Excitement missing as AFL coaches take advantage of rule changes

Tom Papley of the Sydney Swans kicks during last weekend's match against North Melbourne. The Swans scored just three behinds in the final term but still won the game. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
Tom Papley of the Sydney Swans kicks during last weekend's match against North Melbourne. The Swans scored just three behinds in the final term but still won the game. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Despite having made all the play for three-quarters at Geelong last Saturday night, Carlton spent the entire final term completely under siege as the Cats came flying home.

What had been at one stage a 42-point lead grew smaller and smaller as Geelong launched assault after assault, Carlton managing a paltry six inside 50 entries and scoring only one solitary behind. But when the final siren rang, the Blues had nonetheless managed to hang on for a memorable win.

You'd expect that scenario to be a rare exception. But so far this season, such goings-on are certainly becoming more frequent, if not the norm. Earlier the same day, Sydney held a handy but hardly impregnable three-quarter time lead against North Melbourne. The Swans scored just three behinds in the final term but still won by 11 points.

The week before, Melbourne managed just one behind in the last quarter and still beat Carlton. And Collingwood hung on for a draw against Richmond scoring just two points in the last quarter, neither team managing to raise two flags from the goal umpires in the whole last stanza. What does it all mean? Well, scoring, obviously, is low. Of course, given shorter quarters, it was always going to be even lower than last year - the lowest scoring football season since 1967.

But not for the first time, there are some seemingly unintended consequences of a rule change, albeit in this case one which the AFL would prefer not to have introduced.

The shortening of quarters from 20 minutes plus time-on to 16.5 plus time-on happened purely because the COVID-19 pandemic threw the entire 2020 season into chaos, making the possibility of a packed schedule forcing teams to play up to three games over a 10-day period very real.

You only have to consider Conor McKenna's travails over the past week to understand the logic behind that move. And yes, some of us who had perhaps begun to breathe easier and thought an immediate return to full-length games was in order jumped the gun a little.

But scoring patterns under the new system have for me emphasised a couple of things.

Firstly, as we saw with the introduction of the 6-6-6 centre bounce rule last year and the consequent expectation that scoring would increase when it in fact declined further, it's almost impossible to predict which way the game will turn next.

Secondly, it seems that the capacity of coaching now to dictate how the game is played is so great that no amount of tinkering with rules like centre bounce zones or reduced interchange caps is likely to make much difference at all to the defence-centric product we now watch.

We actually didn't have much time at all pre-season to ponder the sort of difference shaving more than 20 minutes off game times would make given it was a provision hurriedly announced literally the day before the first game of the season.

The consensus, however, seemed to be that with fatigue at the end of quarters less of a factor, we might see more prolonged bouts of fast, attacking football from go to whoa. But the reality, some of us would say, has sadly been anything but.

Scoring across all quarters has been pedestrian, with most done in the first term (an average currently of 18.5 points per team). But the average points per quarter of winning teams illustrates how stark has been the fourth-quarter drop-off.

Winning sides to date this season have averaged 24 points in first terms, 20 and 22 in the second and third, and a paltry 13 points in the last. Yep, two goals one behind. And they're winning teams.

Teams are winning as many scoring opportunities, but whereas the standard rate of scores per inside 50 over three quarters hovers around 43 per cent, in the last it plummets to 37.5 per cent. We're also seeing fewer midfield contests in final terms.

Which seems to indicate that the later in the game, the more numbers are likely to flood the defensive 50 arc to prevent opponents scoring. Teams seem happy to do their scoreboard damage early then execute something of a holding operation.

We've known for a long time that defence rules in football. Even freer-scoring teams now generate many of their scoring opportunities from forward defensive pressure, which in itself can be exciting to watch. But it's also energy-sapping, arguably more so than sitting back and just absorbing repeated opposition forward entries.

So increasingly, that's what teams are doing. In short, it's about cashing in early, then fiercely protecting your assets. And that doesn't necessarily make for exhilarating finishes, regardless of how close games may be.

Ironic then, that when the shorter quarters were introduced for round one and proceeded without much controversy, there immediately began subtle pressure from TV broadcasters for the AFL to keep the abbreviated game times in place even beyond this extraordinary season.

Their rationale was that games would be played at a faster clip for longer, retaining more viewers till the end of a game. Failure to do so had already been the motive behind their earlier push to shorten half-time breaks. This campaign was just as transparent.

But you wonder what they'd be saying now given the evidence thus far this season. Because if we were sitting in a cinema, this would be the equivalent of running the main feature first followed by the string of boring ads. And who'd be hanging around for that?

Once again, it appears AFL coaches are proving adept at manipulating game situations to their advantage. But it's potential poison when it comes to the box office. Perhaps the networks should be focusing most of their pressure in that direction.

This story See what happens when teams shut up shop, AFL suffers first appeared on The Canberra Times.