Evolution of the code

Article by Jake Niall – realfooty.com.au

WITH minutes remaining in the 1989 grand final, battered Hawthorn was running out of legs and players; surging Geelong was running out of time. Yet the Hawks never resorted to what would now be considered percentage football. Would the match be so famous if they had?

Hawthorn was exhausted and nursing many injuries — including Dermott Brereton’s internal bleeding and Robert DiPierdomenico’s punctured lung — but at no stage late in the final quarter did the ailing Hawks attempt to “ice the clock” by chipping the ball sideways and backwards.

George Stone, Hawthorn’s runner that afternoon, recalled this week that he did not carry a message telling the players how much time was left, let alone relay an instruction to chip the ball. Back then, there was no way of accurately knowing the time remaining, since clubs did not have a live television feed into the coach’s box.

Geelong continued to attack and pump the ball forward to Gary Ablett, who in another loaves and fishes afternoon, booted 9.1. Malcolm Blight’s Cats were like sharks — they could survive only through constant forward motion. As Stone noted, had those circumstances been replicated in the present, the Hawks would have played those riveting final minutes quite differently. “In the modern game, someone would have got hold of the ball and they (the Hawks) would have kicked it sideways and backwards,” he said.

Those kill-joy tactics didn’t exist then; they were not even a glint in Kevin Sheedy’s eye. Consider Hawthorn wingman Darrin Pritchard, in possession near the centre, with 90 seconds remaining. He is not hurried by the umpire and could kick in any direction.

Rather than chip sideways, Pritchard thumps the ball long to a contest at centre half-forward, allowing the Cats to regain the ball, score their 21st goal and draw to within six points in the final minute.

It’s what those clubs didn’t do that highlights how the game has changed.

The Hawks didn’t ice the clock, or “drop numbers behind the ball” — the euphemism for flooding. They didn’t attempt to curtail a rampant Ablett by having extra players stand in front of him, as every club would today.

“They would drop an extra man behind the ball and front of Ablett,” said Stone, now Sydney’s full-time opposition coach, projecting how modern tactics would have been used. “I reckon that happened in 2006 (grand final) — (David) Wirrpanda dropped back in front of (Barry) Hall.”

Gary Ayres, five-time premiership Hawk and now Essendon assistant coach, concurred with Stone: “There’s no doubt there would be numbers behind the ball, trying to clog his (Ablett’s) space.”

Blight, asked this week how he would coach Geelong in that thrilling grand final if he could travel back in time, suggested that he would not flood or use the present armoury of defensive tactics. Those strategies require 2007 skills and fitness, and it’s by no means certain that Blight’s Cats, or Allan Jeans’ Hawks, could have executed them with only two interchange players and several injuries each.

“You only go with what you’ve got,” said Blight.

It is possible, however, to analyse that gladiatorial contest using statistics. In employing Pro-Stats to treat the 1989 grand final like a present-day game — breaking it down into contested and uncontested possessions, short and long kicks, turnovers et al — The Age this week sought to measure the difference between football then and now.

To get the most accurate and revealing insights into the game’s transformation, a statistical comparison was drawn between 1989 and the 2006 West Coast-Sydney grand final, matches that were decided by a kick.

The data demonstrates that the relationship between game styles is almost unrecognisable. If 1989 football is the parent, its 2006 offspring seems a distant relation.

Was late ’80s football really as we imagine it, with longer kicking, more contests, superior high marking and more forceful contact — but less skill? Did it truly showcase what former player-coach and now media commentator Tony Shaw has referred to as “the four cornerstones” of Australian football that must be protected — high marking, long kicking, physical contact and free scoring?

Yes, it did. What emerges from the data is a contrast between chaos (1989) and control (2006). Whereas 1989 was an anarchic game, notable for its violence, heavy scoring and unpredictable, broken patterns of play — in which the ball was up for grabs and mistakes frequent — 2006 is highly controlled.

The 2006 grand finalists have set patterns of play. They are loath to kick to a contest.

Control the ball, control aggression, control the tempo. Even the hairstyles — nary a mullet among the 44 players — are more restrained.

The game has become less spontaneous but more tactical, with far better skills, particularly kicking.

Coaches exert more influence over the contest, as do the fully professional players themselves.

The 2006 grand final had 35 per cent fewer one-on-one contests than its ’89 ancestor. The percentage of long to short kicks had declined by 19 per cent; long kicking, indeed, dropped by 47 per cent once handball was taken into account. West Coast had an unusually high handball tally last year, an apparent response to the Swans’ grungy style.

Contested marking — arguably the game’s most thrilling and endangered “cornerstone” — declined by 37 per cent from 1989 to 2006. There was no flooding in ’89, and there was still some semblance of traditional positions. Teams had neither the kicking skills, nor the endurance, to play the modern possession game. All of Brereton’s four marks in ’89 were contested.

