Last touch will give AFLW a modern touch

Even after a successful first season AFLW needed to adapt to ensure it became even more watchable.

So the last touch rule has been introduced to the competition this season, meaning a free kick will be paid against a team where a kick or handball goes out of bounds without being touched by an opposition player.

Statistics contained in Champion Data’s AFLW Prospectus show why the move was made with the women’s game having 18 more stoppages and 25 more tackles over 100 minutes of football than the men’s game in 2018, while the women scored 25 points less than the men in that 100-minute timeframe.

Only Melbourne and Adelaide kicked 10 goals in a game last season.

Carlton star Lauren Arnell accepts the rationale behind the change and is hopeful it will have the desired effect.

“If any game is faster and more high scoring – it doesn’t matter whether it is AFL or any sport – people enjoy watching it,” Arnell said.

Arnell, a veteran of the women’s game, understands how more goals helps market the game and its stars with her teammate Darcy Vescio already one of the competition’s more recognisable players although she only needed to kick 14 goals to be the AFLW’s leading goalkicker.

AFLW players expect the game to open up as a result of the rule change with the advantage of pace and fitness becoming even more pronounced than in AFLW’s first season when transitioning the ball from end to end became difficult at times and play was often congested.

Former Hawthorn and Carlton player Daniel Harford, who joined the coaching panel of Collingwood’s AFLW team this season, told The Sunday Age the Magpies’ women adapted to the new rule on the training track as soon it was introduced.

However he suspects the rule won’t have as big an impact on increasing scoring as the improved skills and athleticism of the women players as the game evolves.

“We think perhaps there is not going to be as big an influence as some have suggested with last touch,” Harford said.

“The next five years will be interesting because the talent level will really rise and that will put some pressure on some players who have found their way into the system in the first couple of years.”

The statistics show that with shorter game time and the gap between talent levels within teams wider than in the men’s competition, the measures followers of the men’s game became used to don’t necessarily apply in the women’s game.

For example, Champion Data consider an AFLW player collecting 17 disposals equivalent to a AFL player snagging 30 in a game.

The Western Bulldogs’ Emma Kearney was the only female player to reach the 30 mark in 2017, an indication it will remain out of reach for all but the very best but as the talent pool grows the numbers of players with high-end talent should grow too.

Harford, who coached at local level before joining the Magpies, said he has been able to draw on the statistical analysis of AFLW from last season but no one is getting too technical just yet.

“It just shapes a few things. You don’t want to go too far specifically analysing the data and trying to impact the play on the back of that,” Harford said.

“There are so many layers of professionalism and play and structure and strategy that they need to understand first as a group before you can really drill into those stats and use them as markers.”

That will be music to the ears of those who think the game is too over analysed at the moment anyway but it won’t stop the direction of AFLW and the impact of new rules such as the last touch being closely monitored.

The trick for the AFL and those involved in the women’s game is to ensure it retains the freshness important to its appeal while ensuring the athletes involved have the opportunity to become as good at the sport as possible.

In order to do that, the game must continually change.