Call that FOOTball?

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IN THE OLD DAYS, it was recorded as a “pass to comrade” and used only in desperation. Today, HANDball is taking over the great game of Australian Rules FOOTball, as GEOFF POULTER points out:

WHEN I was boy, footy was all about kicking and marking. And, admittedly, a fair bit of heavy hitting and not just among bigger bodies. Today you wouldn’t recognise it.

For someone in their 70th year the memory also was of a little bit of running. But, if the speedsters bounced the ball too often, they were branded selfish lairs. The crowds would bay for their blood.

Handball was a novelty. Something you did if you were in trouble, pinned against the boundary line, facing the wrong way, trapped. Or if you simply didn’t have a “wrong” foot.

But gradually, from those mid-50s, it has all changed. The likes of Graham Farmer turned handball into a more attacking weapon. But, even with Polly in its outfit, Geelong had only 42 and 55 handballs respectively (kick totals 241, 254) in the 1963 and 1967 Grand Finals. Farmer had 11 and 14.

Dyson Heppell HANDballs. Pic: Wayne Ludbey

Back in the 1933 Grand Final South Melbourne and Richmond had 28 and 26 (kicks 319 and 292) in what was then referred to as the “passed to comrade” column.

Fast forward to the 1966 play-off and St Kilda had 39 and Collingwood 45. In the national carnival in Hobart that same year Victoria had only 23 handpasses in winning the final against Western Australia (17). Adelaide (just eight handballs to 18) beat Tassie in the play-off for third.

Even in the 1970 Grand Final when coach Ron Barassi famously implored his Carlton troops (44 points in arrears) at half time, to play on and handball at all costs, the Blues tallied only 60 to the Magpies’ 34.

By 1990 there was still not a great increase. Collingwood had 93 HANDballs (up about an average 25 in 20 years) in their 32-year flag drought-breaker to Essendon’s 54.

But all that has changed in the past few years. Now it is not unusual for AFL teams to have more handballs than kicks. Handball is designed to free players progressively to a stage where they can run and deliver under less pressure. But, if someone in the chain is tardy, then the process starts all over again. And the handball totals soar.

It reached the height of absurdity recently when St Kilda had 231 handballs against North Melbourne (197) with the Kangas losing by 49 points. The Saints 2013/2015/2016 best and fairest, Jack Steven, had 26 handballs and team-mate Seb Ross 24. The entire St Kilda 1966 Grand Final team had only 39 handballs, Darrel Baldock leading the way with eight. Seven of his team-mates had none.

Handball was a favourite weapon of the Western Bulldogs last year in their premiership season. Is the hand quicker than the eye? At least some of those handballs, at quick glance, looked suspiciously like throws.

When the likes of practitioners Messrs Deller, Crouch, Smith, Robinson and James were officiating, back in the day, a legitimate handball required the ball to be held in the palm of one hand and struck with the fist of the other. No variations. There were no over-the-head backward tricks, no shovel motion or sleight of hand permitted.

Last Sunday Adelaide’s Matt Crouch had 19 kicks and 26 handballs and his brother Brad 13 and 29. The Crows had a total 202 kicks and 213 handballs and lost by 29 points.

So, if the trend continues, will we see players (still called Australian Rules FOOTballers) kick the ball even less often? Perhaps this, along with fatigue, less practice, different ball texture/shape etc, is contributing to goal-shooting accuracy not seeming to improve.

We won’t be able to change the name of the game to HANDBALL. It’s already taken. It is a long-established Olympic sport and played by teams of seven. Another version played by many of us at Australian schools consists of hitting the ball against a wall. For some of us oldies, the proliferation of handball is starting to send us up that proverbial parapet.


Author: Geoff Poulter

GEOFF POULTER, 69, has spent 51 years in sports media. He was the last Melbourne Herald chief football writer. CV: Sports oracle, author, historian, impersonator, raconteur, poet, quiz whiz, philosopher, song-writer, intellectual scholar – and still employable!



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