Here’s another striking difference. In 2006, six holding-the-ball frees were paid. In ’89, the tally was zero, despite a higher number of effective tackles. Diving on the ball was then permitted. Cabs were seldom hailed.

“They actually gave a bloke a chance to get rid of the footy,” recalled Blight. “That annoys me now, that rule … It does reward the tackler too much.”

Perhaps the most startling differential, however, was use of the interchange bench. West Coast had 61 interchanges, Sydney 57, their midfields a blur of rotations. There are no records of the 1989 interchanges, when each team had two fewer on the bench, but Blight estimated Geelong had no more than four or five for the duration of the game; Stone guessed that Hawthorn could not have exceeded six.

The bench was almost akin to handball, pre-1970. It was used sparingly, and for emergencies.

There were emergencies aplenty in 1989. Hawthorn’s John Platten was concussed early and did not return to the field after quarter-time. Geelong’s Damian Bourke (knee) was a similar story.

Ayres, who sat out the entire final quarter with a torn quad, recalled how Platten was so out of it he didn’t know the scores. “Are we still in front?” he kept asking.

Dipper, thus, was compelled to stay on with his deflating lung, Dermie with the internal injuries (courtesy Mark Yeates under instructions from Blight). Geelong’s Steve Hocking played much of the match with a split testicle. Hocking’s brother, Garry, was himself knocked out by Dipper as a square-up for Platten. Michael Tuck split the webbing in a hand early in the final quarter. Others from both sides were limping.

“We had six who would have struggled to play if it had been a draw,” said Blight.

If interchange provides the greatest disparity between then and now, Blight regarded the 2006 kick-in rule as revolutionary. It’s extraordinary to consider that more than 76 per cent of kick-ins in the 1989 grand final were long kicks, compared with 24 per cent last year. The numbers serve to confirm what we suspect about modern footy, and are grist to the mill of those who despise the possession game.

The glaring upside is improved skill. Thrilling it might have been, but the 1989 grand final contained 37 per cent more turnovers than the 2006 game. Richmond, circa 2007, would own better skills than Hawthorn’s 1988-89 super-team. Really.

Blight believes the possession obsession might have reached its end point, and that there has been a “marginal” trend back towards longer kicking to contests this year.

Not that he minds the modern game.

“Geez, what about when the ball doesn’t touch the ground and goes from one end to the other with swift precision? That’s pretty exciting, I reckon. We just need to get a few more marks back into the game.”

The numbers tell a story, and at their heart is a question for the AFL — is the game better now than in 1989?



8.4 12.9 18.13 21.18 (144)


2.0 7.2 13.7 21.12 (138)



4.2 8.7 10.10 12.13 (85)


1.4 4.6 8.11 12.12 (84)

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Round 12: Richmond v Melbourne

You’d think I’d be happy about the tigers first win…Well I am! However; it doesn’t stop the utter frustration from the abysmal umpiring…wait, let me clarify…the abysmal rule interpretation that these poor guys are made to enforce!!! Surely the umpires of the AFL have a legitimate case to put to Workplace Relations for unfair working conditions???

The 3rd quarter was the worst with 11–1 free kicks (or thereabouts) there was no more than 30 seconds of genuine play in between each free kick given…What I would give just to see a contest again!!! There are clearly too many rules, if you wanted to be pedantic, you could quite easily pay a free kick at every single contest! To have that potential clearly means that the AFL is over umpiring the game!!!

Back to the game… Finally something to smile about – the tigers have found some form of late, with the greatest losing margin in the last 5 rounds being no more than 21 points which was against Fremantle last round. Excluding that, 9 points is the next best (or worst) depending on how you look at it, against Adelaide in Adelaide.

The young tiger cubs are really starting to take the next step and become exceptional footballers. With the likes of Deledio, Foley, King, Jackson, Pattison & Polak who just turned 23 last week.

Nathan Foley was outstanding again, he just gets so much of the ball and his skills have improved dramatically over last year. He just hits a target consistently, a real highlight of the year watching him thrive. With 12 kicks and 11 handballs, he was instrumental in driving the tigers forward at the stoppages. In addition to Foley, Brett Deledio has also been outstanding this season. Although he has been quite in a few rounds, his good games have been outstanding. Friday night was no exception, taking contested marks, out running opponents with the ball and hitting targets with each of his 23 disposals, he has really shown that he was the number one draft pick in 2004. Finally Richmond used their priority pick with diligence!
Will Thursfield was outstanding as well finally getting back the form he had built up prior to doing his knee against St Kilda last season. He just smothered Robertson and clearly came out the winner in that contest. Although he didn’t have many possessions, he kept Russell Robertson to a measly 11 disposals.

