If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – a motto Andrew Demetriou and AFL lawmakers simply don’t seem to understand. Fans have been screaming out for years in an attempt to get the AFL to stop constantly tinkering with the laws of the game; to bring a halt to the “change for the sake of change” mentality. Over the last 20 years the game has seen 49 changes – up there with the most of any sport in the world – from the introduction of the centre circle in 2005, to doubling the amount of boundary umpires from two to four in 2008. Now the AFL wants to limit the amount of interchanges a side can make during the course of a game, in an apparent effort to quell congestion around the ball.
In 1994, the quantity of players allowed on the interchange bench was increased from two to three, and four years later in 1998, that number was increased to four – all implemented with an emphasis on the “spectacle” that is football; to create a more fast-paced game. Now, it seems, we’ve gone backwards. In 2011, the substitute rule was introduced, allowing only three interchange players while a “substitute” player waits in the wings to be used either tactically or late in the game to cover an injured player.
The problem with the AFL’s suggestion to enforce an interchange cap is that they don’t seem to realise that they, themselves, are in fact the problem. Coaches will continually find a way to manipulate rules in order to keep their players fresh, and different tactics will simply be used to control the energy levels of players. Congestion may be the current problem, but believe me when I say it’ll just be replaced by something else should the AFL introduce an interchange cap (flooding, anyone?).
This is not to mention the outrageous penalties in place for teams who cause an infringement on the interchange bench during play. Essentially, if a player steps on the field when he’s not supposed to (becoming the 19th player on the ground for his team), the opposition is awarded a free kick and a 50-metre penalty – often resulting in a free goal. A mistake by an interchange steward during the clash between heavyweights Hawthorn and Geelong in Round 15 fortunately did not have a match-defining impact on the game (Geelong won by 10 points). However Hawthorn were gifted a free kick and a 50-metre penalty, which in turn allowed David Hale to slot a goal. Post-game both Alistair Clarkson and Chris Scott labelled the rule as “poor” and called for a lesser penalty for interchange infringements.
As rare an occurrence as a player running on the ground early may be, you can’t help but be in agreeance with the two coaches. There’s no reason why a team should be gifted a free goal, ultimately shaping the course of the game, for an incident that didn’t even have an impact on the match.
Going back to the interchange cap – the AFL need to stop messing around here. The high number of interchanges is not the source of their problem. In fact, evidence has been found that directly links players fatigue to soft tissue injuries, and by limiting the amount of interchanges per game, well, one would think players are going to be more tired.
Perhaps the problem lies within rules no one seems to have mentioned – such as holding the ball. Modern umpires have become incredibly lenient with this rule, yet it’s a big one that leads to congestion and it has seemed to have slipped under the radar of everyone involved in this interchange debate. If players know they have plenty of time to dispose of the ball even while being tackled, this encourages the player to hold onto the ball for longer and even draw a tackle, which results in a ball-up and alas, congestion. While merely a theory – why not adopt a stricter policy on the holding the ball rule (as they have with hands in the back) where players who’ve failed to utilise their prior opportunity are pinged the moment an opposition player lays a tackle on them.
All in all, the idea of an interchange cap needs to be scrapped, and the AFL needs to go back to square one. Stop inadvertently taking the game a step backwards, crawl out of the pit of money Foxtel has lured them into, and listen to the people who make this game great – players, coaches and fans alike.