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Could future AFL be 16-a-side?

  • Monday, March 07 2011 @ 02:50 pm ACDT
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It appears that there is momentum slowly gathering to reduce the number of players on the field in Australian football matches from 18 to 16. For the majority of leagues across Australia 18 has been the magic number for a century or more, but with the rapidly changing nature of the sport through the last few decades, this author has long supported the idea of at least trialling 16-a-side.

The AFL are often blamed for "ruining the game" by changing rules.  While it is true they have sometimes fiddled with laws that effect the fabric of the sport, much of the changes in the game have been natural as a result of the professionalism that comes with a national competition, such as players covering far more ground, not staying in conventional positions, increased use of tactics and better quality surfaces (i.e. no more muddy bogs in mid-winter).

Some of the changes have bettered the sport, some arguably have not.  We now see far more congestion around the ball, almost like "mini-league" or Auskick.  Some of the great highlights were seeing a wingman dashing down the field looking to either penetrate to 50m for a shot on goal or pass into space for a forward.  Now they confront a flood of opponents and have no where to run.  A ball kicked out into space used to see a foot-race and then a one on one battle - now the only space is back behind the player with the ball. 

It seems logical that reducing the number of players on the field is the answer.  Removing a forward pocket and corresponding back pocket would serve this purpose.  Teams never line up with two forward pockets these days anyway.  It would be a radical change to the game, but would it be any more radical than the widely despised "last player who touched the ball before it went out of play is penalised" rule, which was trialled in the first round of the NAB Cup and seems to go against the fundamental nature of the sport?

It has been reported that the trialled rule was to combat congestion and fatigue the players.  It has also been reported that the AFL have been considering 16-a-side.  Such a change has the potential to reduce congestion and meet the AFL's aims, but it also has the benefit of providing a template for other leagues to follow.  We so often see reports of Australia country league teams struggling for numbers, likewise junior sides, and of course in leagues right across the world.  It would also make playing on slightly smaller grounds more attractive, another advantage for the international spread of the sport.  Two of the big impediments to spreading the game into new territory has been the large number of players required and the large fields.

Of course reduced numbers is not new.  Besides the more radical change to 9-a-side, there's been reduced numbers in many international leagues, and 16-a-side at the European Championships in 2010.  A northern NSW league has switched to 16s in 2010, and the old VFA used to be 16s .  So the sport has a track record in not simply being 18s.  The Sydney Swans used to have a pre-season practice match that was smaller to allow for a smaller oval.

Of course some will cry "leave the game alone" but a rule change like this would be designed to make the game more as it once was and indeed prevent it changing too much in future.  And this author only advocates that it be trialled.  Of course if the NAB Cup disappears in 2012 then opportunities to trial changes will be reduced.

See more in AFL toys with 16-a-side to get the game flowing and AFL North Coast welcomes changes.