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International footy shapes the Australian Football future

  • Monday, January 26 2009 @ 09:00 am ACDT
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General News

The story of footy is about change. Except that it does not all come from the top, or from the centre.

In the words of Australian artist Paul Kelly’s song… ‘From little things big things grow’….

The way in which the game is played around the world, often involving smaller teams on smaller playing fields, and sometimes with some rule modifications, may shape the future of the game in Australia. And what better day to discuss the future of Australia's indigenous sport, with a global view, than Australia Day?

Pioneering competitions with initially small numbers, the paucity of available playing fields (and the difficulties of obtaining local authorities’ permission to use them) has led to numerous improvisations, with smaller teams from 9 to 16. This has been the story of Australian Football around the world from Japan to Denmark and Finland.

The fact that in NSW and Queensland, except for some cricket ovals, there are more small grounds and few large grounds may lead to more competitions with 12, 14 or 15 a side.

Since the pressure on space on the suburban frontier in Australia has seen housing developments with smaller playing fields, the opportunities for competitions involving smaller teams will expand. There will be new opportunities and forms, not just in terms of the modified rules of Auskick, the summer mixed and non-contact game Rec Footy and Master’s Footy.

Kevin Sheedy has argued that 18 players on the field of play is not fundamental. Interestingly he began his career in the VFA which had 16 players. In 2004, when Essendon had a practice match against the Sydney Swans at the small North Sydney oval with 15 a side teams he was reported as an advocate of the idea more generally. From "Sheedy backs 15-a-side schools game", ABC News website, Fri Feb 13, 2004:

Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy says 15-a-side Australian Rules games may be a good way of introducing the sport into schools in non-AFL states. Essendon will face the Swans in a practice match at North Sydney Oval on Saturday, with the teams reduced from the usual 18 players because of the small ground. Sheedy says other sports have shown there is a market for a variation on the traditional game.

"Some of the best matches I played in were schoolyard footy with seven on either side and pick-up sides - and you learn a hell of a lot that way," he said. "Now I'm not saying you have to do that but in the end you've seen what's happened to all the other codes, particularly rugby sevens and particularly one-day cricket."

In many ways these and other changes do not represent a challenge to the fundamentals of the game. Having identified what he saw as the core of the game, Neale Daniher speaking at the 150th conference in Melbourne in November 2008 suggested what was non-core. From "Shaking footy to the core", Michael Gleeson, December 2, 2008 - realfooty.com.au:

"What is not core is — I don't care what size the oval is, big oval, small oval I don't care. Might go to South Africa and play on a small oval, it might be a rectangle, I don't care.

"What is non-core is how long we play for. It might be 30 minutes, it might be 60. That is non-core — it can change. But we keep our scoring system".

While such innovations may offend some traditionalists, where they offer the opportunity to play footy they will have overwhelming appeal. Given that anywhere, whether in Australia or overseas, it is easier to recruit, to organise and transport a team with smaller rather than larger numbers.

Many people want to play footy but may not want the full-on commitment of mainstream football with its nine month calendar of training and playing, from pre-season to season.

The necessary innovations and adaptations which have developed around the world may help shape the future of the game. Since participation is a factor in support, and Australian Football is competing with three other football codes and with basketball and cricket for support, improved opportunities for playing are essential.

Some changes will apply to participant, local games. Others might apply to the AFL and the other high level leagues. In the words of Kevin Sheedy, "Reinventing the game is crucial”.

To our readers involved in "non-standard" forms of the sport, we ask "How have you re-invented the game?"

We look forward to feedback from people around the world.

What have you done in regard to playing spaces, team sizes and modified rules. What has worked? What has been tried and then, of necessity, reworked? Any unforeseen results, good and bad? Have there been any influences from local culture or from other sports?

How does the size, surface and condition of playing spaces differ, with implications for team size and ways of playing the game? In Europe, in Asia, in the Pacific, in North America?

There must be interesting examples of innovation and adjustment out there from which we can all learn.

As well as some strange and fascinating stories of improvisation!