AFL Round 11: Geelong vs. Adelaide
Friday Night, 2nd June 2017 at Simonds Stadium
The game has changed forever. The gap between kicks and handballs is closing by the season. The handball is about to become the most common action.
2010 AFL Prospectus 
Since the unveiling of the redeveloped Charles Brownlow Stand two weeks ago, Geelong has reignited their season with two stirring wins against the Bulldogs and the Power at their beloved Kardinia Park (currently known as Simonds Stadium). And to complete the trifecta of wins in front of their home fans, the Cats face the Crows this Friday Night. Another win against quality opposition and Geelong will be well on their way to re-establishing Kardinia Park as their impenetrable fortress.
Over the past decade, Geelong’s record at Kardinia Park has been remarkable. Since the beginning of 2007, they have won 70 of 78 games played there. This includes a 29 game winning streak between Round 3 2008 and Round 20 2011, at an average winning margin of 63 points. In that streak, only one team came close to toppling the Cats: the Adelaide Crows in Round 18 2009.
The Crows were gallant in defeat. It was a fascinating and enthralling game, and despite the final score line reading 93-91 in favour of the Cats, not a single point was scored in the last 5 minutes of the game as the match turned into a real arm wrestle. We all know about the roll call of stars Geelong had in 2009, when the 3x Premiers were at the peak of their powers. However looking back, the Crows also had a handy collection of players, led by the likes of Andrew McLeod and Tyson Edwards. And looking a little deeper, there are even a host of current day stars now plying their trade in different teams – Patrick Dangerfield, Kurt Tippett, Bernie Vince – and even a current day senior coach in Simon Goodwin. But the only Adelaide player who played that day and is named to play this week may surprise a few people. It was Andy Otten, playing his 20th senior game. Fast forward 8 years, and he is about to play only his 80th senior game, emphasising both his struggles with injury over the years and his perseverance at following his dream to play AFL football.
2009 was a year of change in AFL football, with the AFL Prospectus going as far as to say the game had changed forever due to the accelerated use of the handball. And at the forefront of this handball revolution were two clubs, Geelong and Adelaide. Before the 2009 season, no team had ever recorded more handballs than kicks across a season. But, Geelong under Mark Thompson and Adelaide under Neil Craig achieved exactly that. Geelong of course went on to win the premiership that year, and as is so often the case in football, there is a want to follow the leader. From the high of the Swans in 2005, with their kick-to-handball ratio of 1.67, year on year the handball was becoming more proficient in the premiership winning team until Geelong won the 2009 premiership with a kick-to-handball ratio of 0.99. Given the trend, it is no surprise there was an expectation that the handball was on the way to domination. So was the game changed forever?
Not quite. Figure-1 presents the kick to handball ratio of premiership winning teams between 2007 and 2016. And after the year on year increase in handball use, there was a re-balance after the 2009 season. The Collingwood premiership side of 2010 led this, but it was ultimately the Hawthorn dynasty of the 2013-15 that entrenched the importance of pressure and accurate kicking as the foundation of a successful side. But the Bulldogs of 2016, and their creation of the handball club, may just have swung the balance back in favour of the handball. The AFL Prospectus prediction may have come a decade too early.
So what happened to the Geelong side of 2009 and their handball intensive game? Well after their success in 2009 they were found out a little in 2010, with the pressure game of Collingwood and St Kilda becoming the benchmark of the AFL. At the end of the 2009 season, both superstar Gary Ablett Jnr and coach Mark Thompson moved on and it appeared the Cat’s golden era was over. But with the arrival of Chris Scott and a fresh game plan, the Cats were revitalized and went on to win their 3rd premiership in 5 years in 2011. Their kick to handball ratio jumped to 1.28 in 2011 and didn’t dropped below 1.2 until this year. In 2017, the Cats under Chris Scott have gone full circle, playing a handball friendly game that the club has not seen since Thompson’s last year in 2010.
And what about Adelaide? They regressed from their handball friendly game style in the years following that 2009 season, and with the arrival of Brenton Sanderson they went to the opposite extreme. In only three years, Adelaide had gone from the most handball happy team in the AFL (kick to handball ratio of 0.94) to the most kick happy team (kick to handball ratio of 1.63). This transformation was particularly surprising as Sanderson had fine-tuned his coaching credentials under Mark Thompson at Geelong between 2007 and 2010. Since that high they have slowly increased their handball use, and as per Geelong, in 2017 they are now playing a handball friendly game that the club has not seen since 2010.
So what about the AFL as a whole? Following the Bulldogs lead, most teams are handballing more than ever. Table-1 and Figure-1 present the kick to handball ratio rankings after the first 10 rounds of 2017. Geelong is leading the competition, marginally ahead of the Bulldogs. Adelaide sits in 6th spot. Carlton is off the chart with its kicking tendency, but of the prominent teams on the ladder after Round 10, it is only Port Adelaide and Richmond that appear to be bucking the trend with some success. Can the Tigers or the Power win the premiership and swing the momentum back towards the kick? Time will tell.
Tip: As for Geelong and Adelaide this week – the fortress may have been re-built, but Adelaide is one of the few teams with the firepower to overwhelm the Cats there. Adelaide are unlikely to be able to swat aside the Cats as they have done to much of the rest of the competition this year, but I expect the Crows to record their first win at Kardinia Park since 2003.
Adelaide to win by 22 points
 Champion Data. (2010). “AFL Prospectus 2010”, Glen Luff, Victoria, Australia