The hot button issue this off-season, other than a team with a nickname of a type of plane being unable to land to play a practice match, has been the trialling of alternate rules for Australian Football in the AFL’s pre-season competition, the NAB Cup.
At a cursory glance, it would seem that everyone involved in footy, from the players, to the fans, to the footy punditry, want the game to sit for a while with the rules that currently govern the game.
The powers that be see things a little differently though.
Subsequently, we have a pre-season competition that, as far as the rules are concerned, bears only a passing resemblance to the game that will be played from March 24.
This year’s version of “Pyjama Football” sees time-on only towards the end of a quarter, ruckman not permitted to touch each other before the ball is thrown up for a ruck contest, free kicks paid against players who dispose of the ball out of the field of play, boundary and goal umpires able to pay free kicks for high contact away from the ball, two interchange players and two substitutes on the bench, and the nine-point “supergoal”.
At the first analysis, this doesn’t help teams prepare for the season proper because they are almost playing another game.
It’s almost like a traditional volleyball team playing an Olympic lead-in tournament, but instead of playing volleyball, they play beach volleyball.
Practice makes perfect, but I’m not sure that AFL teams are being permitted to practice properly.
While the supergoal may be designed to increase interest in an otherwise mainly unimportant pre-season match, the sight of a player blazing away for goal from outside 50 only to spray the ball wide of the target can be infuriating in the real stuff.
Players and coaches have called for any proposed rule changes to be trialled in the NAB Cup, so this sort of difference is somewhat unavoidable.
But no organisation with responsibility for the rules of the game changes the rules quite as much as the AFL. Despite massive attendances at games and a record media rights deal, the AFL, through its actions, continues to imply that there is something wrong with the game.
This is the rationale for the trialling of the two interchange and two substitute rule in the NAB Cup.
Despite the AFL stating that last year’s introduction of the substitute at the expense of one interchange player was a success, this year in the pre-season they have gone further.
As far as this correspondent can tell, no one else in the wider football community sees a further problem with the replacement of another interchange player with another substitute would solve.
This trial has also had a clear effect on how teams are using the NAB Cup to prepare for the season proper, and while it is desirable to have rules trialled before they are introduced into the home and away season, it is also desirable that teams have as much control over how they prepare for that home and away season.
The AFL also has a tendency to introduce rules that are far from easy to adjudicate.
I’ve written before about the ever growing amount of rules that call on umpires not to simply make decisions on what they see, but also on what they feel the intent of a player is.
Association Football, on the other hand, is a game with few rules, and made it easier on referees in the late 1990s by simplifying the interpretation of rules to focus almost exclusively on what referees see.
The current decision-making process has been clouded by this interpretative element and needs to be addressed.
On top of all that is a growing feeling that the AFL does as it pleases, regardless of the opinions of those who play and coach the game, and certainly of those who watch it.
They see and work to solve problems no one else sees, whether it be too many stoppages in the last quarters of games, or too many impact injuries caused by players running harder and faster for longer.
I don’t remember a massive amount of media outrage about those two issues, but I do remember a lot of talk about how the tribunal is a mess and how goalkicking never seems to improve. Maybe the AFL could introduce a pre-season rule that helps players kick straighter.
If the AFL continues to use the NAB Cup as its experimental plaything, the inevitable conclusion is that the clubs will aim to use other methods to prepare their players for the home and away season.
Maybe this is another reason the NAB Cup should be done away with altogether. I feel that is an experimental rule a great many may support.