Adelaide-based sports journo James Coventry might still be getting about in the set of wheels he snared back in 2009 for winning the AFL’s national fantasy comp, then called Dream Team.
This was back in the days before there was a cottage industry devoted to telling fantasy pundits how it’s done, which suggests Coventry knows a thing or two about the nuances of Australian Rules.
The broad sweep of his knowledge is parlayed into his recently-published volume Time and Space, a meditation on “the tactics that shaped Australian Rules, and the players and coaches who mastered them”. And it’s a hell of a read.
Essentially a chronological history of what’s now the AFL, it distinguishes itself from the personality-driven bent of most sports journalism by its meticulous focus on how the game is played, and why. It brims with anecdotes both old and new, combining a journalist’s research with a storyteller’s relish.
It tracks the game’s history from its inauspicious inception, when Tom Wills – a New South Welshman newly-arrived in Victoria after an English education – helped develop an odd hybrid of rugby and soccer in the 1850s, to help keep cricketers fit in the offseason. The central premise that emerges is that the game’s constant evolution is propelled by the need to keep it entertaining and competitive; whenever a coach devises a way to effectively exploit the rules to their team’s advantage, the game correspondingly adapts.
Hence the league’s recent edict that the interchange cap will be reduced from 120 to 90 rotations per game next year, a belated response to one of the biggest tactical revolutions in the modern game, from one of the most unlikely tacticians.
It was Fremantle coach Chris Connolly who pioneered an innovation inspired by watching American hockey, to reduce mid-game fatigue by massively increasing the use of interchange rotations.
For Connolly though, it played a tactical role as well: “Back then there was still a lot of one-on-one contests, so I thought we might be able to rotate our younger players against the opposition’s more seasoned campaigners.”
“I thought it could create confusion in the minds of the opposition,” he said.
Tempting as it is to page-surf to some of one’s own most cherished – and reviled – football memories, Time and Space provides a much-needed rebuff to the theory beloved of Crows supporters that bad luck cruelled a prospective dynasty in 2005-06.
As Coventry tells it, it was tactics, not fate, that undid Neil Craig’s ‘Crowbots’ – particularly against their perpetual nemesis from that era, West Coast.
“Around the mid-season mark (of 2006), we’d started heavily practising handball through the centre square,” recalled former Eagles coach John Worsfold, who recently spent time mentoring Adelaide and is now poised to take the reins at Essendon.
“We wanted to get into a position to kick inside 50 quicker, so we could stop opposition sides being able to get numbers back.”
It was used to devastating effect against Adelaide in Round 17 of that year, when the Eagles unleashed a then-record 227 handballs, more than 100 above the league average.
Later, in a preliminary final rematch, the Crows lost narrowly after being out-handballed 98 to 181.
There are warm-bath memories too, of course, as Coventry unpicks the 1990s heyday, wherein the ‘Pagan’s Paddock-era’ Kangaroos held sway, despite being ranked “in the bottom two for average disposals per game in six of his 10 years in charge”.
Enter Malcolm Blight, three times a coaching bridesmaid at Geelong, who had learned through his travails the value of team defence.
“Blight felt he’d now have to strike a balance between attack and defence,” writes Coventry.
“Whenever the Crows had to kick into the wind, Blight told them to slow the game by pushing the ball wide to the dead side.”
Adelaide’s defence went from the thirteenth ranked in the league to the “stingiest”. This was pitted in the 1997 Grand Final against the AFL’s most attacking side, St Kilda; the result helped cement the theory that the best form of attack is defence.
“The following season the Crows again conceded the fewest points, and again were pitted against the year’s highest-scoring team in the Grand Final,” recalls Coventry.
This time, of course, it was North Melbourne’s attacking flair that was cruelled, albeit in part by its own inaccuracy.
Time and Space is a history epic in scale yet meticulous in detail. It will, in its way, enhance the way you view the game, which is as great a gift as it could hope to provide.
Time and Space by James Coventry is published by ABC Books.
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