OPINION

Footy theory 101, it's simple: to win AFL games, kick it straight

St Kilda's Rowan Marshall celebrates a goal during the match against the Tigers last Saturday. Photo: Michael Willson/Getty Images

St Kilda's Rowan Marshall celebrates a goal during the match against the Tigers last Saturday. Photo: Michael Willson/Getty Images

There's been plenty of discussion in AFL circles this week about the state of the game, and with good reason following some football last Sunday so bad to watch it might well have prompted a significant spike in the sale of gardening equipment.

Defence is said to be the main culprit, and consequently there's been no end of assessments about pressure, tackling, zone defences and their indispensability these days to any hope of team success.

How to defeat those methods now is, of course, more problematic, with the whole concept of attack seemingly going the way of the drop kick and the lace-up guernsey.

Funnily enough, though, two of the teams making some sort of impression on 2020, well at least a bigger one so far than a couple of so-called heavyweights in Richmond Tigers and West Coast Eagles, actually are finding a way.

And it doesn't involve rocket science.

For one, it's simply about having a couple of reliable goalkicking targets up forward.

And for the other, much of it is about something even simpler.

Kicking straight.

Had they found another goal in round one against North Melbourne, St Kilda would currently be 3-1.

As they are, at 2-2, the Saints are still inside the top eight having just knocked over reigning premiers Richmond and before that, a finalist of last year in the Western Bulldogs.

Some imports from other clubs like Brad Hill, Zak Jones and Dan Hannebery are no doubt playing a big part.

But so is goalkicking accuracy, never underlined better than in St Kilda's amazingly straight 15.3 against the Tigers last weekend, one of the more razor-sharp scorelines AFL has seen in years.

Poor conversion has been an Achilles heel for the Saints for some time. Last year, their conversion rate of only 49 per cent was the equal lowest in the competition.

In 2018, they were outright last at an even more miserable 47 per cent, and in 2017 second-last at 48 per cent.

But that has been turned on its head so far in 2020.

St Kilda are converting their shots for goal at 61 per cent, equal second for accuracy and well above the competition average of 54 per cent.

It didn't start well with 7.12 against North Melbourne, costly indeed given the narrow margin. But in their two wins against the Bulldogs and Richmond, they have compiled an aggregate of 29.7, hard to fault indeed.

And it's not just the bona fide forwards who have straightened up, though Tim Membrey and Max King have 10 goals 4 behinds between them.

Two of the deadeye dicks have been on-baller Jack Billings (5.0) and ruckman Rowan Marshall (4.1).

St Kilda aren't faring any better for the amount of forward entries created than they did in 2019, ranked 13th for inside 50s then, as they are now.

But, to repeat a well-worn footy phrase, good kicking is good football.

The Saints last season ranked only 14th for percentage of goals kicked from those entries.

At the moment, they rank second.

Port Adelaide, meanwhile, are on top of the ladder, the only undefeated team in the AFL after four games.

The Power aren't necessarily doing that much different to last year, when they finished 10th with an 11-11 record.

Except they are actually making scoring opportunities count.

Last year, Port joined St Kilda as the most inaccurate team in the AFL, going at only 49 per cent.

Their woes, however, were even more starkly underlined by the fact they led the AFL for average forward 50 entries per game, a steady stream of scoring supply which somehow still had them ranked only 15th for both scores and goals per inside 50.

Currently, the Power are again ranked No.1 for inside 50 entries.

But even a modest improvement on the conversion front (now ranked equal 11th for accuracy) has been enough to turn what were defeats into victories.

In their case, it has a lot to do with structure.

Port's leading three goalkickers are spearhead Charlie Dixon, veteran Justin Westhoff and the promising Todd Marshall.

As a unit, along with some dangerous ground-level goalkickers, they present enormous match-up difficulties for opponents.

That simply wasn't possible last year, with Dixon missing half a season recovering from a broken leg, Westhoff being used all over the ground and struggling for form at times, and Marshall also up and down.

Port's three leading goalkickers last year were Connor Rozee, Robbie Gray and the now-departed Sam Gray, none taller than 185 centimetres.

At times, there was literally no-one capable of taking a big contested mark.

Small wonder so many of the Power's attacks at goal went to waste.

The point (perhaps an inappropriate turn of phrase in this case) in both the case of Port Adelaide and St Kilda, is that while breaking down the hold defence has on teams' capacity to score in the modern game has become a real headache for coaching panels, there's some absolute fundamentals which can still go a long way.

Port Adelaide simply now have some big guys who can take a grab, while the Saints are kicking goals instead of points.

It's hardly advanced football theory 101, is it?

But right now, it seems to be working.

This story Footy theory 101: to win, kick it straight first appeared on The Canberra Times.