Zoning, the latest fad fix in AFL

HEAVILY congested football can be as appealing to most fans as battling a sinus condition – blocked, unattractive and you want a little run so it will clear up.

But the concept of zoning just seems like a fad fix.

A quick glance at the latest AFL playing trend is a little like watching old-school little league when every single kid would run after the ball in a huge pack, hoping to touch some leather, with most of the field wide and open.

The game has evolved from its traditional structures and players, like the heavyset full forward that would prop in the goal square all game and muscle his way to mark and goal.

AFL players are professional athletes now that undergo constant and rigorous testing to demonstrate the vertical leap of elite basketballers, speed that sprinters would envy (and with the agility to sharply change direction), shaking off collisions akin to rugby while tackling, kicking and marking – this is what makes Australian Rules stand out, this makes Australian Rules unique and it is why we love Australian Rules.

Modern tactics can no longer afford a player to remain static in the goal square all game.

It is why a veteran defender like Essendon’s Dustin Fletcher has evolved to push forward and boot a goal 50 metres out in the opening minute’s play against Richmond last Saturday night. And that, unless you are a Richmond supporter, was pretty exciting to watch.

A few key people and supporters start to whinge about having two-thirds of the ground left empty and the AFL looks to dramatically alter rules and appease them, rather than look at the whole fabric of the game. 

Former West Coast coach John Worsfold, now on the AFL rules committee, mooted zoning as a congestion remedy this week – a centre-line to split the field in two with some restrictions on where players can run.

Like netball. This columnist loves netball, but restricted zones in football is a whole other ball game.

Worsfold says he would rather see players looking further up the ground to clear the ball to a teammate, rather than little short chip kicks.

Really, all Worsfold’s zoning does is take a couple of players away from immediate play – if a game is locked up and contested, it will still play out congested.

Open, free-flowing football is much easier to watch but this mostly comes down to game conditions and the dominant styles of the teams in action.

TAC Cup under-18s has always sported guidelines discouraging an extra man in defence or forward at the centre bounce, against tagging (a run-with role is accepted but not a negating run-with role) and this season introduced having four players from each team forward of centre (two inside-50m), which is also enacted in the AFL under-18 national championships.

It is great football to watch.

This is based on an understanding between clubs to best showcase the skills and athletic abilities of all players on field in a competition closely scrutinised by AFL recruiters.

There are no free kicks for violations, more a self-policing by talent managers with all coaches, runners and players aware of the rules.

AFL fans are less accepting when restrictions are placed on the very foundations of the game – players can run wherever they like. 

The introduction of the centre square, a form of restricting players, has been a success and should be enough to guarantee some alleviation in clearing congestion because play is reset for each centre bounce.

In the Victorian Football League, where AFL fashion is closely followed, North Ballarat Roosters coach Gerard FitzGerald said many thought the game had been doomed when flooding backlines was all the rage a couple of years ago.

Now its all about crowding up forward.

He urged those concerned about congestion to watch a game from the sidelines, rather than players crammed on to their television screen. There were more tactics in play than just a simple free-for-all about the ball.

Melbourne coach Paul Roos, speaking out against zoning, says the game was as close to 18 one-on-one contests as possible.

Roos slammed the rules committee for being too reactive.

FitzGerald says the game was not ready for zoning – it goes against the entire invasive nature the game was built on, an invasive nature that we love.

He instead suggested slight modifications, for example, a 20-metre minimum distance for a mark to be paid and for a play-on call when the ball was kicked backwards in defence to encourage players to clear the ball more efficiently and keep the game moving. It is unlikely forward congestion will stick around too long.

A good coach will always be plotting new methods and structures to foil rivals and, when successful, other clubs will follow suit.

The game will evolve. A dramatic quick congestion fix will only serve to affect the long-term health of the game.

melanie.whelan@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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