We should thank our lucky stars that despite everything that has gone on this year, despite the uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic brought onto us, we still were able to enjoy a relatively successful return round of AFL.
Richmond and Collingwood displayed a slugfest of a draw in the first game back post-corona, the Suns upset the Eagles as Matt Rowell announced himself to the country and even the Saints showed out against the Bulldogs – a team many felt should have flag aspirations.
Despite the welcome comeback of footy, many critics still reared their ugly and uncalled for heads to criticise and nitpick what they could. Many detractors were upset that the AFL have stuck by the 16-minute quarters that were touted by the competition as the way forward at least for this year, to deal with any halts or interruptions brought upon us by the pandemic. The low-scoring and dogfighting nature of several matches, including Richmond and Collingwood’s 36-point draw drew plenty of ire from the haters and many placed the blame on the shortened quarters for the low scoring nature of some of the matches and the poor showing from certain teams. The problem with this criticism is that it forgets one key aspect of the whole situation: the simple fact that the players are beyond rusty and lack the necessary sharpness to play up to their usual lofty standards.
Like in any other year, the players completed a preseason over the summer, getting their conditioning up to scratch, before playing in several practice matches and preseason matches to get their skills up to notch and match fitness where it should be. While the AFL prepared for Round 1, COVID-19 loomed on us, and though the opening round took place, the AFL of course had to suspend operations until further notice, while the federal and state governments handled the virus. This was approximately three months ago; that is three months without any proper training, match play or anything to maintain and sharpen skills and ability. Though restrictions were being lifted, allowing for training in groups of ten, before allowing groups of twenty, then allowing contact training for the players, this was all happening in the space of around one month. One month of limited training doesn’t make up for three months of miniscule home workouts and decreased opportunity to maintain skill and fitness whilst unchallenged. Any professional athlete will tell you that nothing prepares you quite like actual match play – well, for three months, they couldn’t participate in any of it. So, when you criticise the AFL for wanting to keep the shortened quarters for the time being, understand that for the moment, the players are beyond wrecked. If we take Richmond vs Collingwood as an example, the Magpies only scored one goal after the first quarter, as they and Richmond managed five for the entire game. Lengthened quarters wouldn’t have resolved this, it’s evident that the players were flat out tired by the end of the game. An extra 16 minutes in total of game time isn’t going to elevate the score exponentially, given the situation. It’s also worth noting that each team used 71 and 77 out of the 90 available interchanges respectively, adding to the wear and tear that would’ve piled up on the players.
The other consideration is the risk of soft tissue injury. All things considered; it could’ve been worse. Dayne Zorko did suffer from some Achilles soreness, while Easton Wood suffered from a quad injury in the built up to Round 2. Jarryn Geary also strained his hamstring in the Saints’ win over the Bulldogs. Those are just a few examples, and while it definitely isn’t the worst-case scenario, it is telling that on the return from an extended layoff, several players experience soft tissue injury. This trend isn’t abnormal; in fact, it should’ve been expected. If the AFL wants to learn from prior examples, then they can look no further than Germany’s Bundesliga, the first major sporting league around the world to restart following the pandemic. Though the Bundesliga experienced an equally successful return, it wasn’t without its issues. In studies taken from the returning round of fixtures, German teams suffered from a rate of .88 injuries per game, significantly higher than the .27 per game that was the case prior to the lockdowns. Soccer teams in Europe are also being allowed five substitutes per game, up from the usual three, to accommodate for the rustiness and lack of fitness that was to be expected from the players. In the Bundesliga’s returning round, 89% of teams used more than three substitutes in their matches, indicating that players were struggling to cope with the sudden return to match play, after an abrupt suspension of the season and a tiny window to regain some of their sharpness. Sound familiar? It’s also worth noting that soccer as a sport is not nearly as impactful as football, as it features less hard running, less stop-start movements and far less contact, yet teams were still afforded extra substitutes to alleviate pressure on the players and yet still it wasn’t enough to prevent a 226% rise in injuries for the returning players.
What can this mean for the AFL? Shortened quarters are a start, but it’s not enough. Maintaining a limit of 90 interchanges won’t cut it – this needs to be looked at and altered – particularly when only four players are available to rotate. And as we all know, if one player goes down then that’s one less player to use in the rotation. The AFL should look at the following options: an increased interchange cap to as high as 120, to mitigate any extra fatigue and soreness that players would undoubtedly have experienced and will continue to experience whilst they regain their fitness. An increase in the available players on the rotation to six players, not only to help out with any teams whose depth is gutted following any injury, but so that any inevitable injuries that occur mid-game are not going to debilitate and crippled a team’s chances to win. Yes, injuries are a part of the game, however injuries have never occurred at a rate like this. If we’re not careful, several stars could be going down with injury. It’s also worth noting that any reforms to the interchange system could make for a higher standard of football, as players will be fresher and able to run out games longer, perhaps avoiding any dull matches like the Tigers vs the Magpies.
It cannot be stressed enough that this is just a temporary change, to account for the lost fitness of the players. They simply cannot cope with the demands of an ordinary AFL match. Those demands need to be lessened to allow them to get back to normal. Even if it is for the remainder of 2020, this has already been an unprecedented year in recent history. We’ve all had to make changes and sacrifices to accommodate for the situation, the AFL and the players that are the face of it are no different. Once everything is back to normal, then we can talk about getting the quarter length back up and allow the interchanges to run as normal. Until then, allow the players to return themselves to full fitness, and have some empathy for if they get hurt or simply run out of steam and cannot run out a match and put up the scores and highlights that we want to see from them.