The Weekend Preview is a blog that aims to provide a different angle on the narrative of an upcoming sporting event.

AFL Round 2: Geelong vs. Hawthorn

AFL Round 2: Geelong vs. Hawthorn

Monday Afternoon, 2nd April 2018 at the MCG

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This would completely seal it… It’s looking good… It’s their day.

Bruce McAvaney in commentary for Channel 7
2008 AFL Grand Final, Geelong vs. Hawthorn
Rick Ladson goal, 18th minute, Final Quarter

Rick Ladson put the final nail in the coffin of the contest for the 2008 AFL Grand Final, securing Hawthorn their first premiership in 17 years. It was the crowning moment of his career at Hawthorn – a career that was perhaps lived in the shadow of his fellow 2001 National Draft Alumni, namely Luke Hodge and Sam Mitchell. But there was something else Ladson had in common with the two Hawthorn premiership captains – he was a left-footer. In fact over half of Hawthorn’s 2008 premiership side were left-footers, including Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead, Jordan Lewis, Cyril Rioli, Grant Birchall, Stuart Dew, Brent Guerra, Clinton Young and Xavier Ellis. Was this a remarkable coincidence or was it targeted recruitment?

2008 AFL Grand Final – Hawthorn vs. Geelong (Hawthorn Highlights).

A video of all 18 goals kicked by Hawthorn (13 of them from a left foot).

 Figure-1: 2008 AFL Grand Final, Hawthorn vs. Geelong

Figure-1: 2008 AFL Grand Final, Hawthorn vs. Geelong

There is a perception, rightly or wrongly, that left-footed players tend to be great kicks. Hence, in a Hawthorn game plan at the time that relied upon ball movement and maintaining possession via accurate kicking, footballers with a high kicking efficiency were required. And if left-footers were better kicks than right-footers, then logically they should be the priority for recruiters. However, it was not until 2010 that the truth was finally conceded by Chris Pelchen (Hawthorn’s General Manager of Player Personnel and Strategy at the time) [1]:

Pelchen: We’ve been loath to discuss it publically in the last five years, but it would be fair to say it has been a deliberate focus of our club. We did target left-footers.

A remarkable admission, although by 2010 this truth was becoming hard to hide, as by then Hawthorn had 22 left-footers on their list. However, Pelchen did at least acknowledge that there were some limitations to this policy:

Pelchen: We’ve got to be careful in terms of the ratio. It’s widely known that our 2008 premiership side had the most left-footers ever in a premiership side – half the team were left-footers.

Most people make the assumption that means 22 or 23, or around half, is best for your list. My personal belief is that is where the ratio should end – we don’t want to become too predictable.

Given the aggressiveness of the strategy, Pelchen did at least have some data to back-up this recruitment policy:

Pelchen: If you compared all the left-footers and all the right-footers in the competition, the average kicking efficiency of left-footers was over 3 percent better.

3 percent may not sound like much, but if a team kicks the ball 200 times a game, that represents an extra 6 accurate kicks per game, which could easily equate to an extra goal or two a game. However, 8 years on from Pelchen’s comments, does the argument still stack up?

In the 2017 AFL season, there were 7169 matches played by right-footers and 1939 matches played by left-footers – a roughly 80%-20% split. In contrast the general consensus is that roughly 10% of the population is left-handed. This means that proportionally, left-footed footballers are getting more of a chance to player at AFL level than their right-footed counterparts. But intriguingly, from the 2017 AFL season, overall left-footers and right-footers had identical disposal efficiencies. These efficiencies do include both kicks and handballs, but if left-footers were indeed better kicks then this would have been expected to be revealed in the overall efficiency. However, in terms of metres gained (total metres gained by a player from effective disposals [2]), left-footers averaged 42 metres more than right-footers. This could mean several things; left-footers are trusted by their teammates/coaches to kick the ball longer more often or they themselves have the confidence to kick it further. Kicking the ball longer could also then affect a left-footers disposal efficiency, which means there may still be some truth in the argument that left-footers are better kicks.

 Figure-2: Left/Right Footer Statistical Comparison from 2017 AFL Season

Figure-2: Left/Right Footer Statistical Comparison from 2017 AFL Season

Chris Pelchen eventually left the Hawks in 2011, after which coincidentally or not, Hawthorn no longer appears to be the main destination for left-footers. The only left-footer under the age of 26 on the current Hawthorn list is Tom Mitchell, who was brought in via trade rather than the draft. Figure-3 presents the number of left-footers on the combined (primary and rookie) lists of all 18 AFL teams. Hawthorn now only has seven left-footers on their list, in comparison to St Kilda and Fremantle that have 13 each. Interestingly, post-Hawthorn, Chris Pelchen spent 3 years at St Kilda and it appears his philosophy has left an imprint there.

 Figure-3: The Number of Left Footers one each 2018 AFL Team List

Figure-3: The Number of Left Footers one each 2018 AFL Team List

The notable element of Figure-3 is that the 4 teams with the least amount of left-footers on their list represent last year’s Top-4 on the AFL Ladder. So have the recruiter’s got it wrong after-all? Will the Hawthorn side of 2008 prove to be the historical anomaly as the demand for left-footers dries up? At the very least, there is little evidence for you to demand your young kid kick with his/her left foot when they are given their first football.

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Prediction:

With the return of Dangerfield to form the formidable triumvirate with Gary Ablett and Joel Selwood, the Cats enter the Easter Monday clash as warm favourites. However, around their established stars, the Cats are exposing a lot of inexperienced players. In contrast, Hawthorn are clearly intent on starting the season strong this year after the disastrous start to the 2017 season. As a result they have picked a very experienced side in the opening rounds of the season. This strength in depth may well overcome star power at this early point of the season.

Hawthorn to win by 7 points (A point for each of their 7 left-footers)

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[1] Stevens, M. (2010). “Foot fetish that won Hawks a flag”. News Corp Australia, March 30, 2010.

[2] Champion Data. (2018). “2018 AFL Prospectus”. Champion Data Pty Ltd, VIC, Australia.

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Further Recommended Reading:

Blake, M. (2016). "Mighty Fighting Hawks". Penguin Random House Australia.

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Data Sources:

AFL Prospectus
afl.com.au
AFL Live Official App

AFL Round 4: Geelong vs. St Kilda

AFL Round 4: Geelong vs. St Kilda

AFL Round 1: Richmond vs. Carlton

AFL Round 1: Richmond vs. Carlton