australian football.

“Which rules would you get rid of?” he would say, bringing an uneasy (even awkward) silence among his colleagues on talkback radio panels.

Today, if Bickley asked the same question there would be a shouting match. And the Hall of Famer admits he might join in with the thousands of fans who say the constant tinkering with rules has taken their enjoyment out of attending games.

One long-time football administrator, now retired, told InDaily he would watch every AFL game each weekend. Now, he adds, “I prefer re-runs of Seinfeld.”

AFL attendances, with no significant restrictions on capacity to meet COVID protocols, are down 16 per cent on the pre-COVID figures of 2019. The average crowd at a game in 2022 (30,481) is the lowest since 1996 (29,637).

Why? AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan last Friday on his weekly radio spot in Melbourne insisted the question is not about fans staying away from the games in frustration with the AFL, but because of COVID protocols.

“They are reporting 40,000 (COVID) cases a day (nationally) – and the real number might be five or 10 times that – so there are a lot of people on a rolling basis who can’t get there,” said McLachlan, noting Adelaide was an “outlier” for poor attendances.

Crows games at the full capacity Adelaide Oval are averaging 32,930 this season – the lowest in the club’s 32-year history, excluding the COVID-hit 2020 and 2021 seasons. Port Adelaide is at 27,415 – the club’s lowest (COVID seasons excluded) since leaving Football Park at the end of 2013 with a 26,915 average.

“I don’t think (umpiring) is the issue,” McLachlan added. “There are just a lot of different things as we come out of COVID.”

This is backed up in many polls revealing many issues from the floating fixture to electronic ticketing. But more and more surveys asking fans why they have not returned to the game highlight the major annoyance with rule changes and “over umpiring”.

The AFL Fans Association, which has a superb reach in polling supporters, has noted one in five fans declare frustration with the rules as their primary reason for turning away from the AFL.

Photo: AAP/Michael Dodge

Season 2022 has brought two significant changes in how the game is controlled by the umpires, and one lingering annoyance: the dissent rule applying 50-metre penalties against players who raise their arms in frustration with an umpiring decision.

There is “Insufficient intent” on kicks, handpasses or taps that go out of bounds.

And there is the much-disliked stand rule that demands a player become a statue on the mark when an umpire calls “stand”, bringing a certain end to any player reviving Mark Jackson’s antics to distract an opponent with handstands on the mark.

Even Bickley has crossed the floor on the debate on Australian football rules.

“(Stand rule), I am not in love with it,” Bickley told InDaily. “Sure, players can now play on quickly; they can run past the man on the mark and kick the ball longer.

“But (Crows premiership coach) Malcolm Blight would say the beauty of Australian football was you are always involved, even if you did not have the ball. Now, the stand rule takes a player out of the game until the umpire calls ‘play on’.”

And the debate on the differing rules – the AFL’s “insufficient intent” and the SANFL’s “last disposal” – for what is traditionally known as putting the ball deliberately out of bounds?

“I am not wed to either rule,” Bickley said. “Clearly the SANFL rule is easier to understand. But people thought the SANFL interpretation would revolutionise the game (with more scoring and more open play rather than repeat stoppages). I watch the SANFL and I don’t see that.”

By the AFL’s so-called “bible”, the AFL Record season guide, across the past eight decades there has been more and more meddling with the rules:

The biggest question in the annual debate on rule changes compelling umpires to enforce both the rules and subjective interpretations attached to the rule book is: Who is the really behind the constant meddling with the game?

Is it an AFL Commission and executive wanting to take Australian football back to the high-scoring, free-flowing game of the 1970s and 1980s when there were 18 distinct positions on the field?

Or is it the 18 senior coaches, who in the past three decades have dramatically changed the look of the game to emphasise and improve defence and congested the field where field positions have made way for zones?

Too often a player will be guarding space rather than an opponent. Defences will be stacked with extra numbers: “flooding”, an effective tactic taken to the ultimate level in Season 2000 by Terry Wallace when he coached the Western Bulldogs.

