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Battling congestion: Ten ways to open up the game

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 06: Joel Selwood of the Cats breaks a tackle during the 2015 AFL round ten match between the Essendon Bombers and the Geelong Cats at Etihad Stadium, Melbourne on June 6, 2015. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Geelong star Joel Selwood tries to fight his way through congestion against Essendon earlier this year

HOW does the game create space and maintain speed?

That was the question occupying the AFL Laws of the Game Committee when they met ahead of the Friday night game between North Melbourne and Essendon in round 17.

It was likely to have been on the minds of the AFL Commission when League football operations manager Mark Evans presented to them on Tuesday and it remained a question when Evans spoke to the AFLPA's Players and the Game committee that night.

AFL.com.au has taken a quick glance at the suggestions that have been thrown around as the League grapples with how to create space in the game and reduce congestion.

And we offer our view on the proviso that everyone keeps an open mind to the possibility of change, a feature of the game for 150 years.

1. Increase the protected area (after a free kick or mark) from five metres to eight metres.

Positive: Gives players with the ball more space to play on and execute their skills. Might also lead to more uncontested marks as teams control the ball.
Negative: Could create more confusion for players trying to clear the area.
History: This rule has been interpreted more strictly recently, with the move to five metres happening in 2013.
We say: Should be trialled in the NAB Challenge. 

2. Zones or starting points that force a minimum number of players in sections during stoppages. 

Positive: This would stop the ugly sight of too many players surrounding the ball, and the ball being kicked to defenders on their own who take uncontested marks. It would also create desperate one-on-ones between forwards and defenders.
Negative: It would be a fundamental change to the game and would also create difficulties for umpires and players trying to ensure they are in the right zones. Remains questionable what impact it would have on game style, as coaches would find way to exploit the rule. By limiting the ability to get numbers into defensive zones, it would also make it hard for lesser sides to stop top teams from scoring heavily.
History: Has been successful in the TAC Cup but umpires can afford to police it loosely at that level. There would be no such luxury at AFL level, with heavy media scrutiny and potential need for lines officials.
We say: We'd go further than Mark Evans – who says it's a last resort – and say you may as well rename football 'zone ball'. 

3. Two fewer players on the ground for each team.

Positive: Opens up space on the ground, freeing up ball movement. 
Negative: Teams will likely have five forwards and five defenders at each end at centre bounces and numbers will stay around the ball.
History: This was a VFA rule that gave that competition a unique feature but didn't dramatically affect the way football was played.
We say: Trial it, because it would create opportunities to move the ball more quickly - the essence of an exciting game. Taking the last two players off every list will also mean the quality of players on the ground is better. 

 

4. Bounce the ball at a point of the square when the ball goes out of bounds between 50-metre arcs.

Positive: Returning the ball to the corridor makes it easier for teams to score.
Negative: Too slow to set up and coaches would find a way to combat it. It would be a significant shift in the game.
History: Not tried and, although understood to have been raised at AFL laws of game committee, unlikely to gain approval. 
We say: No.

5. Last touch out of bounds concedes a free kick 

Positive: Encourages teams to attack through the corridor and promotes scoring. It also reduces or eliminates boundary throw-ins.
Negative: It would be difficult to adjudicate who touched the ball last and might lead to players sitting off the ball to force opponents to touch it last. 
History: Few know this but between 1925 and 1939 a free kick was awarded against a player who kicked or forced the ball out of bounds. It was also trialed in the first round of the pre-season series in 2011 but canned because players held off taking possession in case they knocked it out of bounds.
We say: Has merit if the actual rule is clear and simple to adjudicate. Evans has suggested tightening the deliberate out of bounds rule so the emphasis is on players having to make a realistic attempt to keep the ball in play might be an option, which sounds reasonable. 

6. Forcing players on the mark to stay stationary.

Positive: Gives players moving off line a split second more time to evade their opponent and stops cribbing of the mark, which closes down space.
Negative: Hard to police as players are in constant motion.
History: A new suggestion.
We say: An interesting idea that has been canvassed with rule makers. It would create a chance for the player with the ball to move and bring speed to the game. Has merit.

7. Nine points for a goal outside 50.

Positive: It could bring back the torpedo and potentially keep teams in tight games longer.
Negative: Fundamental change to scoring system.
History: Part of the NAB Challenge where it has novelty value but spectators aren't exactly excited about it.
We say: No, because it would distort ball movement too much, forcing players back behind the arc like three-point shooters in basketball.

8. More free kicks.

Positive: Keeps the game moving, with fewer players able to crowd the ball because they have to spread after free kicks.
Negative: Free kicks should be paid if they are warranted rather than being a way to manipulate the game style.
History: In the 1970 Grand Final, often rated as the best game ever played, 91 free kicks were awarded. There was outcry when an average of 45 free kicks were paid a game in the most recent round of football.
We say: Yes. More decisions at least. Ball it up quickly. Pay the free quickly. Control the game.

9. Bonus points for kicking more than 100 points.

Positive: Encourages scoring and commitment until end of the game and season.
Negative: Too many variations on conditions in venues to be fair (imagine a wet windy day at the MCG v under the roof at Etihad Stadium) and opportunities to manipulate results to play certain opponents in finals.
History: Never tried.
We say: Not now but worth running a dummy ladder based on what might happen if the rule was brought in.

10. Lower number of rotations allowed.

Positive: Theory suggests fewer interchanges reduces congestion but it may have opposite effect. A rule could also be introduced that forces players to only go on and off the ground after a goal.
Negative: Monitoring interchanges, no certainty in effect, changes players being recruited.
History: From 19th man to 19th and 20th , to interchange being two then three then four then three and a substitute. This ongoing debate will continue for as long as football is played.
We say: This radical change is not needed. We believe four interchange players, with rotations capped at 80, would work best.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs