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Will International footy reshape Australian Football?

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Will international footy change the way the game is played in Australia, from the MCG to Subiaco, from Football Park to the Gabba and on large and small grounds around the country?

This article explores the possibilities.

Change in footy is hardly a big deal. The coaches change the game every year – often copying the defensive, tackling or ball-moving styles of the premiers, and then the rules committee keeps up and adjusts the rules to limit the malformations of the game that can result from the coaches’ use of possession games (keepings off) and packs, scrimmages and blocks.

At the same time everyone laments that they should ‘leave the game alone’ and grumbles about change abound, as they have always done. The good old days (‘kick the bloody thing!’) were inevitably better than the handballing, running present. They were also harder, which is a nice myth. Even despite the rapid change of recent years, it changed from the beginning, regarding rules, balls, umpiring, free kicks and marks. It also influenced the early years of Gaelic football which started with point posts as well as goalposts and....

It changed again in the Great Depression and in the violent years around the end of World War 2. It would be reshaped again by handball from the 1950s, and then in the fitness and running era of the early 1950s onwards. In the 1970s it would be influenced by the Hawthorn tackling era, the Carlton mosquito fleet moment in the 70s & 80s. Now, as in the use of handball, interchange and possession football, it is almost unrecognisable due to numerous techniques imported from basketball, soccer and rugby which have been modified for a different running game on a different field.

Most changes come from coaches’ strategies and tactics, often borrowed from other field or invasion sports. When they have a negative impact on the game the rules committee then rejigs the rules to limit them, eg running over the line to concede a point to keep possession which was banned in 2009 after Hawthorn’s use of the tactic in 2008.

However, some change can come from events related to circumstance and to chance, rather than to the designer inventions of coaches. One of the reasons Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin was the fact that some mould grew in a petrie dish in a lab by accident. Can accidents and local innovations, designed to fit different spaces and sometimes different cultures, show us the way ahead for footy?

I think the international game, in all its variations, can do this.

How can a more amateurish, small-scale version of the game, played by an Australian minority (of wise heads and old knees, often in their 30s or more) and a majority of novices, shape the future of the great game of Australia?

The reason is space and numbers forcing change. Small playing spaces and small numbers of players with basic skills mean that in much of Europe, 9-a-side has become normal or at least frequent. Similarly in Japan on rugby, baseball, and soccer fields, teams are often of 12 to 16, rather than the full 18. 18 is not sacrosanct – the VFA used to play with 16 and there were no reserves in the late 19th century. And players once stayed at their end of the ground, playing a different game to now.

The international experience of 9-a-side footy has been good. The result is often a fast high-scoring game, in part because players new to the game are also more excited by its creative possibilities rather than by defence, even if they do love tackling. The second reason is that, like rugby sevens, less congested play makes for faster running and more scoring. Now that AFL footy has at times declined into a mire of mauls, scrimmages, and mess with the ball often not leaving the pack of players for a couple of minutes, and, with 18-24 players around a secondary or tertiary bounce, feverish tackling keeps it in, there is a need for change. If not footy will be returning to the scramble of the 1860s or will become the less attractive part of rugby – the running maul.

The Finnish small-team experience as described by Craig Primmer, a Geelong boy who teaches genetics at university in Turku, suggests the possibilities. Small team games can have an average of a goal kicked every 2 minutes 47 seconds, one example of the change and how it works out up north. Such changes are desirable as the highlight of most sports for many players, particularly for kids, is scoring a goal, and already that happens in Australian Football more than most sports.

Why is change essential, as well as desirable? Because the running game will mean some good footballers lacking in aerobic capacity will not play at the top level. Because flooding and mauling harms the creative side of the game. Unless the rules committee demands a minimum number of players up each half of the ground (even 6 per team) we will continue to see up to 24 players around a bounce and nearly all players in one half of the ground, most of them inside the 50 line.

Why will smaller team footy also happen in Australia? Smaller playing areas in new suburbs, busier lifestyles and competing demands may often make smaller teams a good solution. A team of nine can travel in 2-3 cars as well. As today, the future is about change, on and off the field. What next?