The AFL wants high scoring; the coaches flood defences by putting three players behind the ball. The AFL reacts with another rule change – the 6-6-6 rule after every goal

Today’s forwards will repeatedly roam to defence, with AFL premiership mentor Michael Malthouse famously explaining: “If one of my players is more than 60 metres from the play, he should be charged an admittance fee for becoming a spectator.” And the real spectators become frustrated when they see their team’s full forward mark the ball on the wing and there is no forward inside-50 to continue the play.

The AFL’s response? Another rule change: the 6-6-6 rule introduced in 2019 demanding there be six players in each zone (defence, midfield and attack) for each centre bounce at the start of a quarter and after each goal.

“Blame the coaches,” says Bickley.

“We have all these rule changes in reaction to the coaches manipulating the rules. Look back (five years ago) at how the ‘third man up’ in ruck contests was effectively used by the Western Bulldogs when they did not have a recognised ruckman. The question then became, do we want to see a great ruckman such as (Melbourne premiership captain) Max Gawn nullified?

“So the AFL banned the third man in a ruck contest. Now the umpires need each team to nominate a ruckman at a ruck contest so they can determine if the ‘ruckman’ is being blocked.

“The rule changes are a game of cause versus effect. The AFL wants the game to return to when it was free-flowing football of the 1980s and 1990s, not that every game in that era was great. The coaches and their assistants exploit every change. The AFL wants high scoring; the coaches flood defences by putting three players behind the ball. The AFL reacts with another rule change – the 6-6-6 rule after every goal.”

Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley admits the coaches react to the lawmakers. He does not deny he and his colleagues will try everything to work advantages from the rule book.

“The coaches are given the rules to play with. So are the players, all under the guidance of the AFL,” Hinkley told InDaily. “The AFL has the bigger influence – they set the rules. Our job is to then make those rules ‘playable’ for us. We look for the best chance to achieve a result in a win-loss performance industry.

“We are judged on our wins and losses. So you have to work out how you can make the most of the rules that are in place. But it is the AFL that puts those rules there.”

Hall of Fame premiership coach Michael Malthouse recently took issue with the 6-6-6 rule, saying it is for “kids’ footy not the AFL”. He fears the AFL following trials in junior football that demanded a minimum number of players always be in each zone during a game. Fellow Hall of Fame premiership mentor Leigh Matthews favours the trial confining players to zones be taken to the AFL level.

Bickley recalls how Malthouse could deliver vision of the exciting final minute of the 2003 clash between Malthouse’s Collingwood team and Bickley’s Crows at Football Park as evidence to argue against Matthews’ wish to lock players into territory zones.

“We were three points up,” Bickley recalls. “There was a boundary throw-in on the wing. I was on Leon Davis in the back pocket and followed him up the ground (and became involved in the boundary contest). So did every other Crows defender follow their man up the ground, except Ben Hart who stayed back with Chris Tarrant.

“Nathan Buckley won the clearance for Collingwood and kicked the ball to Tarrant who was leading in open space. He kicked the winning goal after the siren. That would not happen with the 6-6-6 rule (or in Matthews’ zones).”

Australian football once had a basic theme – get the ball as quick as possible to the forwards to kick goals. Today, it is about not letting the opposition score, and maybe we will score.

Five years ago, then-Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley and Adelaide counterpart Don Pyke pleaded with the AFL to leave the rule book and the accompanying interpretations alone. Buckley sought a five-year moratorium on rule changes.

As a player a decade earlier, Buckley had threatened to walk away from the now seemingly defunct Laws of the Game, arguing the players were “disheartened” by constant rule changes.

Buckley and Pyke wanted the AFL to leave the coaches to decide how the games were played and how the sport evolves, in a long-running battle between coaches who emphasise attack against those who preach defence. This theme creates unease among the AFL administrators who fear attendances and television ratings being damaged by negative, defensive, low-scoring football.

Who will ever forget then-AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou taking issue with how Sydney coach Paul Roos set up his playbook in the Swans’ drought-breaking premiership year of 2005 to emphasise defence and contested football. Sydney averaged 86 points a match in 2005; the league’s pacesetter team scored nine points less than the AFL average and was the only top-eight team that did not break the 2000-point barrier across 22 home-and-away games.