Jake King, playing only his 9th career game is a rookie who has just taken to the game without a problem. Although he started the season slowly, struggling to keep up with the pace of the AFL, he has quickly slid into the groove and on Friday night, repaid the faith that Terry Wallace and the match committee has shown in him with an outstanding game. He is not afraid to take them on with plenty of run and finishing the game with 16 kicks and 5 handballs, he was everywhere the ball was.

Other notable mentions go to Graham Polak who was simply awesome with his 28 disposals and 11 marks, quelling many forward thrusts by Melbourne and stabilising a once fragile backline. Daniel Jackson is maturing, Greg Tivendale showed experience, Shane Tuck worked as hard as ever, Chris Hyde is very polished with his skills and Chris Newman just continues to show composure when under fire.

Adam Pattison still has a long way to go however, continues to show promise.

The true heroes of the night were the dynamic duo Matthew Richardson and Nathan Brown. Browny just showed he has still got it after nearly two years out of the game. His polished skills just shone through with precision marking and kicking. He rarely fumbles or miss-kicks and he frees up Pettifer to roam and kick his required 2-3 goals. Richo was outstanding with his 16 marks and 23 disposals – He was everywhere. Unfortunately his poor kicking for goal let him and the team down with a below par 3.6. This does not include the 3 other opportunities that were rushed through and the 3 that he gave off as assists to team-mates. If he had capitalised on his opportunities, he could have easily kicked 12 goals and the margin would have been far greater. If this guy could kick for goal, I truly believe that Richo would be pushing the all-time goal kicking record that Lockett holds of 1357…

On a not so positive note, Andrew Raines was disappointing. He has so much promise and can be so exciting however, his decision making and disposal just continually lets him, and the team down. A few times on Friday night he blindly turned into trouble or just didn’t even look at his options before disposing and he continually disposes to players who themselves are under immense pressure. There is still a lot of room for improvement in this kid and hopefully we can persist with him and help him hone these important skills.

Next week we face a depleted St Kilda after the long trek across the nullabor. Hopefully we can continue the winning run and turn one win into 2 and hopefully Nathan Brown can just continue to get better as the year draws to an end.

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Demetriou – The rule is NOT WORKING!!!

Kevin Sheedy, Shane Crawford & Nathan Buckley have all come out in the Herald Sun and agreed that the push in the back rule is an abysmal failure and it needs to be revoked ASAP. The issue is, as I eluded to in my previous letter, the AFL are to stubborn and obnoxious and simply refuse to admit THEY GOT IT WRONG!!!

Andrew Demetriou and Kevin Bartlett – Get over yourselves and admit you got it wrong! If you love our game you will put aside your own personal pride for the greater good of the game! You just know Demetriou is sitting back rubbing their hands thinking “attendances are up, profits are up, What problem? The fact of the matter is that the AFL is now a corporation and are only interested in growing revenue instead of preserving our age old game…

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Are channel 7 & 10 in cahoots with the AFL?

the new rule changes, and the overall poor umpiring witnessed this year has only been worsened by Channel sevens commentary team’s apparent apathy as to what has been happening. This year has been quite extraordinarily poor in umpiring decisions, so much to the point where i believe that poor decisions have actually affected the result of games ( i think Essendon could have an extra 12 points on the ladder this year due to this). However i have been stunned at Tim Watson’s, Bruce Macavaney’s, and-most disappointingly- Dennis Cometti’s ignorance as to what the umpires are doing to games. Rather than showing empathy to the player wronged, we hear laughter to the players reaction, or at best, a slight hint that the umpire might have got it wrong. Don Scott used to show his anger, however he does not call games anymore. Are our current commentators simply towing the line? Has the AFL ensured these commentators arent to be too critical? Its hard enough to watch an injustice on the field, but for it to go unnoticed by these experts makes watching the game painful. Listening to the Rich v Freo game on ABC radio, a commentator expressed utter disappointment at a decision. He also went on to illustrate just how much it effected the game. Richmonds Shane Edwards was tackled high, but was pinned for holding the ball, resulting in a

Freo goal. However the ball should have ended up in the opposite goalsquare. it was a massive injustice resulting in a big turnaround in scores in a crucial time of the game. As a listener, sure i was annoyed, yet i was properly informed by the commentator. i cant speak the same for those on commercial television. These callers should call the game democratically and with diplomacy, but not in a fashion to paint the game as its not. im fed up with not having umpiring decisions corrected, or of hearing reports of a “great game”, when it was anything but. Our teams and players are fair game to intense criticism, what about the state of the game and its umpires too?

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Richmond vs Essendon – The wrap up!