We need feedback from other competitions around the world, men’s and women’s, senior and junior, which have experimented with variations, in team size, in playing space, and even in the rules to make the game work most effectively.

What has been happening… ?
• elsewhere in Europe
• In Asia
• In North America
• And in the Pacific
• And, similarly, but differently in Australia - Masters Footy, once called Super Rules, for those who have retired; and in summer the new ‘touch’ game for small mixed gender teams, Recfooty.

Over to you for your descriptions and responses.

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Will International footy reshape Australian Football? | 14 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Christopher P. Adams, Ph.D. on Tuesday, November 10 2009 @ 12:41 am ACDT

One thing that surprised me recently was that in Australia you have U12s playing 18-a-side on basically a full-size field. This runs contrary to the thinking in youth and adult soccer that small-sided football (5-a-side) is the way to teach the skills and decision making of the game. I think small-sided footy can be an excellent way to give players more touches and help them with skills and moving the ball under-pressure. I grant that it doesn't help teach the long-kicking game - but who does that anymore?

Carna Revos!


Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Troy Thompson on Tuesday, November 10 2009 @ 07:28 am ACDT

Chris - to be honest in many cases there is such demand in terms of numbers that they want to have the maximum on the field to get as many kids involved at once. There are country leagues though where numbers are down (due to population shift) do play lesser numbers.

As for international footy shaping the game I find it unlikely (not impossible). I think it's affects probably pales in to significance to the desire of a good product being provided for the TV stations that pay vast sums for the rights. A game with a high number of rushed behinds does not provide advertising spots like a high goal scoring game does - hence the rule change - you can add the hands in the back interpretation change (which generally only seems to be paid in the forward line) and the chopping of the arms (rule or interpretation change) that have also seemed to be aimed at giving us more goals. Remember that the AFL were not happy with Paul Roos' game style in previous years that led to lower scoring matches.

Changes to rules and interpretations these days flow from the top down and give little consideration as to how they will flow on to grass roots level (e.g finding extra umpires or having rules that really need 3 central umpires to properly apply them, extra officials for interchange etc.). While lower levels of football can ignore what is happening at AFL level there will always be a wish to carry these things through to be as close as possible to the way the game is played at the highest level.

Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Brett Northey on Tuesday, November 10 2009 @ 01:06 pm ACDT

I'm not sure international footy will lead the way, in terms of being copied in Australia, but it may give an indication of the way forward that those of us that follow it will recognise.

I won't generalise to other cities, but I know too many schools in Adelaide dropped Australian football because of lack of fields (in-fill pressure) and players (such as the shift from the aging demographic of inner suburbs to sprawling outer suburbs, so inner suburbs have smaller numbers of children, plus intense competition from soccer and a history of Australian football "dropping the ball" in the 1970s and 80s when the game was under siege from itself, VFL eating the SANFL). It seems moving to smaller team sizes and fields has already occurred in some places, mirroring international efforts (as opposed to copying).

I don't see as much promotion of Rec footy as I would like, but I still have hopes for it as a genuine summer alternative to other sports, thus keeping people and especially women and families involved in the sport. Many people play Touch football (Touch rugby, including myself) and social or indoor soccer, especially in Australia's harsh summers and as they move past their 20s and 30s. This naturally draws their kids into these sports, which is fine in general, but not good for Australian football.

Whether the future in say Europe is 9-a-side is still hard to say. There's definitely two schools of thought, but then a lot of crossover between them as well. 9s definitely has a significant role, the question is whether it will evolve to be the dominant version, or possible even a spin-off sport of its own, or remain as an initial start-up method from which countries/leagues/clubs will seek to "graduate" to the full version.

But as I've stated often before, I'm a big fan of Aussie Rules, in Australia, experimenting with 16-a-side. Drop a forward and back pocket, reduce the congestion, reduce the overheads for setting up a game, maybe allow slightly smaller fields so less real estate required and keep the fans closer to the action (a drawback of Australian football not often discussed and somewhat alleviated by relatively modern stadia like Etihad with stands that are steep rather than swept back 1970s and 80s stadia).