Demetriou described the Swans – a team the AFL needed to deliver showbusiness appeal in the tough rugby-dominated market in New South Wales – as “boring”, and declared Roos’ negative themes would have Sydney “lose more games than they would win”.

Ending a 72-year premiership drought in a dramatic grand final that produced just 15 goals certainly allowed Roos to win the battle, but probably not the war, considering Demetriou and his football chief Adrian Anderson had the final say on the rule book and interpretations.

Who wins this seemingly never-ending duel?

Bickley doubts the battle between the coaches and AFL executives will ever end.

“The AFL now has Brad Scott in that seat; he has played recently (as a premiership player at Brisbane) and coached recently (at North Melbourne),” Bickley said. “The AFL now has that ‘intellectual property’ from inside the coaches’ circle.

“But as soon as Brad Scott changes a rule, there is the opportunity to exploit that new rule. It’s a chasing-the-tail exercise. If the AFL does nothing, we are going to see fewer high marks, less fast football and more games decided by 10 goals to eight.”

Blight has been on both sides of the grand divide. He was a successful coach, in particular with his back-to-back AFL premierships at Adelaide in 1997-1998, four grand final appearances with Geelong from 1989-1994, and in lifting SANFL club Woodville from the doldrums during the 1980s.

He has no doubt the coaches are now winning the battle to decide how the game is played.

“Historically, the lawmakers decided, but in the past 10 years the coaches have ruled more than ever before,” Blight told InDaily. “Australian football once had a basic theme – get the ball as quick as possible to the forwards to kick goals. Today, it is about not letting the opposition score, and maybe we will score.

“Previously, we were all playing similar games. You might kick longer, you might kick shorter than other teams. You might have handballed more. And we had some great coaching duels in South Australian football because of the subtle differences: look at Fos Williams v Jack Oatey and the enthralling football that gave us.

“Now, like all professional sport around the world, every coach is having their teams dance to the same tune. It is about, ‘Keep the apparatus (the ball) off the opposition. Defend from behind the ball.”

Crows coach Matthew Nicks insists he still wants to entertain the fans, rather than sacrifice the look of the game to protect the win-loss ledger. But he does consider the thought that the lawmakers and their instructions to whistle-happy umpires are a bigger problem today.

“I would rather the game just flows,” Nicks said. “I would rather we played the game like it has been for a long time – it flows, it is entertaining. That’s what I’d like. And I am trying to do that for you.”

But who should have the greater say – coaches or those writing the rules?

“If you don’t have the lawmakers in charge,” Blight answers, “you get an uncivilised environment with great unrest. The lawmakers need to be in charge (to save the game from coaches).”

Today, the high stakes of AFL football has many league coaches living to the theme: “I don’t want to lose” rather than “I want to win”. And the AFL wants the game to be “free flowing and continuous” – a concept that does not appeal to coaches who fear “shoot-out” high-scoring football.

In between are the fans and the umpires.

Leading AFL umpire Ray “Razor” Chamberlain notes some of the recent rule changes made by the AFL actually ignore there already was a rule in place for such issues as umpire dissent and moving off the mark. This suggests the AFL is most reactive in a battle with the league’s coaches.

“I feel like at times we get in a position where we create some new rules – well-meaning, with a clear outcome wanting to be achieved – but if we explore (the laws of the game) those rules already exist,” Chamberlain said.

“The game at times feels apologetic for implementing laws of the game as they exist already. (As umpires) we are trying to implement those rules consistently, as we are being instructed,” adds Chamberlain who is reserving the right to later express his full views on the rules, umpiring and AFL direction.

But he did make the point there is an issue in “communication” in a game that today is loaded with frustration from confusion with the rules.

The battle goes on. And the final word on who ultimately wins – the AFL or the coaches – might be from former Laws of the Game committee member John Halbert, with a memory from his time as a rule maker after being an SANFL coach.

Halbert recalls leaving a meeting to ratify rule changes, to find VFL-AFL premiership coach David Parkin in the lobby at AFL House in Melbourne.

“Parko’ said to me, ‘John, by the time you left the lift, the coaches were already finding a way to beat your new rules’,” Halbert said.

The off-field duel to decide the “look of the game” on the field continues – and the fans are tiring of the consequences.

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