At half-time in the 1970 Carlton- Collingwood Grand Final, coach Ron Barassi nodded and said: “Hopkins, you’re on”. I kicked four goals in the second half and since have been known as the game’s most famous reserve or ‘bench’ player.
Forty years ago, it was considered a risk to interchange an uninjured player early in a game, because the rules did not permit a player to return to the field after coming off. The coach’s call that day was both daring and desperate – and ultimately, it was rewarded. I immediately understood the call as a privilege and a rare chance, and I’m proud I kept my end of the bargain.
You might think, then, that I’m all for rapid-fire bench action, but not in the form it takes today. Honestly, I’m as confused as anyone (coaches and players included) as to what’s happening on and off the bench. Today, often a player will kick a goal and run straight off the ground – an alien concept to players of my vintage.
In another era, there were only three things a player did after kicking a goal: he’d stay silent for fear of getting belted by a grisly backman; he’d bum-tap a teammate and say “Thanks mate” for helping set up the goal, or he’d run around yelling “Come on fellas”. (Now, we might be on the verge of seeing the first git pull his jumper over his head and take a running summersault after booting a goal.)
In my previous role with Champion Data, the AFL’s official statistics provider, I was involved in setting up the monitoring of interchange numbers. We started recording them in 2006, and there was an average of 92 a game. The exponential increase since is staggering – last year, there were 182 a match, on average. Likewise, the increase in football department staff using technology in an attempt to make sense of it all is also confounding.
At a typical game today, each club has a bench manager and specialist fitness and conditioning coaches sitting on the sidelines, next to an AFL interchange steward assisted by the reserve umpire and an official statistician. In each coach’s box, there are at least two places (often more) assigned to assistant coaches and statisticians monitoring interchanges and match-ups. At least two official game statisticians watch from the media box. Supporting this Avatar style production are four main technology systems and respective back-up technicians, available in various degrees and configurations, depending on the demand from clubs and media: the software for capturing and reporting numbers and players, computerised whiteboards, bench manager reporting software packages along with GPS devices and reporting software.
It looks impressive, but is it overkill? Although it seems head coaches generally support unrestricted limitations on interchange rotations, I have been hearing private concerns from some. Foremost is the view key coaching decisions are increasingly being overtaken by fitness and conditioning personnel, instead of being made by those with football knowledge – the men charged with making tactical decisions.
With so much technologically generated data aimed at the box, by the time a coach’s decision is conveyed to the bench, a series of other interchanges may have already been triggered by a software package. The end result is a match-up swirl close to impossible to track, or verify, by anyone.
Apart from selected key position match-ups and hard tags, the rest can look like an extreme example of chaos theory. As a fan, I like tracing the moves of players and coaches seeking tactical advantage. The current interchange frenzy denies this. Indeed, other football codes such as soccer, rugby league and union and American Football feature rules limiting player substitutions, partly designed so that fans can make genuine player-on-player assessments. Barassi’s 1970 Grand Final substitution is high on a distinguished list of memorable coaching moves credited with changing the course of the game.
But game theory dictates there is a better chance of winning by maximising the on-field time spent by the best 18 players available – maximising their respective skills – in the context of pressure being exerted by the opposition. Getting it right is the challenge for coaches, and watching it unfold is an intriguing study for fans. Right now, simply being able to make sense of the chaos has become the hardest thing to do.
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.