License to Thrill

As published in Inside Sport, June 2010

Outrageous scissor kicks, mid-air soccers, bananas and dribbling leg-breaks from the boundary … Goal kicking in Australian rules isn’t what it used to be, or is it?  Either way, fans are on the edge of their seats.

As a spectator sport, Australian rules football’s extraordinary popularity owes much to its regular scoring; it strikes a perfect balance between basketball’s hypnotic abundance and the (arguably) frustrating paucity of soccer.

But, as we hear ad nauseam, and what the all-consuming statistics affirm, building a watertight defence puts a team on the road to the Holy Grail.  Unfortunately, as a result AFL football near-drowned in the great floods of the new millennium.  Mired in ugly stalemates and stoppages, we could only lament the dearth of free-scoring, sky scraping marks and one-on-one contests, so integral to the average punter’s sense of spectacle.

The current emphasis on tackling and defensive zones are just as prone to starving the game of oxygen – not to mention possession being nine-tenths of the lore. Former coaching legend Allan Jeans, whose Yoda-like presence and acumen remain intact, articulated the conundrum:

“Possession takes away the unpredictability, and that’s what the coaches are trying to get, but it’s the unpredictability that keeps you so intense watching it. That’s what you’ve got to try and keep going.”

Some rule-tinkering, and the burgeoning template forged by superslick powerhouse  Geelong, has part ways righted the ship. The Cats play at a cracking pace with fabulous dexterity, a robust form of keepings-off that demands precise disposal by hand and foot; they are breaking the shackles.

But although we’re seldom enjoying the shoot-outs of yore, scoring has become an increasingly creative venture. A new model of forward is infiltrating the ranks, undaunted by the deepest, darkest pockets, or the psychological barrier of the 50-metre arc.

The legacy of Collingwood legend Peter Daicos, who uniquely and routinely slotted goals in every way, from every conceivable angle and distance, has really come to the fore. Serendipitously, a clutch of current players, including Geelong’s mercurial goal sneaks Steve Johnson and Paul Chapman (who wears Daicos’ number 35), grew up worshipping the “Macedonian Marvel”. Their attacking coach, former sharp-shooting Essendon and Collingwood premiership player Blake Caracella, agrees that more forwards have now been given a license to thrill, punctuating the weekly highlights reels with their own bold exclamation marks.  Caracella also credits Daicos for laying the groundwork for a greater understanding of the ball and kicking mechanics. Back in the day, Daicos and Gary Ablett Snr’s weekly exploits of the late 1980s and early ’90s were simply filed away under the heading “freak”. But gradual deconstruction of their skills and experimentation has proved instructive.

“As kids we’re naturally inquisitive, and as we play and explore, we develop new kicks without the restrictions of what is right and wrong,” claims Caracella. “Players spend a lot of their spare time practising these ‘special’ kicks. Peter Daicos was my hero as a child, and he opened our eyes and our imagination to the many possibilities with our ball.”

Caracella also credits soccer for fuelling players’ creative minds in their efforts to master the Sherrin, and for the increased ability of some to be able to curl the ball in similar ways to their round-ball counterparts.  Rule modifications that prevent defenders seeking solace on the boundary line, or via rushing behinds, have also opened doors for opportunists.  Additionally, according to Caracella, teams are becoming more planned when entering their attacking 50m, but due to increased defensive pressure, forwards are adjusting to sharper challenges. Ironically, unpredictability is becoming a key antidote to the big squeeze.

It’s a far cry from the late ’70s, when the otherwise progressive Ron Barassi saw fit to drag North Melbourne superstar Malcolm Blight for the heinous crime of snagging a goal with a banana kick from the boundary. Thankfully, what was once considered alternative, even selfish, has entered the mainstream. More than ever, structures and disciplined adherence to team rules underpin successful sides, but as Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse contends, sometimes you just have to “play the game”.

Instinct and ingenuity has garnered favour, but there’s also a fine line between genius and looking the fool.

“We encourage our players to use their creativity within the confines of our team plan,” says Caracella. “After all, for players like Steve Johnson, this is one of the distinctive attributes that makes him a great player.”

Like Chapman, Johnson has a Norm Smith Medal (grand final best on ground) to go with his two premiership medallions. The ability of a “Stevie J” to lift fans and team-mates, via a sublime knack for conjuring match-turning moments, is a priceless quality, especially come September.

