OPINION

COVID-19 makes the impossible possible in AFL season 2020

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan warned that flexibility would be required to get through season 2020. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan warned that flexibility would be required to get through season 2020. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan warned when Covid-19 first began to play havoc with this season that football would need to be "flexible and agile" in how it approached the disaster. He wasn't kidding.

There has been a whirlwind of change in the game. From scheduling fixtures only weeks in advance, to changing game venues and times at the drop of a hat, to changing interpretations to rules mid-stream.

For all the flak it cops, the AFL deserves significant credit for having brought the whole logistical nightmare together in pretty seamless fashion.

Rohan Connolly

I've lost count of the number of issues that have emerged along the way which, in a normal AFL season, might have been the cause of endless controversy and debate, but in these extraordinary circumstances have come and gone with little fanfare.

Who has the time? Most of us are being taxed enough simply keeping track of which games are on when during "Footyfest", "Footy Frenzy", or whichever tag you prefer for this run of 33 games across 20 days.

At the time of writing, we'd got through 23. As you read this, it's probably 24 down. If it's Saturday, make that 26. And so on.

For all the flak it cops, the AFL deserves significant credit for having brought the whole logistical nightmare together in pretty seamless fashion. But it shouldn't be expecting to take a breather any time soon.

As COVID continues to weave its path of destruction across the community and the economic ramifications become more dramatic by the day, it's increasingly obvious that life, let alone sport, will probably never simply return to how it was when this AFL season kicked off in March.

For the AFL, that flexibility and agility looks like being a very useful training exercise. But also something of a template for what is possible down the track.

Possibilities which seemed impossible only a few months ago. And from which the league will have little recourse now to turn its back on. Like the prospect of an AFL grand final played away from the MCG, almost certain to be the case this October. Or a much more equitable fixture, in which a far greater number of teams get to play each other twice rather than the measly five times it occurred before this year.

Yes, the league is now contracted to play the grand final at the MCG until at least 2057. But the current health crisis might well have rewritten the rule book on just how binding any agreement needs to be.

Certainly, a grand final played in Perth, Adelaide or Sydney this year is going to create a precedent, extraordinary or not, by which the howls of protest from clubs disadvantaged by any future insistence on a fixed venue are going to become a very loud roar.

Fair enough, too. If the integrity of the premiership each year is philosophically the game's most important consideration, as it should be, it's going to become even more difficult to justify denying a club hosting rights its position on the ladder and progress through a finals series has earned.

And the fixture? Well, a 34-game season with every club playing each other twice still looks well out of reach. But shortened game times and a playing roster, which has now incorporated every day of the week, have opened up avenues to at least expand the regular 22-game schedule teams were locked into until this year.

Already, some influential minds have changed their tune on that score. Like Geelong star and AFL Players' Association president Patrick Dangerfield, who only two years ago wanted the AFL to reduce the fixture from 22 games such was the toll he said it was taking on players.

Dangerfield now believes shortened game times have opened the door for more games. And, rightly points out that the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the 2020 season may indeed last longer than that.

"I definitely think the conversation should be had around playing more than 22 games a season and especially when you have the ability to pivot and be fluid about how the fixture is run," he said on radio on Tuesday.

"I think we've all got to be open to all potential changes, and if that's an increase in games ... it might be (as many as) 27 games in a season with a slightly shorter game length, I think that's something we should consider."

And "Footyfest" has obviously given clubs some important on-the-job training in terms of handling their lists and not overloading players, rotating players in and out of teams more in the manner of soccer's professional leagues, the once unthinkable resting of stars for particular games now an increasingly common practice.

Or indeed, playing them, even in cases where teams have faced gruelling schedules like Collingwood's four games in 13 days.

"What this has shown is there's definitely a potential to have less breaks that might help equalise the fixture," Dangerfield said. "Because the (shortened) games are less taxing, you do have the ability to back up quicker than you usually would."

And "usually" might be the operative word here. Because what was considered normal prior to March certainly isn't now. And the relatively smooth path this season has taken despite all the obstacles has proved to the football world that what once was the case doesn't necessarily need to be in the future.