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Is left the right way?

Peter Ryan  February 8, 2015 8:20 PM

AFL 2014 Toyota Grand Final - Sydney v Hawthorn

Lance Franklin is something of an anomaly as a successful left-footed goalkicker

As long as they can kick well, we're normally quite happy

THERE is no rhyme or reason to it, but left footers dominated major individual awards in 2014.

For the first time ever, the Norm Smith medallist (Luke Hodge), Brownlow medallist (Matt Priddis) and Coleman medallist (Lance Franklin) in one season were all lefties.

And if Brisbane Lions dynamo Lewis Taylor had not pipped Marcus Bontempelli by one vote in the NAB Rising Star award, left footers would have taken over the AFL dais completely.

Seven All Australians and 10 Hawthorn premiership players* (not to mention six Sydney Swans in the Grand Final) were also left footers in 2014.

With Champion Data classifying 144 of the 718 senior listed players as left footers in 2015 (20 percent of the competition), the category is defying probability.

Why?

Are they more efficient kicks, as Champion Data statistics showed a decade ago when former recruiter Chris Pelchen began to take notice.

The man who preached that idea is less certain now, although you get the sense he thinks his fondness for recruiting left footers was overstated when it made news after the Hawks won the 2008 flag.

Pelchen says now that although such information influenced his thinking, the statistical rigour Champion Data applies to measuring kicks now makes it impossible to be definitive about whether left footers are better kicks.

Such notions don't occupy much of Geelong recruiting boss, Stephen Wells' thinking time.

The Cats enter 2015 with just two left footers – Harry Taylor and Jordan Murdoch - on their list (rookie Zac Bates is also a leftie).

"It's just the way it has fallen," Wells told AFL.com.au when asked why so few left footers are on the Cats' list.

Wells seems happy to indulge the question. After all, he's built the list of a team that has missed the top four just once since 2006.

"We place strong emphasis on knowing as much as we can about [recruits] and certainly if they can kick with both feet, or if they are left footers or if they are right footers. It is just part of the information package," Wells said.

"As long as they can kick well, we're normally quite happy."

Champion Data rates Geelong No. 1 in the League for kicking efficiency.

Wells doesn't appear alone among the recruiters. Despite the success of left-footers in 2014, not one of the top 10 draft picks were left footers. 

It was, however, the first year not one left-footer had been drafted in the top 10 since 2003 (five of the 2013 top 10 picks were left footers), and you have to go back to 1993 to find the next year without a leftie in the first 10 picks.

However, in 2015, half the clubs have at least nine left footers on their senior list with Hawthorn (the premiers), Collingwood (11th) and St Kilda (the wooden spooners) topping the list of left footers with 12 apiece.

Kicking expert Dr Kevin Ball, who consults to several AFL clubs alongside his academic work at the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living (ISEAL) at Victoria University, told AFL.com.au it is an age-old debate that remains unsolved. 

He says it's a reality that left-sided people are over-represented in elite sport, particularly in combat sports and that opponents do tend to instinctively move to block players swinging on their right side, giving left footers an advantage.

Interestingly, in the NFL, left foot punters induce more muffs, or fumbles, from receivers, possibly due to the opposite spin direction they impart on the ball compared to right footers

Ball says some scientific literature postulates that the way the brain functions might give lefties better spatial awareness.

However there is not enough evidence, either scientific or anecdotal, for Ball to come to any conclusion.

He has worked with great right and left foot kicks, and points out that two of the three most accurate goalkickers in AFL history were right footers: Tony Lockett (70 per cent accuracy) and Peter Hudson (69 per cent).

Matthew Lloyd (69 per cent) is a left footer, however he is an outlier in many respects. Of the top 30 goalkickers in AFL history – those with more than 600 goals – just two, Lloyd and 'Buddy' Franklin, are left footers.

Ball said that coaches are rarely as rigid when teaching left footers in their early years, which might explain their free flowing style.

"A left footer can explore their own kicking a little bit more in their developmental years," Ball said. 

Maybe that is why they seem to shine on the big days.

How else do you explain 12 of the 37 Norm Smith medals (32 per cent) awarded since 1979 going to left footers?

When that statistic was put to a senior football official, he laughed.

"Forty-four footballers. Two legs each. Who knows?"

* Champion Data lists Hawthorn's Sam Mitchell as a left footer although conjecture remains as to whether his preferred foot is left or right. 

LEFT FOOTERS v RIGHT FOOTERS: CLUB BY CLUB

CLUB LEFT FOOTERS RIGHT FOOTERS
Adelaide 7 33
Brisbane Lions 4 36
Carlton 5 33
Collingwood 12 27
Essendon 10 30
Fremantle 8 32
Geelong 2 38
Gold Coast 8 30
GWS 9 37
Hawthorn 12 28
Melbourne 6 34
North Melbourne 8 32
Port Adelaide 5 35
Richmond 9 30
St Kilda 12 28
Sydney Swans 9 29
West Coast 9 31
Western Bulldogs 9 31

 TOP 10 RATED KICKS (BY ALTERNATIVE FOOT) 

Player Club Matches Dominant foot Rated kicks Opposite foot used % Opposite foot used
Sam Mitchell Hawthorn  13 Left 151 73 48.34%
Steele Sidebottom Collingwood  19 Right 284 92 32.39%
Luke Ball Collingwood  17 Right  133 40 30.08%
Sam Wright North Melbourne  12 Right 110 30 27.27%
Liam Shiels Hawthorn  18 Right 205 55 26.83%
Patrick Dangerfield Adelaide  22 Right 218 53 24.31%
Dayne Beams Collingwood  19 Right 216 52 24.07%
Josh Kelly GWS  18 Left 134 30 22.39%
Scott Thompson Adelaide  19 Right 220 49 22.27%
Greg Broughton Gold Coast  20 Right 142 30 21.13%

KICK RATING

Brent Harvey

North Melbourne

Gen Fwd

Right

213

+13.5%

Jobe Watson

Essendon

Mid

Right

151

+11.1%

Robert Murphy

Western Bulldogs

Gen Def

Right

245

+9.2%

Bradley Hill

Hawthorn

Mid-Fwd

Right

183

+8.9%

David Mackay

Adelaide Crows

Mid

Right

142

+8.8%

Mitch Duncan

Geelong Cats

Mid

Right

236

+8.4%

LEFT FOOTERS WITH BEST KICK RATING (minimum 100 ‘rated’ kicks) 

Jack Billings

St Kilda

Gen Fwd

Left

114

+10.7%

Adam Schneider

St Kilda

Mid-Fwd

Left

109

+9.6%

Chris Newman

Richmond

Gen Def

Left

142

+7.6%

Scott Pendlebury

Collingwood

Mid

Left

233

+7.2%

Harry Taylor

Geelong Cats

Key Def

Left

188

+6.2%

All stats supplied by Champion Data