What an absolute nightmare! Never have I seen a game that made me so lost, angry, upset… I’m struggling to find the words to describe it… Andrew Demetriou, Kevin Bartlett and their respective departments within the AFL have ruined our once loved game! If you haven’t read my letter to the AFL in a previous post, please do, it is the pre-cursor to this outburst I am about to unleash…

Where do I start? The game as a spectacle wasn’t something to behold, skill errors all night and neither team really put a mark on the game. Richmond had control for most of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th quarters but once again, they just couldn’t hold on in the end being run over in the last 5-10 minutes of the game.

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Now to the point – What a disgrace of a game from an umpiring perspective – Unfortunately the umpires cop the brunt of this when realistically it is wholly and solely the AFL (Andrew Demetriou) and the rules committee’s (Kevin Bartlett) fault! They have sent their employees to work without the correct tools to complete their job – like lambs to a slaughter, these guys have got no hope with the current Hierachy.

This could be considered bias in some areas however, I am a Richmond supporter and I’m sure that these types of decisions have been paid against your team on numerous occasions…

First Quarter

Incident 1 – Matthew Lloyds first kick of the night – A free kick, in the back… From where I sat, there was no push whatsoever – I question if his hand even touched his back – disgrace – Is the rule “push

in the back” or “hand on the back region”??? Let’s get it right!

Incident 2 – Angus Monfries – takes a mark and clearly plays on. Not just one step, he took 2-3 steps on the run – The richmond player, Kane Johnson, Grabs him, doesn’t throw him, down, just retatrds him and the goose of an umpire – No.4 pays fifty metres!!! Can’t blame the AFL for that one – that umpire is clearly just a incapable of making a pressure decision in the big leagues!

Second Quarter

Incident 3 – Polak attempts to mark and gets a hand in the back no free kick – in the grand scheme of things, this is probably ok because it is a rubbish rule, but when you pay the same thing 20 minutes earlier to Lloyd, and this one was much more obvious, just give us some consistency… I think the problem here is that the other umpire (not No.4) paid the right decision in the context of the game however his less than capable collegue (No.4) built the rod for his back with the earlier, disgraceful decision.

Incident 4 – Daniel Jackson – courageously runs back with the flight, eyes on the ball the entire time, tries to mark the ball and a free kick is paid against him for interferring with the essendon player coming towards the ball. GIVE ME A BREAK!!! Reward the player showing courage – We need to be encouraging that type of play, not penalising it!!! Again it was umpire No.4 – clearly showing his ineptitude and inexperience paying an uneducated and ridiculous free kick!

Third Quarter

Incident 5 – Shane Edwards – Gets tackled and slung and handballs the ball off but is penalised for holding the ball.. HOW??? HE DISPOSED OF IT!!! Umpire No.4 again – say no more!

Last Quarter

Incident 6 – Richo’s mark, goal and consequential 50m penaly against! Where do I start? I was completely dumbfounded! How could anyone – AFL, umpires, supporters want to see that type of play removed from our game??? How could the AFL design a rule that tries to remove that? It was inspirational from a supporter perspective – I am completely baffled – He didn’t even push him in the back!!! All he did was hold him at bay and stopped him from backing into him!!! Idiot umpire, buy cialis uk ridculous AFL!!! What are Andrew Demetriou & Kevin Bartlett trying to do? i cannot see any legitimate need for this rule at all in our game? Instead of making it stricter, remove it completely!!! Another one they got wrong (one of many)

Incident 7 – Matthew Lloyd – free kick after the final siren. He took a mark and played on – the umpire CLEARLY waved his arms signalling play on and then the siren sounded… The umpire then blew full-time and gave him the kick again!!! Just blatant ineptitude from guess who? Umpire No.4. If you call play on, you cannot take it back after the siren!!! Just a simple basic rule that has been in effect for over 100 years!!!!!!!!!
Finally, I was astounded that james Hird won the BOG award!!! Hird is a champion and played a good, serviceable game but to be awarded the best on ground!!! I was clearly watching a different game! I would have had 5-6 players above him on the night. Richo, Deledio, Lloyd, Lucas all played far better than Hird – that to me was the biggest insult of the night – Do they think we are idiots??? Just another sign that the AFL is not in touch with what is happening…
And the commentators and media – Are these guys actually watching these games – they show no emotion whatsoever which just frustrates me even more. Do they not see this rubbich happening? Are they on an AFL contract and must refrain from commenting against umpiring or rules??? Stand up and be counted!!!

As for Umpire No.4 – I feel more sorry for the other two umpires because he made some horrendous decisions on the night yet they are now tarred with the same brush because of their collegaues ineptitude!

The AFL need to do something quick smart – our game is crap and getting worse! If I didn’t love Richmond so much I would refuse to go to another game but the AFL have got me by the balls – I’m not going to boycott AFL and affect Richmond! We need to take a stand – stay tuned.

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