A Theory Out of Left Field

An outlandish proposition was recently floated about the club whose colourful president is fond of wearing a flamboyant jacket. Last month, a backpage newspaper story claimed the Hawks won the 2008 premiership because the team was stacked with left-footers. I have news for the re-born left-winger Jeff Kennett. Hawthorn won the flag because it had the talent credentials and form at the right time of the season to win a flag.

Critically, its second half in the 2008 Grand Final was an absolute blinder. In contrast, its Grand Final opponent Geelong was blessed with more talent credentials and also had displayed good form, but had a shocker in the second half. That’s footy – sometimes it just happens this way.

Talented players and teams have good and bad days. Left- or right-sidedness had nothing to do with the result. For the sake of testing, let’s say it was possible to substitute Hawthorn left-foot premiership players Lance Franklin, Luke Hodge and Stuart Dew with the right-footed Nick Riewoldt, Chris Judd and Lindsay Gilbee. Would this have diminished the Hawks’ chances? No way.

There are activities and sports in which left- or rightsidedness is an advantage, due mainly to specific factors. Military statistics confirm that left-sided soldiers have a higher chance of getting killed in battle than their right-sided counterparts, primarily because of right-biased weaponry. Notwithstanding Phil Mickelson’s win in last week’s United States Masters, elite golf is another activity treating lefties poorly. The availability and range of left-sided clubs is limited. Hence, promising right-sided youngsters get all the advantages of access to equipment and coaching, and it is rare to see a left-hander on the professional golfing circuit.

Across all societies worldwide, the general population comprises about 90 per cent right-sided people. As such, life isn’t always easy for the minority 10 per cent. Indeed, in darker times, leftsidedness was often frowned upon as freakish and sinful. I recall a time not so long ago, before coach Terry Wallace took the reins at Richmond, when coaching staff blamed the club’s woes on too many leftfooters in the team.

Prejudice can also lead to strange conclusions. For instance, it is often claimed leftfooters kick the ball differently and faster, flatter and more accurately than right footers, despite the fact there is no reliable evidence or reason why this is the case, other than a right-sided perceptual view of the world.

Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times and I can gladly declare the adorable Sherrin is not biased to one side (like a lawn bowl) and the alignment of the centre circle, centre and goalsquares and scoring sticks are set perfectly plumb. A goal kicked from the left or the right pocket is worth six points and, over time, the number of goals kicked from either pocket is, I predict, about the same. The configuration of an AFL ground is a marvellously open and expansive canvas in which the result invariably boils down to a glorious mix of talent, tactical nous and luck.

If there were an advantage either way for either left- or rightfoot kicking, it would most likely appear in goalkicking statistics. Because the general population is represented 90 per cent and 10 per cent rightand left-sided respectively, it is reasonable to assume at least one of the 10 all-time leading goal scorers is a left footer – Essendon’s Matthew Lloyd. (Stats buffs are encouraged to test this proposition of one in every 10 by scouring through the goalkicking records).

The reason Hawthorn has had recent premiership success with an abundance of left-foot players is better explained by a coaching and recruitment philosophy that is non-preferential. The Hawks looked at talent on genuine merit, rather than lopsided views of counterparts. A similar occurrence of illogical bias once concerned indigenous players. How many were overlooked by recruiters in the past? Now, ignorance of indigenous talent is perilous for the career of a recruiter.

Perhaps, occasionally wheeling to the left rather than the right does have some tactical advantage. But it is surprisingly short-lived. Hawthorn, beware! It is in the nature of elite opponents to adjust, shut down and counterattack, catching off guard an opposition overly committed to one side of the ground.
Ted Hopkins is a Carlton premiership player and founder of Champion Data. His current project is TedSport, a high performance data analysis and consulting service.

This column was first published in the AFL Record. Copyright AFL 2010.

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