Brett Northey - Co-founder and Chief Editor of WFN

Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Peter Parry on Tuesday, November 10 2009 @ 07:30 pm ACDT

All other sports have smaller versions to aid greater participation, game development and marketing. Soccer has both indoor and outdoor 5-a-side, cricket has 8-a-side and also 20:20 time limited, Rugby has the very successful Rugby 7's which will now give the slightly ailing code a huge boost through the Olympics, Rugby League has a 9's version and of course the immensely popular "touch football" version Brett plays, even basketball has a 3-a-side version. Gridiron has flag football.

Aussie Rules - requiring a huge field and large numbers of players - more than any other game needs a more organised widely played smaller version, particularly for development and participation purposes. 9-a-side offers this as does the 8-a-side non-contact co-ed "Recfooty" version.

Most Australian primary schools are more suited to 9's, as are some high schools, yet many no longer have footy teams since they couldn't raise a 22 or a squad large enough to support 18 on the field, or the oval was shortened for extra classrooms. 9's tournaments can quicken the pace of international growth (as the EU Cup shows). Recfooty is a belated attempt to enter the social sports market - but better late than never.

What is lacking is AFL promotion and marketing of these smaller forms of the game. The AFL could and should organise a lightening carnival with Netball Australia for both RecFooty and recreational mixed netball - other celebrities could be coopted. This would boost recognition of RecFooty that is mostly unknown to the wider public and even to most footy fans. AFL clubs could also play a lightening carnival of tackle 9-a-side - this could be organised as a promotion of schools' 9's cups.

A 9's international cup, held perhaps every 4 years, 2 years apart from a full 18 on the field International Cup that goes to a 4 year format - would allow for more countries to enter than can financially and logistically field a full team at their stage of development. AFL or State of Origin 9's could be used to promote a 9's international tournament. At a divisional level some countries may be able to compete with Australian state, amateur or even AFL sides in a 9's format years or decades before they could in the full format. Ultimately a widely played 9's version could even be considered for Commonwealth or Olympic games (though way in the future from now).

Shorter versions don't detract from other codes' full sized games, they give rise to more people with appreciation of the game and thus potential fans and players of the full version. Australian Football needs a more prominent half sized version - both contact and non-contact/social.

Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Michael Christiansen on Tuesday, November 10 2009 @ 08:33 pm ACDT

I'm involved with a VAFA lower grade club, and am seriously looking at getting initially a 9's pre-season lightning premiership happening....as an introduction for clubs and players to the 9's format.

(from our perspective, player numbers are often limited in the lead up to the season due guys still playing cricket).

I'd love to get a full blown tournament to evolve out of it (inc. womens, old f@rts etc)...but, we'll get past the first hurdle first.

anyway, if anyone is interested in being involved.....let me know.

(I kinda wonder whether a mid-week 4-6 week 9's season could work where often clubs early in a season have surplus players who keep missing out on Saturdays.)

anyway, just a few thoughts.

Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Joel Adin Porretta on Wednesday, November 11 2009 @ 03:25 pm ACDT

If the 9 a side game played mainly in Europe was introduced to Australia it could strengthen the game here even more. First it could boost the number of clubs in New South Wales and Queensland (due to the amount of Rugby grounds). Second it could bring Football to hundreds of more towns in Victoria that are unfortunate enough to have a Club due the lack of numbers. I'm sure that if these ideas are taken into consideration enough they can and should help keep Football's stronghold for many more years to come. And who knows within a few years time there could even be an official 9 a side World Cup feturing Australia.

Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Joel Adin Porretta on Wednesday, November 11 2009 @ 03:27 pm ACDT

Sorry about that. I meant to say unfortunate enough NOT to have a Club. Sorry about that.

Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Michael Christiansen on Thursday, November 12 2009 @ 09:32 am ACDT

That's something in the back of my mind too - I just want to get effectively a demo 9's tourney lightning premiership under the belt next year - - I've already had informal discussion with Michael Sholley at the VAFA and will hopefully work a bit with their football committee if appropriate.

