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.

Too much tackling means too little attacking

Did too much tackling hurt St Kilda’s chances of winning last season’s flag? It is possible, if chasing tail came at the expense of creativity? For example, in the first 11 home and away rounds, the Saints set AFL benchmarks for combined defence and attack, with an average of 68 tackles a game and 106 points scored.

However, in their next 11 games, the pendulum tipped notably in favour of defence with an even higher tackle count of 76 a match while their scoring dropped to 94 points per outing. This swing continued during their three finals, when they registered 81 tackles a game and averaged only 69 points. St Kilda’s 2009 achievements, based on its supreme defensive effort, prompted a growing chorus hailing tackle counts as a critical measure for winning games.

However, the evidence says otherwise. Using the tackle-count ‘winner’ as a guide to who will win games is tricky. First, the published numbers are only raw statistics. There is no separate classification as to relative effectiveness. And second, even a simple calculation such as the table of average team tackles for 2009 highlights why raw tackle numbers don’t count as much as often assumed. Yes, St Kilda’s season average of 72 is significantly higher than the rest (see table), but premier Geelong ranked only sixth. The Western Bulldogs, Collingwood and Adelaide all made the final eight and ranked just below the competition average for tackles.

A plausible correlation between team tackling averages and premiership ladder success does not exist. Never has. The reason is simple. It’s generally better to have the ball than not have the ball and tackling is often an indicator of being second-to-the ball, chasing tail and an overly defensive mindset.

Various studies by respected sport mathematicians have confirmed this principle. Taking into account all games played in a season, these studies confirm that winning the tackle count results in just a whisker above a 50-50 chance of winning a game. A more recent study by sport mathematicians goes further in challenging tackling assumptions. The record-breaking average of 124 a game in 2009 compared to the combined previous three-season average of 103 a game does not mean tackles have suddenly become more important for winning games.

His correlations between tackle differences and score margin for each of the past 10 seasons shows no significant change occurring. A more plausible explanation for this leap in tackling in 2009 is the concurrent increase in the number of handballs, ineffective kicks, interchange and rugby-style scrimmages of play creating more chances for tackling. Greater insight is possible if there were a distinction between the quality and significance of tackles. But this is not officially available and the current definition is rather vague: When a player stops an opposition player with possession of the ball from getting his kick or handball away in a legal manner, or reduces the effectiveness of the opposition’s disposal.

Often the subjectivity of calling tackles within an acceptable range of accuracy is a challenge, notwithstanding the sophistication of today’s software capture systems. Now, with the aid of technology, identifying the relative effectiveness of tackles can be done. The highest rating should be awarded to any tackle resulting in a direct turnover of possession (frees for included), stoppage, goal-saver or match-saver. The next grading are tackles that effectively ruin a kick or handball, when the player in possession has prior opportunity.

A critical distinction here is the tackle occurs when the play is active. Far more problematic is classifying the large volume of tackles occurring in the frequent rugby-style scrimmages of play when a player takes possession with little or no prospects and is immediately wrapped up. No one doubts the Saints’ brilliance in all three categories of tackling and I am sure they will continue on this path in 2010. But they must also rediscover their creative genes. They have two remarkable stars showing the way creatively and defensively – Lenny Hayes and Nick Riewoldt.
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.

Making Sense of the Moves

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.

Vale Ron Austin

The Spirit of Carlton Past and Present was saddened to learn of the recent passing of Ron Austin, Rod Austin’s father.

The SOC would like to extend its deep condolences to Rod and his family at this difficult time.

The 1972 World Tour

In 1972 the Carlton Football Club not only won the premiership, it also won the right to play against the VFL ‘All-Stars’ in a series of overseas exhibition matches. The series included games in London and Athens. With the kind permission of David ‘Swan’ McKay the Spirit of Carlton can exclusively reveal for the first time some intimate photos of this unique overseas tour. Click on each picture to enlarge.

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Book Review: Out of the Blue

The Carlton Football Club has a particularly proud history and it is no surprise that a remarkable number of books have been written about the club and its history. Each book is different and they each cover their own particular niche, there is the studious academic work of Lionel Frost’s Old Dark Navy Blues, the old fashioned rigour of Buggy and Bell’s Carlton Story and the rambling colossus of Hansen’s Blue Boys to name a few. In 2009 a new book by Tony De Bolfo adds to the rich tapestry of this club’s written history.

De Bolfo uses his finely tuned journalistic instincts to examine some of the most perplexing and fascinating mysteries of the Blues long history. Whilst there is ample research apparent throughout the book, in particular from the nineteenth century, its great strength in comparison to its contemporaries is that it uses interviews with those who have lived through some of Carlton’s great moments to good effect to flesh out new detail and allow new avenues to be explored. It is something we rarely see these days, good old fashioned investigative journalism.

The book is not a narrative as such; it is a jigsaw of myriad pieces. It is not trying to define the club, but it does do this by showing so many contrasting aspects of the old dark navy blues. There are dozens of mini chapters each conveying a nugget or two of information which will make the reader raise an eyebrow in a renewed and deeper understanding of the Blues.

Pleasantly, not only does the book cover aspects of the clubs earliest years in the 1860s but it also examines some of the important events in the very recent history of the club. The book presents a veritable candy store of new information to Blues Fans to feast upon. Some of the topics covered include, how Carlton lured Barassi from Melbourne, the secrets of the 1987 premiership, the story behind the iconic photo of Jezza’s mark in the 1970 Grand Final, the origins of the club song and some would say the most interesting of all; the story behind the recruitment of Chris Judd.

This is not a stodgy period piece carefully eyeballing the cobwebbed past of a footy club. The book is alive with the stories of what makes the club special. From my own biased view as a life long Blues supporter it was a book that satisfied but also left me wanting more. Perhaps the appetite that was not quite sated was the story of a club with 16 magnificent premierships which then brings an expectation of wanting to read the story about how number 17 is to be achieved. To be continued …..

Out of the Blue

To order your copy from the club please Click HERE to purchase.

Annual Reports

The 2009 AGM was held on Mon, April 6 2009 with around 40 enthusiastic members in attendance. Key “Rules and Constitution” amendment resolutions relating to the objectives of the SOC, the executive committee structure and financial and taxation compliance, were passed. These amendment resolutions are contained in this site. Please click here to read the document.

The 2009 Annual Report is now available to members and can be read by clicking here.

The 2008 Annual Report is also now on this site. Please click here to read the document

SOC Salutes Ken Hands

I was thrilled to be present at the 2009 Australian Football Hall of Fame Induction Dinner to witness the induction of our SOC father figure, the great Ken Hands. Ken has been a great inspiration and support to many past and current Carlton players for more than fifty years. He has a great love for and insight into our wonderful game

Congratulations to Ken and his family, many of whom were present and celebrated with him on his special night.

Geoff Southby