Returning to the MCG to commentate the footy these past few days was more special than I could have imagined. Melbourne’s heart was pounding again as fans streamed out of Jolimont station and through Yarra Park like bulging veins linking with the city’s major organ again.
In the lead-up to the season opener a year prior, a lone father and son kicked a footy in those same vast expanses, but on untrampled grass with no-one at risk of wearing a stray drop punt.
This past Thursday night, the congestion of bustling colour was back. There was energy. That wonderful football feeling of hope and optimism had returned.
Calling the first few games of 2020 at empty Melbourne venues really rammed home the importance of the crowd as an intrinsic part of the Aussie rules experience. The bizarre sound of rain falling on the roofs of the MCG grandstands was replaced by roars of unbridled emotion.
While COVID-19 continues to influence, with restrictions on crowd numbers, the return of fans to the MCG was a psychological turning point. A cherished component of Melbourne life was back and like the famous ground, people’s cups were half-full again.
As for the on-field spectacle this opening round, I thought it was excellent, with upset wins and a faster, more instinctive style of football. I loved the return to full-length quarters – 20 minutes and time-on. The new standing the mark rule has undoubtedly had a positive effect as players showed more of an inclination to move the ball quickly.
There was an at times obvious shift in mindset to be proactive with the ball instead of the slow and careful approach that has stifled and reduced the spectacle in recent seasons.
Typically, teams had already concocted ways to manipulate the new rule. Collingwood captain Scott Pendlebury told Grandstand on Friday night he would look to take advantage of it.
“We’ve basically been told if you’re on the mark and you hear stand then you’re a dead player on the field so don’t move at all even if the player comes off his line,” he said.
Across the opening round, players also tried to take advantage of the new man on the mark rule by gaining an extra metre or two when taking set shots from outside 50. This occurred with Brody Mihocek’s long-range goal for Collingwood, when a stationary Alex Keath was helpless as Mihocek arced to his right and kicked around, rather than over the mark.
This manipulation can be quickly quashed if the umpire blows play-on immediately and there were examples of good officiating of this across the weekend as well.
Some decent scores were a welcome feature of the opening round with four teams cracking the magical 100-point mark. The average score per team was 86 points per game, a significant increase on the 80.4-point average across the 2019 season, when scoring dropped to a 52-year low.
While scoring this weekend was encouraging, it should be noted that for round one of 2019, the average was 88.5. We’ll reserve our judgment for now.
The other significant rule change introduced by the AFL in the off-season — well, only hours before the new season, really – was the medical substitution. The rule itself has polarised, but the way it came to fruition has been almost universally condemned. On Grandstand, coaching games record holder Mick Malthouse described the hasty introduction of the rule as an embarrassment.
“Not everyone likes it, but somehow it was bulldozed through.”
Football has long been a game of attrition, and injury is just an unfortunate element. Injecting a fresh player has the potential to unfairly advantage a team, particularly if the substitution is made late in the game when fatigue is a factor.
The substitution rule, which stemmed from discussions around concussion replacements — something with greater merit — looked ridiculous when the first player knocked out this season, Jake Kelly, couldn’t be replaced because Adelaide had already used its medical sub when Luke Brown injured his Achilles.
The rule puts club doctors under mass pressure to quickly determine, in the heat of battle, whether a player has sustained an injury likely to keep them out of the game for 12 days. But perplexingly, unlike the new 12-day standdown policy for players with concussion, those subbed out with injury are not required to miss a game if the injury is not as bad as the original diagnosis suggested.
If Richmond’s Nick Vlastuin plays against Hawthorn this week, fans of other clubs are sure to cry foul.
There’s a simple fix that should be immediately introduced: if you’re subbed out through injury, you’re ineligible to play the following week.
The AFL don’t dare tell us a rule tweak after just one round would simply be too hasty.
Alister Nicholson is one of ABC Sport’s senior AFL commentators.