Australian Rules-AFL braces for impact of rule changes

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - An unprecedented wave of rule changes is set to test the patience of players, coaches and fans alike when the Australian Football League (AFL) season kicks off on Thursday.

AFL bosses approved no fewer than nine changes to the top-flight competition of Australian Rules football during the off-season, hoping to boost open play and scoring in a sport where defence has stifled creativity in recent years.

While hugely popular in Australia's southern states, the full-contact sport of AFL -- a hybrid of rugby and Gaelic football played on oval-shaped pitches the size of cricket grounds -- can seem anarchic to outsiders and even its devoted fans are regularly left befuddled by rule interpretations.

So the new changes will be under huge scrutiny when they come into effect in Thursday's season-opening match between 2017 champions Richmond Tigers and the lowly Carlton Blues.

The most far-reaching change involves a new zoning rule at re-starts which confines forwards and defenders closer to goal while effectively banning coaches from deploying spare players in defence.

The rule is intended to open up the midfield and create more of the one-on-one contests between forwards and defenders that fans prize.

Other changes will allow defenders more space to kick the ball out of goal when restarting after minor scores, while forwards will be allowed more freedom to use their hands when fending off opponents during aerial contests for the ball.

"We all want more of what makes our game great -- free-flowing passages of play, one-on-one contests, and players having space to play on instinct," AFL football operations boss Steve Hocking said when the changes were announced last year.

"These changes are about giving players the best chance to play the best game, and giving the fans more of what they love."

The tweaks have been credited for boosting scoring by 10 percent during the annual pre-season competition earlier this month, but have also been criticised as overkill by media pundits.

"There is that delusion of possible perfection; the self-defeating notion that warts and quirks can be eradicated by statute without diminishing the charm that made the game great," columnist Richard Hinds wrote on state media website this week.

While the midfield battle has always been hugely important, the rules are expected to put an even greater premium on teams winning first use of the ball at restarts.

Unlike rugby or soccer, where possession and territory can often have a negligible impact on the result, teams that win most of the ball in AFL and trap it in their forward line invariably kick winning scores.

The advantage is underlined by Melbourne-based Richmond, who boast arguably the competition's strongest midfield, being 4-1 favourites to win a second championship in three years.

The Perth-based West Coast Eagles, who claimed a last-gasp win over Melbourne's Collingwood Magpies in the championship-deciding Grand Final last year, are also heavily backed (13-2) to defend their title.

It would be their fifth trophy since joining the mainly Victoria state-based competition in 1987.

The Magpies, who blew a four-goal lead to lose the 2018 Grand Final in September, are determined to make amends and clinch a 16th title, which would draw them level with the record held by cross-town rivals Essendon Bombers and Carlton.

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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