LEIGH MATTHEWS: Brody Grundy key to Swans’ success, AFL has to fix free kick mess & Harley Reid can be stopped

LEIGH MATTHEWS
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Sydney Swans sealed victory from the goal square.

Halfway through another AFL season and as always, the relentless evolution of the game throws up a few changing themes and trends.

Clubs and players will attempt to get ahead of the curve. Some will succeed, most will fail.

Sydney with only one loss and a percentage of 150 are leading the competition and are clear trendsetters.

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On-field synergy is so important and the Swans have achieved this in spades. They have had 16 players who have played every game and have used just 27 players in total and only one debutant. Every club would envy this stability of on-field personnel.

Then there is the developing trend of a ruckman becoming an extra big-bodied midfielder after the hit-out part of the ruck role has been completed. Brody Grundy is performing this role beautifully.

Sydney’s midfield balance is suited to the modern game. With Grundy’s ground-level work, the grunt of James Rowbottom, Taylor Adams and the shutdown role of James Jordan, the foundation is being successfully built for the Swans classy and creative stars.

AFL football is currently very congested around the stoppages but that means if the ball can be taken out of the congestion there is lots of space for the runners to work their magic.

Again the Swans are leading the pack by using the open field to slice through their opponent’s zone defences.

A core group led by Isaac Heeney, Chad Warner, Errol Gulden, Nick Blakey and Tom Papley have the speed and precision kicking skills other teams are unable to match.

The evolution of umpiring particularly around the interpretation of the always contentious holding the ball seems to have taken another turn.

Recently the balance between the rights of the ball carrier and the rights of the tackler have to a degree been rectified.

Over recent seasons high contact and in the back free kicks have been rarely paid.

To my eye this year at least the player with the ball has been given much more latitude and fewer holding the balls are being awarded.

I’m quite happy with that umpiring evolution, although many disagree including the majority of the coaches.

Damien Hardwick raised an interesting statistic from the Suns’ loss to Carlton - there was 131 tackles but only 27 free kicks including only four for holding the ball.

Dimma, clearly like many in the football fraternity, wants more tackles to result in a holding the ball free kick.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the same urgency was given to better protecting the player in possession both when he is on his feet, or at the bottom of a pack with multiple opponents lying on his back.

Much of this angst comes from the minimalistic trend in umpiring of paying vastly fewer free kicks than in previous generations.

This is a trend that does not make sense.

By way of comparison, in the last two games of the 1990 finals series there was an average of 79 tackles with 47 free kicks paid by the two umpires.

So tacking numbers have doubled and free kicks have halved.

With so few kicks being paid when an umpire awards a technical free kick, such as what happened late in the Fremantle-Collingwood game when Magpie Lachlan Sullivan gave the ball to teammate Nick Daicos and not the umpire for a ball-up and got pinged for time wasting, all hell breaks loose.

HOBART, AUSTRALIA - MAY 25: Paul Curtis of the Kangaroos is tackled by Dan Houston of the Power during the round 11 AFL match between North Melbourne and Yartapuulti (Port Adelaide) at Blundstone Arena, on May 25, 2024, in Hobart, Australia. (Photo by Steve Bell/Getty Images)
Kangaroo Paul Curtis getting tackled by Port’s Dan Houston. Credit: Steve Bell/Getty Images

Attempting to explain the rules of the game to a newcomer is quite confusing. When they then watch the game it appears there are no rules.

The basic rules of our game are pretty simple, if the player hasn’t got the ball, you can’t tackle them and clearly that gets paid because they’re easy to see. You can’t make contact above the shoulder and that’s happening all the time, but not resulting in free kicks.

And you can’t push a player in the back, and you can’t lie on his back but that’s happening all the time and isn’t being paid. Plus, this year, even holding the ball is rarely paid.

It’s not the individual umpires. Clearly the umpiring philosophy must come from AFL head office.

Before it was disbanded a few years ago the Rules Review Committee played a role in this process.

A few times each season this group made up of umpires, umpiring management, AFL football manager and a handful of ex-players would meet to discuss the evolution of the game, particularly in regards to the rules and interpretations that influence umpires’ decision making.

Maybe resurrecting that committee would be a worthwhile initiative.

What has also taken place in the season to date is the rare occurrence of a first-year teenager absolutely exploding on to the AFL scene.

He might be only 19 and only played half a season, but Eagles prodigy Harley Reid has laid claim to being the most watchable player in the game.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MAY 04: Harley Reid of the Eagles walks from the field at the half time break during the round eight AFL match between West Coast Eagles and Essendon Bombers at Optus Stadium, on May 04, 2024, in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Harley Reid will face a new challenge when sides adapt their game plans to nullify his impact. Credit: Paul Kane/Getty Images

He’s such a phenomenon because he displays that enormous combination of strength, power, speed and skill. That he is so young and inexperienced is simply amazing. He oozes a confidence that makes him look like the big kid dominating in the schoolyard.

Elite rookies often have a stack of confidence built on excelling in their junior days but opposition sides and the pressure of the intense competition usually gets the better of them eventually.

So that’s the next phase that will come for Reid, who is so powerful at ground level. The fend-off has quickly become his trademark and he’s one of the few midfielders that can take a big pack mark.

But what you do in your first half season is not what you’re going to do your whole career. There’s a lot of challenges to come and that doesn’t mean he’s not going to break the glass in all of them.

I am not scheduled to be at any Eagles game this year and I wish I was because, like everyone else, I’d like to see Reid live. What he’s doing as a first-year teenager is remarkable. I have joined the Harley fan club.

And the world’s his oyster.

With next TV rights deal imminent the player salary cap will soon be around $20 million.

During this decade there will be 50-odd players earning more than a $1m and the very elite probably earning more than $1.5m.

In March, after the round one Giants-Collingwood match, I pondered whether Tom Green or Nick Daicos could be the first $2m-a-year players later in this decade. Reid should be added to that list.

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