Time to hit the road runner

April 04, 2018

Former Collingwood captain and GWS runner Nick Maxwell was spotted lining up as part of his side's defensive setup last year. Picture: AAP

Following various sports from a young age, something that has always bothered me is the idea ‘‘tradition’’ is a legitimate reason not to change something.

It’s a go-to — and somewhat desperate — defence of whatever outdated notion that person has decided to go in to bat for.

Whether this is rules, competition format, time and location of games or any number of other things, if you play the ‘‘we can’t change tradition’’ card, this is seen as some sort of argument stopper.

I’m here to tell you that shouldn’t be the case.

What I can’t work out is why runners in Australian football are such an accepted part of the game.

They’ve been in the game for decades, but why?

In which other sport is a non-playing official allowed to roam the field at will, allegedly to pass on messages from coach to player?

Coaches have training sessions, tactical meetings and more to get a game-plan running — they have to adapt in-game, but the complexities of Australian football are no bigger than any other sports, which don’t allow a messenger.

Soccer, for example, doesn’t allow such a thing. It is easier to pass messages from the touchline with the manager close to the players on that wing, but spreading that message across the ground isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

Current AFL rules mean clubs can have just one runner — down from two before 2014 — and aside from not being permitted inside the 50m arc where a player is kicking out from, have free rein.

If they get too close to the ball and interrupt play the umpire can pay a free kick, but the game is already tough enough to officiate without having to police runners.

This issue was brought to light last year when Greater Western Sydney runner Nick Maxwell was identified to potentially be forming part of his side’s defensive zone from kick-ins, regularly posting himself at the edge of the centre square.

Maxwell, while maybe performing his duty as a messenger, was essentially a 19th player and far too much a part of the action.

If, as Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley confirmed, clubs are coaching the placement of runners at certain points of matches, something needs to be done.

But this speaks to a larger point — coaches largely don’t trust their players to be smart footballers and are so fearful of conceding any control of a game.

In some respects, they seem to think very little of the troops employed to carry out their plans.

Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge’s plea to keep full access to runners screamed of this inability to give up his God-given right to tell players what to do at all times.

He also said clubs needed them to ‘‘school’’ young players.

Beveridge’s view of players as little more than teenage school students who don’t know what they should be doing is problematic, and more than likely a prevailing view throughout the competition.

Coaches aren’t as important as they think they are — players win games, not coaches.

And if the players aren’t so heavily coached throughout games, is that such a bad thing?

They’ll have the weeks, months and years of coaching in their minds to lean back on, and will also be more likely to just let it fly and play on instinct.

With 90 interchanges a game, it surely wouldn’t be hard to have a player running onto the ground to tell a team-mate or two a couple of things to change up.

Let common sense prevail and get rid of the runner.

Coaches will adapt and the game will be a better spectacle for everyone.

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