Hard nuts, clangers and the fat side

The obscure language of Australian rules footy often confuses rather than clarifies.

Every sport has its own special language and terminology to describe play and rules. This lingo helps those who participate make sense of the game, to make play possible.

Some of these are basic and widely known – baseball’s home run, cricket’s leg before wicket, and rugby’s scrum come easily to mind. Others are more complex or arcane, such as the terms used in royal (aka real) tennis, such as penthouse and tambour, or polo, with its chukkas, hooks and bumps.

Tennis has its deuces and half-volleys, and golf its albatrosses, plus-fours and mashie-niblicks. Basketball features double-dribbles, alley-oops and pick-and-rolls.

Australian rules football (not to be confused with the AFL, which is merely the name of the elite national competition) has its own rich cache of terms. Consider torpedo punts, kicking through the big sticks, shepherds (nothing to do with flocks), handballs and ruck-rovers. These are all time-honoured terms those familiar with the game would doubtless have heard many times.

Yet the specialist language associated with our national game seem to be expanding, and at a rapid rate over the past couple of years.

Kicking to the fat side (that is, where fewer players are gathered), underground handballs, scoreboard pressure (aka scoring), frontal pressure, pressure acts, scoreboard relief, elite disposal skills by hand or foot (i.e., being skilled at kicking and handballing), slingshot football, strategic leading patterns, clangers (kicks that are intercepted or sent out of bounds), unrewarded running, conversion ratios, defensive unit or back six …

These are terms that would leave old-time aficionados of the more-then-100-year-old game nonplussed, if not angry.

It should be noted that the game’s official glossary of terms has probably not altered all that much in the past 20 years. Rather, it’s ad hoc terms perhaps invented by the AFL’s considerable coaching fraternity that could be to blame.

In times of yore (say the 50s, 60s and 70s) the elite competition for the sport was the semi-professional VFL. In those days nearly all the players and coaches worked day jobs; sport was a part-time commitment.

With the advent of the national competition in 1990 considerably more money arrived from television deals. Coaching staffs rapidly expanded, as did the remit. In the past coaches had been expected to do little more than put out the witches’ hats at training and provide mangled halftime speeches.

Despite COVID-related cost-cutting trimming overall personnel counts, every AFL club has a huge non-playing contingent of administration and medical staff, trainers, and assistant and specialist coaches.

A barely understandable patois allows these professionals to communicate with one another, and sometimes, the outside world, too.

Now coaches bang on about metres gained, playing through “the corridor” (the middle of the ground), players building tanks (aka running capacity), and doing the “one per centers”. The last is a statistic that relates to a variety of actions that benefit a team, but are infrequent or defensive, including knock-ons, spoils, smothers, and shepherds.

Having attended a corporate or academic short course in the offseason, you might also hear a coach pepper his postgame media conference with references to the “journey” (which might refer variously to a game, season, career or perhaps simply a kick), and “learnings” taken on board (i.e., lessons, or things the team has learned).

The sport’s professional commentariat is complicit in the creation, use and expansion of this alternative specialist language, perhaps to help justify its existence.

Is there a sports league more commentated upon, analysed and subject to post-mortem than the AFL? It’s hard to think of one. Some games have a panel of four or more commentators calling the play, with a few “boundary riders” also shoving microphones into players’ faces.

In contrast, long-time soccer commentator Martin Tyler manages to call games by himself, often in a studio on the other side of the world from which a game is played. He describes the action, but also provides the expert or “colour” commentary too. If there are any tidbits to share about coaches’ comments from during the week, or the inside scuttlebutt about the clubs and players, Tyler has that in spades and on demand. Tyler is also unafraid to let the action on screen speak for itself, understanding that sometimes on TV, silence is golden.

Some terms seem to be more popular with commentators than elsewhere in the footy realm. The implausible “gut running” is one of these. Surprisingly, this does not mean “running down the guts”, because (see earlier reference), the middle of the ground is referred to as the sacred corridor. No, “gut running” is something else entirely, defined by the Urban Dictionary as a “form of high-speed, long-term bipedal perambulation apparently performed only by AFL players. What other kinds of ‘running’ there are is not entirely clear.”

Commentators are also fond of “hard nuts” of which there seem to be fewer around these days. A hard nut is player of limited skill, talent and polish, but who maintains his place in a team based on his aggressive, committed and/or sometimes dirty play. Hard nuts (erstwhile St Kilda player Stephen Baker is a classic example) are defensive specialists, and often assigned negating roles, usually on players with “silky skills”.

Silkily skilled players lacking toughness and more concerned with their looks and taking speccies than anything else might derisively be referred to as a “prancing pony” – although I’m willing to admit this term might not have much currency outside the Dillon family. Geoff Raines and Warwick Capper were textbook examples.

Sublimely skilled players possessing adequate toughness but equal parts fairness and “class” are considered “ornaments to the game”. Melbourne great Robbie Flower, Kangaroo legend Keith Grieg and St Kilda icon Rob Harvey are ornaments worth celebrating.

And of course, ornaments to the game minimise the clangers and execute the one per centers.