Tenacious. Uncompromising. Dedicated
As a player, Steven Hocking often did the hard yards while his more credentialed teammates put the points on the board.
Playing a defensive role in those great Cats teams of the 80s and 90s, Hocking shut down opponents. Most famous was the occasion he broke the nose of Hawthorn champion Leigh Matthews in retaliation for a horrific shot behind play on Hocking’s teammate Neville Bruns.
For the past four years in his role as general manager of football operations at AFL, Hocking largely developed a similar reputation, with a greater impact on the game at large. Handed the keys to the rulebook, Hocking attempted to reshape the game with a bolder hand than any rules custodian in decades.
This last off-season saw another seemingly aggressive suite of rule changes, with ambitions to change the way footy is played. Despite some initial signs of success, the true impact of these latest changes is a little harder to see.
Hocking’s departure from the role has seen tributes come from some of those inside the game, and sighs of relief from many outside. The legacy of the Hocking era is complex.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Coming off a season affected so heavily by COVID-19, the temptation for many would be to “leave football alone”, at least for a year.
However, AFL headquarters doubled down on their mission statement of the previous few years — to open up the game. Three major rules were introduced at the end of last year: the stand the mark rule, an interchange reduction and an extra five metres of space for teams kicking the ball in.
After two weeks, the success of the new rules were being shouted from rooftops.
Commentators were loving the new game, which appeared to be opened up. But a closer look, after players and teams have adjusted, reveals little substantial shift.
The most acclaimed change was the stand the mark rule, which sought to reduce the trend of defenders creeping inboard after an attacking player took a mark. The theory was that by doing this, aggressive inboard kicks were being closed off and transitions back through the corridor were being stopped before they could start.
Some of the biggest surprises early this year, such as Sydney and Adelaide, were underwritten by aggressive ball use through the corridor: fast, frantic and full of risk. But the best teams so far this year focused on how to stop sides using this newfound freedom, putting more focus on how to stop teams finding loose players.
Effective spacing and covering off potential options are now hallmarks of many of the best upground defences in the league. The Demons, whose communication has been hailed throughout the year, joined the Dogs as early adopters to the new defensive reality.
Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge told the ABC earlier this year that the biggest adjustment to the stand rule was on the defensive side of the ball and not the attacking one.
Analysis of play from last year showed that sides like the Swans and Crows were already experimenting with quicker and more direct ball use.
The numbers also outline the limited effect of the changes.
Through the first half of the season, use of the corridor was virtually unchanged from previous years — one of the key indicators of success. Elsewhere, the transition of play from defensive 50 to attacking 50 is up slightly. But this has only translated to about one extra score from defensive 50 per game — barely noticeable in the grander scheme of a full game of football. The smaller change to the kick in rules is more likely responsible for this bump.
This is also suggested by the biggest headline figure of all: scoring.
An early season scoring rush has significantly tapered off as the nights have gotten longer and colder. This is common to the general pattern of scoring across the season in recent years, with games becoming more of a grind as the year progresses.
Beyond these key measures, little about the game has changed from 2019 to 2021 beyond the reduction in stoppages — an area that the 2021 rules did not try to address and could not have directly impacted.
The decline in stoppages appears driven by an umpire focus on letting the play run while a player has any chance to get the ball out, and by teams trying to get the ball out at all costs. This philosophy has also resulted in fewer inconclusive stoppages once an initial stoppage does occur.
Like the previous tranche of rule changes in 2019, these changes were brought in without a full trial to learn their potential effects. While prior to 2019 the proposed rule changes were briefly trialled in three lower-level games, the 2021 changes were adopted without any testing for their impact.
Is change really needed?
Hocking’s raison d’être at the AFL was a noble and longstanding one: to improve the game.
According to James Coventry’s Time and Space, Australian football has been modified since it was codified. Almost immediately after the first changes came the inevitable calls that the game wasn’t as good as it used to be.
Such claims still fill column inches and hot takes from media today.
The ideal notion of footy is hard to pin down, but there have been attempts along the way. The charter, held alongside the laws of the game, sets down the core characteristics that provide Australian football with its definitive character.
Some prefer an open, flowing game, others a physically imposing, hard-nosed contest. Close matches often bring fans in, as do high-scoring matches. Football can be all things, but not all at once. The balance between the different elements is key, and the game barely resembles what it did 20 years ago, let alone 110.
Many fans, and people inside football, believe there is nothing fundamentally wrong with football. There’s fair reason to believe that the conjecture is part of the cycle that Coventry mentions in Time and Space.
Every generation pines for the game they grew up with, every generation says football isn’t as good as it used to be. Scoring comes and goes with tactical eras, and each generation of tactical minds builds on the last.
To shape the game from a rules perspective, you have to have the right tools. Overseas, rule changes are usually tested extensively at the lower levels before being introduced across the board, to see if there are any real impacts or unintended side effects.
Without a full toolkit, Hocking was handed a nigh impossible task.
As a player, he was guided by strong coaching rules, such as Tom Hafey’s dictum that Hocking was to follow Matthews on that fateful day, but not pass halfway. The 1992 Grand Final, featuring Hocking’s Geelong, had the Cats line up with at least six wings at the opening bounce. This was a tactical move he would later ban with the introduction of the 6-6-6 starting positions rule.
As an administrator, Hocking tried to guide the hand of the entire competition, but the game wasn’t affected as much as was publicly believed. To achieve real change, his successor will need to explore truly bold ideas and embark on lasting trials. Or perhaps they could just let the game naturally evolve.