In the end, the AFL’s promoted return to normality was somewhat overstated.
Sure, it was footy back at the MCG, and with a substantial crowd in the house to boot. But this wasn’t footy as we remembered it from a pre-COVID era — this was something new entirely.
This was AFL footy in the days of injury subs, strict interchange caps and umpires bellowing “stand!”. It was a version of the game that saw Carlton hang on until around about time-on in the last quarter before giving way to Richmond, instead of some time in the third.
It was thrilling and controversial in the same measure, a triumph and a complete failure all at once.
The opening game of the 2021 men’s season was a perfect storm of talking points for the AFL as everything the league put in the place over the off-season — right up until the the day before this opening game — collided together. And though the sample size remains small, it was enough to give us an indication of what to expect between now and September.
The first thing to note, and the point that the brains trust at AFL HQ will be most keen to stress, was that this was a sensational game of footy. From the first bounce, the ball just whizzed around the MCG at a ferocious and entirely unsustainable pace.
There was a constant whiff of physicality, right from Harry McKay’s early encounter with Nick Vlaustin, and the presence of 49,218 people at the ground added to the urgency. At surface level, it was everything Melbourne footy fans had missed and everything the AFL had hoped to conjure.
So what’s the negative? Plainly, the many holes in the new rules that quickly became clear; some that had been predicted and some that came as a concerning surprise.
Firstly, the injury sub. The rule that was parachuted in just hours before the first game, that was seemingly born out of a meeting of a select handful of the league’s coaches last week.
Regardless of how it came to fruition, the 23rd man is here. And it is a game-changer.
On Thursday night, both teams made use of the injury substitution, with Carlton taking Jack Silvagni off at half-time for Oscar McDonald and Richmond subbing Vlaustin for Jack Ross late in the third quarter.
The impacts of both were stark and immediate. McDonald kicked a goal within minutes of his introduction and another in the fourth quarter, with plenty of crucial marks and some big tackles in between, while Ross provided some pivotal late run as he picked up eight disposals of his own.
In both cases, the injection of fresh legs was positive for the team, a fact that is going to lead to a fundamental shift to what an injury means in an AFL match. What was once an unfortunate setback can all of a sudden be an advantage.
And while Silvagni’s shoulder injury looked fairly serious — a subluxed shoulder will certainly keep him out for at least 12 days, the minimum the AFL says an injury needs to justify a sub — Vlaustin’s diagnosis was basically just a nasty bump on the knee, the sort of contact injury that a player could quite conceivably recover from in a week.
Already, after just one game, the league could find itself in a serious pickle. Every coach in the AFL would have been watching this game, and would have seen how the substitutes made tangible, positive impacts for their teams, and should Vlaustin find himself able to play next week, it will be open season.
The sub rule was arguably introduced in response to, and will become even more important because of, the cut to a maximum of 75 interchanges per team and a return to full 20-minute (plus time-on) quarters.
That one was a decision made purely to increase fatigue, which for a long time has been suggested as the key to opening the game up and increasing scoring. It most certainly did the former — every player on the field was basically goosed by halfway through the third quarter — but whether it helped or hindered the flow of the game late, when teams were carefully managing their last few permitted interchanges, is probably up for debate.
But it makes that injury sub all the more enticing for coaches. The injection of even one pair of fresh legs as the game grinds to a halt around him could very easily be the difference in a match.
Finally, the man on the mark. The stand rule. Either the game’s saviour or the death of the code, depending which side of the fence you fall on.
After all the talk, all the AFL sales pitches, all the blowback from fans and horrifying clips from intraclub scratchies, its impact on this game was … maybe negligible?
It certainly didn’t ruin the game, and perhaps you could put the match’s pleasing aesthetics down to a bit more freedom for the ball-handler — though Dustin Martin said after the game he didn’t feel it had much of an impact at all.
But again, the wrinkles with this rule aren’t necessarily the obvious. The problems will come from the loopholes, of which two main ones have already appeared.
On a number of occasions, the man on the mark opted to not stand on the mark at all, but rather lurk a few metres back from that designated spot, in a position where they are free to jump and shuffle and move with impunity. It works, until Sam Petrevski-Seton gets stuck a little bit between the mark and the spot just far enough away from the mark, and is called for a 50-metre penalty.
Confused? Of course you are, it’s needlessly complicated. Collingwood’s Scott Pendlebury made a good point on the issue on Twitter, but if you aren’t completely up with your footy lexicon the whole thing may well go completely over your head.
The other loophole came with set shots, as players kicking for goals slashed five to 10 metres off their kicks by running just to the side of the man on the mark, who isn’t able to move to complete what would be a simple smother until it’s too late. As well as looking a bit silly, this manoeuvre played its part in a handful of goals on the night.
None of these are necessarily game-breaking, but there are worms escaping from cans all over the AFL right now, and up until now we are yet to hear a real plan on how they intend to put them back in.
So there’s food for thought, and much to watch out for in the coming days and weeks. Crucially, these probably aren’t talking points that should supercede the game, the power of Richmond’s performance and the positives Carlton can take away.
At the end of the day, for all of the Blues’ good work, they really only suffered from the simple fact that Dusty Martin played for the other team. Despite all the newness on the night, some things were never likely to change.