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Tuesday, January 19 2021 @ 01:27 am ACDT

Barassi suggests 16-a-side, 4 Sydney clubs (one day)

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AFL legend Ron Barassi has made several comments about where he thinks the game should go. Besides his well-known desire to see the international side of the game expanded, he also reiterated his belief that North Melbourne should have moved to the Gold Coast, Melbourne has too many teams, Sydney should have more AFL clubs (but not yet) and that there are too many players on the field.

Barassi, now 72, said "I think football is missing a few of the eye-catching dramas and thrills that there used to be, which is a pity", and "I think we should go to 16 a side, it's been done before in the VFA many years ago, it will make more space and more one-on-one contests".

This author was pleased to see someone of high profile saying 16 per side would be better than 18 - something that is long overdue but unlikely to occur. In Australian Football's earliest days there were many more players on the field than there are today. Slowly that number was reduced, leading to far more open play. But for most leagues, the reduction stopped at 18 players. However over the last 20 years, at the highest level, the game has become fully professional. In "the old days" footballers were told to stay in their position, running handball was rare, boots were heavy, fitness levels were lower than today, and the fields were often quagmires through much of the season. Wingmen had room to run, flooding only related to rainfall and congested play was six players around the ball, not sixteen or more.

Australian Football has always adapted to keep the spectacle in the sport. But with all of the above changes leading to more players around the ball, the number of players on the field has not fallen. How many sides line up with six players in the forward line? No full forward wants two forward pockets crowding their space, so one or both move up to where the half forwards once stood, who in turn line up closer to the wing. Would the game miss one forward pocket and correspondingly one back pocket? Such a change would help open up the game, make flooding more difficult, and hopefully lead to more one on one contests - a highlight of footy that is being lost.

Changing to 16 per side would also reduce the number of players needed, reducing the cost of running an AFL club (which is far more expensive that other national league codes). And it would go a long way to alleviating concerns about insufficient quality players for the AFL to go to 18 clubs. It would also flow down to lower levels that often find it hard to gather 18 players plus interchange just for one team, such as in schools, country clubs and internationally. Unfortunately it's hard to see such a radical change being made, given the public's distaste for rule changes and bodies such as the AFL Players Association unlikely to support less players in the game. However some pre-season matches on smaller ovals have been playered as 16-a-side, so the concept is not foreign to AFL clubs, so perhaps there is some hope.

Barassi said North Melbourne should have gone to the Gold Coast, and is quoted as saying "There's too many teams in Victoria. It's one of the worst problems in football, who's going to be not here" and "It's so sad [but] I think the game is more important than the club". Now that's a refreshing attitude.

With regards to New South Wales he was both bullish and conservative. Although he said Sydney should have four AFL clubs one day, he gave a timeframe of 50 to 100 years. He doesn't believe a second club should be started until Australian Football in the country's biggest city can support it fully, something he clearly doesn't think it can do now. Personally I think the time is right. With so much being invested in junior football in Sydney, now is the time to give the kids a local elite club to strive to play for, to support, to be involved with. If it needs to be propped up for several years, so be it. And the rivalry that would quickly be created with the Sydney Swans should spur growth in the game.

16-a-side, two clubs in Sydney, two in Queensland. In ten years two out of those three wishes will probably have been achieved and regarded as successful and obvious, the other, well you never know.

Full Barassi story: Barassi backs four Sydney teams

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