AFL Round Table: Does the AFL need a concussion substitute?

The 2021 AFL season kicks off on Thursday evening. Our experts tackle some of the burning questions ahead of Round 1.

Does the AFL need a concussion substitute?

Rohan Connolly: I understand the intent, but the lateness of this idea does make it look like an anxious sort of protection against the possibility of legal action, rather than something thoroughly discussed and planned. So the latest thinking that it would be a more broad-based substitute for serious injury makes more sense. You want the system to be as simple to understand and interpret as possible.

Jake Michaels: Call me a grump, but no, I don't like the idea of a concussion sub. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for making progress in regards to the health and wellbeing of players, but I just don't see how a concussion substitute will reduce the amount of concussions we see in the sport. It won't. How about me penalise players MUCH more severly for any head-high hits?

Matt Walsh: I think Rohan hit that nail on the head about legal action. This is something the AFL is deeply concerned with, but I think the rule has merit. Let's put players on ice for minor head knocks if we have a player waiting in the wings. I wouldn't call it a 'concussion sub', I'd call it a 'head knock sub' and use it for minor looking ones too. Let's not risk player welfare when we know the damage that can occur.

Jarryd Barca: Concussion is a serious issue in our game and I absolutely respect the steps that are being taken, but subs in general are a no from me. A substitute can't be there for one specific purpose in my opinion. Does it also become too advantageous to a team that loses a player to concussion to have another fresh pair of legs playing out the rest of a game? Besides, how many times have teams lost players to game-ending injuries and still won? If subs are introduced, coaches should be in control of how they use them.

What impact will the AFL's new rules have on the game?

RC: I suspect a fair amount. Early indications are that the man-on-the-mark rule really has encouraged players to look for more options in the corridor. That's going to make for more, direct, attacking football, but also for more turnovers, which will lead to more unpredictable patterns of play. Likewise, dragging the mark back an extra five metres at kick-ins encourages defenders to go straight down the guts. And the reduction of interchanges from 90 to 75 perhaps passes the tipping point at which fatigue does become more of a factor.

JM: Hopefully a positive one! In all seriousness, I think we might see scoring increase in the first few rounds, but I don't imagine it will take long for coaches to devise gameplans to shut their opposition down. After all, no AFL coach wants to play in a shootout every week! Until then, can we reserve our judgement until we've at least seen three or four full rounds of football?

MW: I've said it before and I'll say it again, coaches don't want teams scoring big scores against them. I spoke with a number of captains recently about defensive tactics and the new rules, and all of them said their side was working on how to stop the kick into the corridor. It may take a few weeks, but defence will again rule the roost. As for interchange cap? Well it's one less rotation per player, per game (kind of!). Not sure it'll have a massive impact.

JB: We're going to see some monstrous aggregate scores in games this year. That's the impact: it's going to be too easy to score. That is until coaches -- and it won't take long -- develop strategies to stranglehold their opposition and limit their avenues to goal. Defence wins premierships, after all.

Which coach enters the season under the most pressure?

RC: I think it really has to be Simon Goodwin at Melbourne. The Demons have been profoundly disappointing in two seasons since making the top four. There has been a disturbing disconnect between their midfield ball-winning ability and creating scores, which makes you wonder about their structure. And there's been some terrible lapses mentally, also. I think he's in enormous trouble if they miss the eight again this season.

JM: I'm going to go a little left-field here and say Chris Scott. Geelong seems to be just about everyone's premiership tip for 2021 and there's no doubt their list has improved drastically with the additions of Jeremy Cameron, Shaun Higgins and Isaac Smith. Their premiership window won't be open forever and a lean start to the year will no doubt have many questioning Scott's postitiong. Even he will know that.

MW: Given Nathan Buckley's last 12 months (COVID breaches, list exodus due to salary cap mismanagement, involvement in the Lumumba story), if he wants another contract, his side will need to play finals. Will the Pies play finals? Maybe not. Would Buckley get another gig as a head coach? Maybe not, given this recent history.

JB: Oh, the immense pressure to succeed as an AFL coach... I think Nathan Buckley, Simon Goodwin and Leon Cameron are in the same boat, despite the differences in their respective contracts. It's finals or bust for all three.

What's your one, big, bold call for the year?

RC: Sydney to make the final eight. There's only two teams on Sportsbet currently at longer odds to play finals, and I reckon the Swans could really make that look silly. They showed some very encouraging signs towards the end of last season, have a host of quickly emerging kids (eg. Justin McInerney), and have more strings to their bow now, with or without Lance Franklin. Don't say I didn't warn you!

JM: I don't think the premier or Brownlow Medal winner will be too unpredictable in 2021, so I'm going to go for a left-field All-Australian selection: Dockers young gun Andrew Brayshaw. He enjoyed a breakout year through the midfield in 2020 and I'm expecting his rapid improvement to continue this season. If he can find a way to hit the scoreboard -- he failed to kick a goal in 2020 -- then I reckon he's definitely a chance of earning his maiden All-Australian blazer.

MW: People and the AFL will hate 'normal length' quarters so much that the AFL will return to a shortened game in 2022. We've already seen some 36-minute stanzas so far this year - too long!

JB: I firmly believe we will see a team score upwards of 200 points in a game this year, which will be the first time in a decade!