Mission impossible? The art and science of kick-ins. Design: Lucas Scott, AFL Digital

IT TENDS to happen in a flash. A defender grabs the ball after an opposition point is scored and whisks it out of his team's defence via the kick-in. The move seems so automatic, so natural, that it hides the thinking, coaching and strategy behind footy's 'jump-start' move. 

"Kick-ins lead to scores about 10 per cent of the time," said one senior AFL coach. "But it is still super important for territory and getting the game where you want it. You need to make sure you're doing them right and not getting them wrong and then try to stop the 'oppo' from getting theirs going. For a small part of the game it does take up some thinking."

Most coaches, assistants and players spoken to by AFL.com.au about their kick-ins said the priority was getting territory: "The aim is to get it halfway from a kick-in, that's where we'd like to go," said one coach. Another assistant said it's about "metreage". "We challenge our players about every metre counting and taking every chance to edge up the field."

Champion Data shows that distance is in demand. Kicking long to the right has amounted to 24 per cent of kick-ins this season and long left at 18 per cent. Short left and right combine for 42 per cent, with short corridor (10 per cent) next most common. Going long to the corridor – viewed as the riskiest kick-in – has the lowest rate at six per cent.

Within the numbers, clubs approach it differently. Rivals see Port Adelaide empty out their defensive 50 and have a midfielder, like Connor Rozee or Zak Butters, lead in for the first possession to make the second kicker the priority. 

"Some clubs prefer to attack from phase two than phase one," said an assistant. The Western Bulldogs have Bailey Dale's low and flat kicking to swiftly transfer the ball outside of the defensive arc. "His kicks have no hang time so he's one of the most dangerous at kick-ins," said an assistant. 

Bailey Dale kicks the ball during the Western Bulldogs' clash against Fremantle in round seven, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Opposition sides have had trouble stopping Sydney's swift exits this year – "They turn things fast and if there's a goal-line contest or a long point they can bypass three forwards very quickly," an assistant said. Geelong tends to get some overlay runners out of the back half, and Carlton looks to set up on the interchange side of the ground and send one of its ruckmen and one of its key forwards – Charlie Curnow, Harry McKay or Tom De Koning – to be the secondary target. 

One of the Blues forwards not there can then go to the opposite side and the remaining can stay deep in the front half in preparation for a quick Carlton contest win. Teams have largely set up their long kicks to the corner of the centre square as they can crumb it from there and generate rebound. 

Full teams – not just defenders – are across their own kick-in plans and are generally brought in on what their upcoming opponents will do ahead of the game via their assistant coaches, who search previous weeks' edits to find their consistent approach. 

The ability for players to run out of the goalsquare without kicking it to themselves revolutionised the kick-ins, with the AFL tweaking the rule to allow the game to move quicker. It is why multiple coaches and assistants said the worst kick-in is getting hemmed into the pocket. 


"Clubs try to entice their opponents to kick in there and then they will press up and defend and look to force the turnover," one assistant said. "The only time that's a good move is when you're at the end of a quarter or game and you want to chew up time." 

The modes are an important part of the kick-in. There's fast plays, slow plays, quick points (scored from general play), slow points (from marks or free kicks), save the game, win the game and different variations between those extremes. Fast kick-ins have a midfield retention rate of nearly 60 per cent and score of 12 per cent. Slow kicks are marginally back to 56.8 per cent for midfield retention and nine per cent for scoring rate. 

Port Adelaide ranks No.1 in the AFL for kick-in to inside-50 entry percentage this year (38.2 per cent and well ahead of the next best Western Bulldogs at 33 per cent). They are also both top two in kick-ins to score percentage ratio.

Clubs vary on how many players they trust with the role. Adelaide has used a competition-high 10 players for kick in this year, with Brisbane, Gold Coast, Melbourne, Richmond and the (all nine) towards the top. Fremantle has used a competition-low four players (Luke Ryan, Jordan Clark, James Aish and Ethan Hughes) while Josh Sinn became the fifth Power player to kick-in when he returned to the senior side last week (joining Ryan Burton, Kane Farrell, Dan Houston and Dylan Williams).

Luke Ryan runs with the ball during Fremantle's clash against Richmond in round eight, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

Ryan has the highest amount and biggest club share of any player in the competition – he has had 62 kick ins this year to next most Lachie Whitfield with 51. Clubs turn to players with a mix of skills but generally their best defensive decision-makers. 

"I reckon it would be very hard to be a kicker. Most teams have the guys they go to and it's high pressure. Everyone is so well defensively set these days so there's a lot of stress and anxiety about that," an assistant said. Another said it was an easier job with the newer rule but "there's still pressure because there's nowhere to hide if you stuff it up". 

"The great kicks have a few options and can screw it across their body if an opponent is coming at them, make late decisions and adapt with front-on pressure." 

Nic Martin's move to Essendon's defence this year has added class and dare by foot as its leading kick-in taker, while Mitch Hinge (Adelaide), Jeremy Howe (Collingwood), Darcy Wilmot (Brisbane), Tom Stewart (Geelong), Karl Amon (Hawthorn), Jeremy McGovern (West Coast) and Nick Blakey (Sydney) are among the other team-high kick-ins. Blakey, in particular, is seen as a huge threat with his leg speed, creativity and long kicking often getting the Swans halfway up the SCG. 

Nick Blakey kicks the ball during Sydney's clash against Hawthorn in round seven, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Players themselves detail the split-second deciphering of factors as they go to kick: is the opposition playing a zone or man-on-man defence? Where's my ruckman and key forward? Where are the holes I can see and the ones I can't? Has the opposition deliberately left that space to tempt me into a kick that is risky? Where are the small forwards hovering? Can I chip it there, run past and get a handball to get some speed on the ball? 

From stadium seating bowls, and with elevation of the broadcast cameras, the gaps look obvious. At ground level, without the depth perception, the kicker almost needs to wear footy's version of the Mission Impossible night-vision glasses – evaluating every option precisely before hitting your target. Some players unfamiliar with the role have done it and then steered clear of taking it on again.   

"On TV it's like 'Why did they go there and not there?' because it looks easy," one player said. "But a lot of it is cat and mouse, like are they tempting me? Some kicks have to be perfect. One metre either side in that part of the ground and you're gone, so that is a challenge."

Tom Stewart during Geelong's match against St Kilda in round 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

So are the small forwards. With Charlie Cameron, Tom Papley and Tyson Stengle buzzing around, they can feign no interest in manning space and then spot an opportunity and put the kicker under the pump. 

Another player rated "game awareness" as the critical skill for the kicker. "Some options are only open for a tiny moment and you have to be able to see the best one at the best time," he said. "You need to think fast to break through the area." 

All this means everyone would agree the value of the kick-in warrants the players to be given a statistic for the kick-ins, right? Not quite. Even despite clubs acknowledging the importance of the kick and the value placed on the best kickers, coaches and assistants are split on giving their players the stats. 

"It definitely shouldn't count," said one coach, while another assistant said the 'metres gained' from kick-ins shouldn't be added to a player's tally. Others defend it: "If it was easy, everyone would do it and certainly not everyone can," said an assistant. "You have to get it right."