The time is right: Call a moratorium on rule changes in the AFL

As the season winds down, and minds across the football landscape begin to turn to what comes next over the here and now, the AFL is running its usual processes regarding the laws of the game. With football delivering the goods almost every second game, the time is right for HQ to bite the bullet and make a commitment to leave the rules of the game alone.

It has become something of a ritual across the league. Each off season, some ex-player with some axe to grind and some time on his hands makes the same clichéd statement: “the game just isn’t what it used to be”. The media pick up on it, the pundits get to weigh in with their hare-brained schemes, and we get overwhelmed with rivers of nostalgia about 100 goal key forwards and high scoring shootouts.

Last year, the AFL continued its recent trend of off season tinkering by making two quite fundamental changes to the laws of Australian football: regulating out the ability for players to go third man up at ruck contests, and shifting the frame of deliberate out of bounds to so-called “insufficient intent” to keep the ball in play. This was also applied to deliberate rush behinds. Both of the latter were relaxed over the course of the year when everyone realised how fucking stupid it was to ask umpires to enter the mind of a player and make a split second decision.

The year before that there were a plethora of changes, the most significant being the abolition of the substitute (which had only been bought in four seasons prior) and a reduction in the interchange cap (bought in the year before) from 120 to 90 rotations a game. The AFL also expanded the “protected area” given to players after taking a mark.

2015 saw the interchange cap introduced, the holding the ball rule modified to reward the tackler, and look I could go on but you get the picture. HQ’s thirst to tinker and change the rules and regulations of the sport seems undying.

But you know what? We’ve got ourselves a golden opportunity to break the cycle. It seems like the inertia is to be directed towards matters of nuance rather than fundamental changes to the structures, systems and processes of the game that we have seen in recent years.

“The tackle” is the rules-based talking point right now, with two isolated incidents – Patrick Dangerfield and Brodie Grundy concussing Matthew Kreuzer and Ben Brown, respectively – inspiring the sort of sensationalism usually reserved for “the bump”. Google “the tackle is dead AFL”. It’s a hoot.

There is little doubt some tinkering will be done to what is and what is not considered a dangerous tackle. That’s fine, because it will affect roughly one in every 4,687 tackles.

The future of the traditional bounce of the ball to start in the centre of the ground has also been discussed throughout the year. Ultimately, this is window dressing. Traditionalists say it is important, modernists shrug their shoulders, and we all move on. It’s another matter of largely immaterial consequence the structure of the game itself.

The Laws of the Game Committee, a panel made up of former players from by-gone eras, can keep itself occupied with tackles and bounces for the summer.

I mean…what else is wrong? Say what you will about the aesthetics of the game, the competition itself hasn’t been as healthy as it has been in 2017 since before the league’s two new teams came to be. With three rounds remaining, 11 teams are still in the hunt for finals, and all but the number one seed is still up for grabs.

There has been 39 games decided by single digits – on track to be the most in the AFL era. Scoring is up modestly from the 2014 nadir. Indeed, earlier this week the AFL revealed it was no longer considering a change to the structure of the fixture – the other significant regulatory instrument available to the league – for 2018 and perhaps beyond on account of the even-ness of the year. 17-5, 18-4, wildcards…they’re all out. Status quo is in.

More broadly, there is a plethora of ways to win football games, with teams equally successful playing kick-mark, high press, slingshot, stoppage-oriented, in tight and out wide football.

We only need to look at the top four. The Crows play precision football, with a permanent extra defender and very structured forward line. The Tigers are a refined version of the Western Bulldogs swarming midfield. The Cats are all about size and heft through the middle. The Giants run for days. There are an almost infinite number of ways to play winning football, one of the most defining features of Australian rules that almost never gets talked about.

Champion Data will tell us, if we ask and happen to catch them on a day they’re feeling generous, that stoppages are down and congestion is no longer the enemy of the state. Coaches, as they always do, have innovated within the constraints of the existing system and found out new ways to play ball.

There is no compelling reason to change from what we have today. It is an opportune time for HQ to make a commitment to leave the rules for the 2018 competition unchanged. We could do with a break from the annual November nostalgia-fest.