Tonight marks the beginning of what will be one of the most captivating periods of football the AFL has ever seen. But whilst fans salivate at the thought of 33 games over the next 20 days, high performance and medical staff must be nervously debating the future of their players for the remainder of the season.
But how exactly will they manage players, especially the stars who are so capable of turning in match-winning performances? Here are four strategic methods we may see over the next 20 days.
1. Rest players in small groups
If a club chooses to rest 10-12 players over this four-round stretch, do they stagger them in groups of 3-4 for each game? This would allow clubs to remain competitive in each game as they continue to field at least somewhere near their best 22. However in such a balanced season, the resting of even a couple of players may be the difference between a win and a loss in a game you’d otherwise be favoured to win.
2. Rest players in one game
Do we see a situation where a team manages a large chunk of their best 22 in one game? We’ve seen it before, usually in the concluding round of a season where a club has guaranteed their finals position. Already a big talking point due to the compromised season, this would bring the integrity of the competition into further question. A club basically ‘throwing’ a game mid-season isn’t a great look, but it may be viable for their future endeavours.
3. Manage game time
Teams may continue to select their best 22’s whilst also managing their key players within games. We’ve seen this already with Collingwood on Sunday against West Coast as Brodie Grundy, their ruckman and most valuable player, began the last quarter at full-forward. Some may claim it was experimental, but in reality it was a rest for the club’s most important player ahead of the condensed fixture.
As with Grundy last weekend, we’ll likely see this managed game time later in games where the result is beyond doubt. Should there be an issue with a club ‘giving up’ or foregoing percentage in order to focus upon future matches?
4. Play as normal
Despite the incredible fixture, it’s likely we’ll see the game played as normal with club’s looking to bank wins in such a tight finals race. With each team (excluding Melbourne and Essendon) having a bye at some point for the remainder of the season, it’s hard to fathom a huge rate of player resting without some form of genuine injury concern. The whole point of shortened quarters has been to acclimatise and better prepare players for a period like this.
With the AFL likely to release another set of condensed fixtures following round 12, player management is a much more complicated process than just these next four rounds in isolation. Whilst we prepare to indulge in the footy feast that is to come, let’s not underestimate the importance of this next phase. Premiership chances could be made or broken on how each club negotiates these unchartered waters.
As fans, which method would you prefer your club to take?