The tide of indigenous flair seeping into football has also pushed goal-kicking beyond established boundaries. Half of the past 18 “Goal of the Years” have been won by Aboriginal players, and the likes of Liam Jurrah and Cyril Rioli certainly possess lashings of that buzzword commodity known as the “X-Factor”.  Meanwhile, Leon Davis and Daniel Motlop boast more tricks than a euchre tournament.  Last year Motlop astounded viewers in a Fox Sports segment by bending it like Beckham through the target, standing behind the point post on the terraces.  Sublime.  Then, flicking the ball in the air off the ground with his feet, he volleyed another through perfectly from the boundary. Ridiculous. Port Adelaide took cinematic license with the clip in this year’s membership drive, with players attempting shots from the back of the grandstand, in the dark. Clever.

To say indigenous players possess a natural gift is a misnomer, though, for like Daicos, their talents are bound in many hours of boyhood practice – much like Bradman and his trusty cricket stump and golf ball.

But before we become too awestruck, there is an opposite view gaining widespread traction. As sure as the goal posts are 6.4m apart and painted white, the likes of leading radio commentator and former Coleman medallist Brian Taylor will regularly bemoan that clubs don’t take goal-kicking seriously enough, and that it’s the one Aussie rules skill that hasn’t kept pace.

“It staggers me that time can be found for stoppage training, forward structure, rolling zones and a heap of minor facets of the game, all of which are likely to result in a set shot on goal … Teach them about zoning off your man, altitude tents, eating two apples instead of three. What for?  A gain of 0.5%?  Whereas staring us in the face is an area that can be improved up to 10% and actually win games,” Taylor wrote last year.

Having tried to impart his knowledge at three clubs, “Barge” isn’t just playing the know-it-all former player, he’s traversed the landscape. The belief that kicking, particularly at goal, is a sub-standard feature of the AFL has filtered up to AFL HQ. The league itself has implemented a sweeping overhaul in the coaching of the game’s most fundamental skill.

It is perplexing that today’s firing squads are making a mockery of the percentages, but are too often prone to getting the yips when it comes to set shots and bread and butter snaps. A university analysis in 2005 found that two-thirds of games were won by the more accurate team. One game in ten was lost because of inaccuracy – including the last two grand finals. Results also showed accuracy was better earlier in games, when players were fresher and the consequences weren’t so dire. Perhaps this explains why even Motlop managed to enrage coach Mark Williams by missing an easy 35m set shot against St Kilda in 2006?

Yet rarely in post-match ruminations is kicking for goal mentioned by coaches, as if it’s too facile an explanation. Possibly it’s a throwback to the historical proliferation of head coaches with blue collar playing pedigrees who were more concerned by the meat and two veg requirements than the creme brulee and fancy finishings. Coaches also take their cue from conditioning staff who decree that goal kicking practice unduly stresses finely tuned quads and hamstrings – though, as learned goalsmiths such as Jason Dunstall assert, ten shots using a solid routine is far more beneficial than 100 using a flawed technique anyway.

Interestingly, the conversion rate in 2009 was 53.87 per cent, compared to 50.77 20 years ago. The best season for accuracy was 2000, at 55.24. These results would appear inconclusive; consider better boots and footballs nowadays, manicured surfaces and that many games are played in venues shielded from wind and rain. Players have also become fully professional, with better opportunities to hone their craft under the tutelage of specialist coaches.

Caracella doesn’t put too much stock in goal-kicking statistics anyway, when football has changed so much.

“Twenty years ago we had specialist full forwards having a lot more shots on goal, and they have grown up specifically kicking goals. Now, as defences have improved, we have a range of players taking these shots. Are the players having shots from wider or further out?”

It’s a pertinent point, for the quantity of forward entries might be greater, but the quality of opportunities, influenced by congestion and defensive pressure, equate to slimmer pickings. Is having a broad range of players taking shots any excuse for inaccuracy, though? After all, even Glenn McGrath took pride in taking batting practice seriously, as a professional team player.

Despite such criticisms of modern goal-kicking skills, today’s fancy footwork exponents are certainly pulling fans through the turnstiles. Although predicting football trends is an inexact science, a focus on eradicating profligacy in front of the big sticks would be an obvious, overdue progression.

But ultimately, like the possession game, will near-perfection be as interesting to watch?

 

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