Martin Blake June 16, 2012
THERE are certain truisms in the AFL, and one is that the coaches love the status quo when it comes to rules. That way, they can plan for it, scheme around it. Make a change and they will carp like schoolchildren.
When the AFL introduced the three-and-one interchange rule for the 2011 season, replacing the four-man interchange bench that had been in place for more than a decade, you would have thought the league was doing something revolutionary - like doing away with behinds and having goals only - such was the outcry.
But when it unfolded, the public would barely have noticed. At the end of 2011, the new method was given a tick, even by most clubs. The AFL said that on the three criteria it was introduced - improved fairness, reduction of congestion and reduced injury toll - the system had worked.
Yet the debate rages in the media.
In the past few weeks, staff from the AFL's football division have been visiting clubs to talk with leadership groups and coaches about the actual game. One of the key topics is interchange and rotations. This year, the AFL trialled a two-and-two system (two interchange, two substitutes) in the NAB Cup and there is speculation it will be adopted next season.
AFL football operations manager Adrian Anderson denies anything is set in stone. ''We haven't decided yet what, if anything, we'll do next year,'' he told The Saturday Age. ''We're only at the stage of getting around the clubs, and we need to see more data.''
These are the facts. Despite the three-and-one system, rotation numbers are soaring again after flattening out last year. The average per club is 129.9 a game, up 9.5 per cent on last year, and five times what they were a decade ago. In one game there were 323 player rotations. Adelaide is averaging more than 150 a game. Gold Coast had 173 in a game.
These are the numbers that have set off people such as the legendary Kevin Bartlett, whose recent call for a complete abandonment of interchange, and a return to the old substitution system, caused a stir. In Bartlett's eyes, it is the heavy rotations that cause congestion because the fresher players get to more contests.
But this is where the debate diverges. Bartlett, a Laws of the Game committee member, is apoplectic. ''Interchange has hijacked the game,'' he said. ''The game was never designed to have 323 interchanges. It's not in the nature of our game.''
But the AFL says it is not strictly about interchange numbers at all. It's about the speed of the players. Anderson said the league fully expected rotation numbers to rise again in 2012. But it is not the number he is looking at. ''It's about how much rest they get, the effect of that on … the game speed, the average speeds and [players'] ability to reach the top speeds,'' he said.
''You can have a guy sprint off, get 20 seconds rest and then sprint back out there again, and it's achieved nothing in terms of the amount of rest he gets or ground that he covers because he's had zero effective rest. But it still counts as a rotation.''
This is where it gets technical. Since GPS devices became popular, the AFL has been able to track how fast and how far players are running, and make comparisons year-on-year. It has also been studying injuries for 20 years and puts out an annual review.
It was this data that led the AFL medicos to warn the league two years ago of the danger of severe injuries unless it acted to slow the game down; make the players fatigue. This is the nub of why the interchange rule changed and why it might even change again. ''Our advice, from several independent sources, is that if we allowed the speed of the game to keep increasing and to go unchecked, we were running a real risk of seeing increases in collision injuries and speed-related injuries, including soft-tissue injuries,'' said Anderson.
In 2011, players spent, on average, an extra 4½ minutes a game on the ground and ran an extra 400 metres. The average speed of a player reduced to 7.35 km/h, closer to the 2008 level. The 'game intensity' number that the scientists calculate dropped by 3 per cent. ''This was a statistically significant drop. That's exactly what we were trying to influence and always said we were trying to influence,'' said Anderson.
By general consensus, games were opening up in final quarters, which was precisely what the AFL wanted. Its figures for clearance rates showed there was less congestion; the injury rate stayed about the same, but soft-tissue injuries dropped significantly. Teams that lost a player to injury early were shown by an RMIT study to have a 50-50 chance of winning the game, whereas previously they were 6 per cent less likely to win.
Whether this is the case in 2012 is a moot point. Some of the numbers are not yet available, although Anderson says they are tracking along similar lines to 2011. In Bartlett's eyes, the rolling packs of players show that something has to be done. He knows his proposal will not get up. But he is happy that it sparked a debate. ''One of the good things that has come out of this is that the coaches are going to present a unified thought, whereas they might have been fragmented before. I've heard [Greater Western Sydney coach] Kevin Sheedy talking about four interchange players and a cap on rotations. He's talked about limiting players to certain parts of the field. I've read Tim Lane in The Sunday Age arguing for 16 players a side. There are a lot of people out there who see what's taking place. But no one's come up with a solution. Well, I came up with one, but no one liked it! The thing is at least there are other people thinking that at 323 interchanges and rising, with a rolling maul around the football, it's not the way the game was meant to be played.''
Anderson says the league will go about its business. Towards the end of this year, it will come before Bartlett and the Laws of the Game committee, of which Anderson also is a member. ''It's one of our key objectives to keep it as exciting and entertaining, and to keep it as safe to play as we can within the confines of a body contact sport,'' he said.