We've got out season fixtures now for season 2010, so I can start attempting some serious action on getting things in place.

If it works then we have a basis to take it to regional areas etc where it may at least help with 'veterens', 'ladies' and reserves footy where otherwise such might not be practical. After all, we don't want relatively small sided games like soccer winning by default because a lack of Aust Footy flexibility in it's product range (heck, just look at crickets product range now with T20 being a very popular grass roots 'add on' to the normal season.)

Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: craig on Thursday, November 12 2009 @ 07:40 pm ACDT

I think the T20 comparison is a good one. 9 a side is fast and furious as you don't get a rest because you're never more than a kick from the action. Why not develop different variants of the sport like cricket? There's no reason why 9 a side and 18 a side can't survive in the same towns/leagues, just like cricket has test matches, one dayers and T20s.

Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Eurofooty on Monday, November 16 2009 @ 08:11 pm ACDT
Regarding a visual example of tournament based 9s is played in Europe, I've uploaded the entire webstream from the main field at the 2008 EU Cup in Prague, Czech Republic here (RAR torrent):


NB: Not one Australian player featured in the top 3 finishing teams.
Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Brett Northey on Monday, November 16 2009 @ 09:38 pm ACDT


At the very end of this article about some young athletes choosing cricket over Australian football, there is mention from Victorian cricket coach Greg Shipperd of the different forms of cricket:

"In football you play in front of big crowds and we're playing in front of big crowds and that's only going to get better as Twenty20 continues to kick on.

"In football you're playing one form of the game whereas in cricket you're playing three forms of the game so your mind is challenged to be skilled up for three different forms ... for a young athlete that would be an attractive proposition."

Not actually sure I agree with all of that, I suspect more simply that T20 is an exciting version, and the money is in IPL, so it's more the $$$ and excitement of that particular sport, versus multiple options. But certainly it has helped cricket in several areas.

There's talk that when Western Sydney join the AFL, making 18 clubs, the NAB Cup pre-season may be dropped. It would be a good time for the AFL to put on a 9-a-side tournament over say 2 weeks, a good chance for young players to impress and push for Round 1 and a few older guys to top up if they've had a late pre-season. Play one round on the GC and one in Western Sydney, or give Tassie a look in or dare I say it, New Zealand.

Alas clubs are very conservative with their players leading into the season, even though 9s would be very similar to competitive to small match simulation drills - clubs have been playing intraclub trials like that forever, it'd just be nice to get some "official" inter-club matches on. Even if it is just rookie list and 1st and 2nd year players that end up getting selected.

Brett Northey - Co-founder and Chief Editor of WFN

Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Peter Parry on Tuesday, November 17 2009 @ 07:18 pm ACDT

Great idea Brett about a 9's replacement for the NAB Cup. Twenty20 has certainly reinvigorated cricket. There is so much to be said for 9's. And it won't detract from 18-a-side as a spectator sport, as the full game will always pull the biggest crowds.

But an international 9's (like Rugby 7's) could definitely accelerate growth in international footy and be played in soccer stadiums - or two games simultaneously at MCG size grounds - and pull in decent crowds because of the multiple short match lightening carnival formats. Both here and overseas. Particularly attract multicultural crowds like Rugby 7's tend to.

Same for growing the game in the northern states. Same for growing RecFooty - and RecFooty matches could be interspersed with full contact 9's in a tournament. I'd like to mention the joining with Netball Australia idea again here.

Maybe someone here in the know could flick a copy of this story and thread to AFL House?? ;-)

Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Brett Northey on Tuesday, November 17 2009 @ 08:35 pm ACDT

We chat often enough and I'll certainly float the idea our there Peter.

Brett Northey - Co-founder and Chief Editor of WFN

Will International footy reshape Australian Football?
Authored by: Chris on Thursday, November 19 2009 @ 08:47 pm ACDT

There's a group of us planning to put together a 9's lightning championship in Sydney next year. We think the concept we're developing has promise but we'll have to wait and see. Early days yet so may not get off the ground but will let you know as it develops.