The NRL/AFL Code Switch Debate

With the debut of the Gold Coast Suns at the Gabba Stadium last night vs Carlton it’s much too early to judge the success or otherwise of the new franchise. However, attending the match as a Carlton supporter I couldn’t help but come away disappointed knowing that the result, and the difference between the two sides, isn’t what the AFL needs to help the game expand. My first thought was that the lack of competitiveness and intensity in the game would have had the NRL hierarchy celebrating. In these days of fierce competition for the fan and corporate dollar, and on the Gold Coast in a season where the NRL Titans team is currently struggling to make early season impact , the lack of immediate Suns success must have the NRL feeling that there will be no immediate pressure on the hearts and minds of the difficult and complex Gold Coast sports fan base.

As a sports medicine professional who has worked at the elite level of the NRL and AFL, my other interest on the night was to watch the debut of NRL code switcher Karmichael Hunt. Having seen Karmichael at close quarters in the NRL there is no doubt he is a super athlete, and even though I do support Carlton nothing would have given me more pleasure than to see this young man achieve success. Indeed, regardless of critical opinion, Karmichael has done what no other athlete (to my knowledge) has done, representing his country in NRL, playing at elite professional level in Rugby Union and subsequently debuting in the premier elite AFL competition. Well done Karmichael!

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However, in the harsh reality of post game analysis, how did Karmichael’s debut rate? While I am hesitant to make a judgement on one game, the reality (and Karmichael- being the professional athlete he is – will be well aware that today he is being judged nation wide) is that many critics were and are going to assess the success of his venture on last nights game. Statistically Karmichael achieved 5 possessions, which is probably even more of a concern given the ball spent 80% of the game in his zone (Suns defense). Karmichael very obviously showed limited spatial awareness and ability to position himself in defense, which rather than being a criticism of the man himself shows the significant difference in the cognitive demands of the multi-directional sport of AFL and the 2 dimensional “territorial/invasive” nature (back-forward, offside etc, attack always coming from front) of NRL. Simply, Karmichael looked lost, was lost, trying to man up an opponent who could and would run each and every way, and receive the ball from a variety of directions. There is less predictability in AFL than NRL, and it showed. The lack of game awareness extended to Karmichael’s attempt to clear the ball from defense, where he again ran into pressure and turned the ball over through a lack of awareness and quick hands. The other obvious overlay from Karmichael’s NRL days was his positioning at stoppages and times when the Suns took possession. Karmichael was flat footed, static and in effect looked like a man ready to take the ball from dummy half before accelerating into play, rather than offering a running option ready to burst through play. It will take time, exposure, practice and some lessons like last night. 

The other aspect of the NRL/AFL debate was the much touted ability of Karmichael to lay a tackle. Indeed, the most common derisive comment I have heard from NRL players is that AFL players can’t tackle, and that Karmichael will be a weapon with his tackling. That may be true, but in AFL you have to catch an opponent doing his best to not only avoid you but deliver the ball to a team mate, and guess what guys, in AFL they just dont run straight at you knowing that taking the tackle and getting a quick play of the ball is acceptable. AFL players are rewarded by taking on the tackler, and disposing of the ball (if caught) in any number of fashions and directions (rather than just backward like NRL). Quite simply, Karmichael’s ability to tackle relies on him reading the play, catching his opponent (prior to ball release) and laying an effective tackle. Last night Karmichael simply didn’t demonstrate these skills (especially given the amount of time the ball spent in his area). Even worse, his ability to lay a “big hit” on one of the smallest players in the AFL, Eddie Betts, resulted in Eddie bouncing off him, leaving Karmichael lying ineffectively on the ground (a cardinal sin in AFL- going to ground in a contest) and Eddie strolling in to kick an uncontested goal. Harsh lesson Karmichael- use your arms; however one must forgive old instincts especially this early in his AFL career.

In summary, I walked away wondering if the Suns had done Karmichael a disservice by playing him first up. Harsh lessons and early errors exposed before a waiting national  media and fan base. Would he have been better to spend some time in the lower grades, building confidence and game awareness, working through early hiccups, which although undoubtedly observed by a waiting media hungry for his success (?or failure) being less harshly scrutinized? Only time will tell. Is Karmichael, as claimed, the teams 3rd best defender, or is he indeed holding back a young talented AFL player just waiting for his chance? No doubt it is too early to make any judgements – other than wishing Karmichael every success and hoping he does reach his potential. I did however leave being reassured of my opinion that NRL and AFL are vastly different games, equally tough in different ways, and it will take a very special talent to succeed at both. I wonder what Israel Folau is thinking today?

 

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