Australian football is a very popular game in Australia but is largely unheard of internationally. It’s a strange game played with a rugby-shaped ball. There is no offside rule, players carry and bounce the ball, and scoring involves kicking the ball between very tall white poles – six points for a goal and one point for a ‘behind’.
The game was born more than 100 years ago and the actual origins of the game are contested (Coventry 2015). The Australian National Film and Sound Archive has a film from 1909 showing the oldest known footage of an Australian Football game: the Victorian Football League Grand Final between South Melbourne* and Carlton. Watching this film makes me realise how much Australian football has changed since then. That’s one of the great characteristics of the game. It constantly evolves.
During the first month of this year’s Australian Football League season I was watching a game, streamed live from Australia, and thought how different the game style looked compared to the previous year. I shot a quick message to a friend and colleague back in Australia, something like “Interesting game styles this year!”. We got chatting and wondered if we could get some data to test our ideas. Soon, this turned into an exciting project.
This week, that project was published in the Journal of Sports Science. So what did we do and, more importantly, what did we find? We accessed data covering 15 years of the AFL competition. The data had game metrics for every game over those 15 seasons of competition, things like kicks, handballs, stops in play, tackles etc. They basically represent the style of game because they reflect the tactics and strategies of teams, although no comprehensively.
It turns out that the AFL game style has undergone a dramatic shift during the past 15 years (See picture below). This graph is a bit crazy but let me explain. Each point on the graph is a whole year of data for one team. The further away two teams (points) are on the graph the more different they played during that season (or thereabouts). Each coloured polygon surrounds all the teams for one season. Finally, the green and red lines represent the winning and losing teams of the grand final – the game that decides the champion team for that year. The year 2001 – when the data begins – is in the bottom left corner and the 2015 season data is the right side.
At the beginning of 2000s most games were similar. In about 2004 things started to change across the whole league and continued changing until about 2010, after which the games became very similar between seasons. We were stunned at how the whole league changed simultaneously over these 15 years.
This finding got me thinking about the history of the game and led me to a great book by James Coventry, sport editor at the ABC Australia, “Time and Space: the tactics that shaped Australian Rules – and the players and coaches who mastered them” The book covers the birth of the game to the modern day. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it. Coventry describes the innovations and evolution of the early game and how those dynamics continued, punctuated by periods of rapid change, through more than 100 years.
In the modern game Coventry highlights one tactic that he thinks has changed the game forever: the interchange of players through a game. During the 1990s the AFL administrators decided to increase the number of reserve players. These players could be ‘rotated’ on and off the ground an unlimited number of times during a match. This rule, Coventry explains, wasn’t really exploited until the early 2000s: the same period where we see rapid change of game styles.
Enter Chris Connolly, head coach of the Fremantle Football Club. He was the first coach to implement a higher rate of player interchange through a game. I think an average interchange number was about 20 per match. Connolly’s training and conditioning staff thought that periods of high intensity running followed by rest periods on the bench would give his not-so-talented roster a greater chance of winning matches. Observers of the game hated it, and so did other coaches. Players who scored a goal would be rested immediately much to the dismay of fans – why rest a player who just scored?
A few years later nearly all teams used this tactic and it’s now ubiquitous throughout the league. Interchanges grew to a staggering 120 per match! Only recently has the AFL administrators restricted the number of interchanges allowed during a game – a maximum of 80. We speculate that this tactic, amongst others, probably contributed to the rapid league-wide change in game-play in the League. Australian Football is constantly changing, for better or for worse.
If you would like to read the full paper please direct message me on Twitter at @monsoontrader, supplying an email address, and I will happily send you a copy. Or, leave a comment. I really must thank James Coventry for writing this book and giving up some time to chat with me about Australian Football.
Woods, C.T., Robertson, S., French Collier, N. Evolution of game play in the Australian Football League 2001-2015. Journal of Sports Sciences.
Coventry, J (2015). “Time and Space: the tactics that shaped Australian Rules – and the players and coaches who mastered them”
* The South Melbourne Football Club (The Bloods, The Blood Stained Angels) moved from Melbourne, Victoria, to Sydney in New South Wales in 1982 and were re-named The Sydney Swans. They happen to be the team that I have followed since 1993. Go The Bloods!
** I wrote this post before the 2016 Grand Final which featured The Sydney Swans (my team) and The Western Bulldogs. The Bulldogs won. My colleague and co-author Sam Robertson works with the Western bulldogs – congratulations to him and the club.
Other figures from the paper