It’s as close to a 50-50 situation as there is in Australian football.
The umpire holds the ball and the players jostle for position. There’s a bump here, a subtle grab of the jumper there. Everyone is angling to get into the right place.
It can look chaotic, but there’s precisely practised movement and positioning at play. A hold or push that may appear defensive at first glance might actually be an attacking action to create space.
Stoppages can involve as few as eight participants or many more. Congestion at the stoppage is not new.
To some, stoppages are the most crucial aspect of the game. To others, they are rapidly losing importance compared to the intercept game.
Different teams value clearances in different ways. A lot can depend on who is winning it. Then there’s the where and when.
A few teams like to win them out of the centre but will place less emphasis on them around the ground.
And some win a lot of clearances without them having much impact on the scoreboard.
When Collingwood was on the march to the 2018 Grand Final, it ranked first in the AFL for stoppage clearance differential. In 2020, it is dead last.
The Magpies tend to hurt their opponents when they win stoppage clearances. But this year they’re just not winning enough of them.
With its season in the balance, does the art of the stoppage hold the key to Collingwood’s fortunes?
The role of the sweeper
A big part of the Magpies’ 2018 stoppage success was positioning and the use of the sweeper.
Most teams position a sweeper at the back of stoppages when not within either arc. The role serves two main tasks.
First, the sweeper acts as a fail-safe target for a retreating handball, entrusted to facilitate a defensive-side exit from the stoppage. Second, it has the vantage point to rapidly assess the contest and react with either an attacking or defensive action.
Winning the ball in tight at the back of the contest can make it difficult to find clear space. Rather than immediately attacking after winning possession, teams can often get stuck in a handball loop as they look to work the ball out.
There’s also nuanced positioning in the outer layer of the stoppage. Teams need to decide whether to man to up the opposing sweeper to make them accountable or gamble on having a spare elsewhere.
As highlighted by The Shinboner website, Collingwood’s Adam Treloar recently revealed his side has shifted its focus to coming out of the front of the stoppage this season.
The appeal of moving quickly forward from stoppages is clear: it gives opposing defences less time to react.
It’s the key reason why the clearances that Collingwood does win are so dangerous.
Ruckman Brodie Grundy is adept at varying his hit-out zones, but no matter where the ball lands the Magpies try to attack with purpose. If this were easy, every team would do it. It’s not.
Not all teams need to be so aggressive to enjoy stoppage success though.
In this play, Giants midfielder Jacob Hopper knows where ruckman Sam Jacobs wants to hit the ball, but is afraid his opponent David Swallow will beat him to it.
The strictest interpretation of the Laws of the Game may judge his hold on Swallow to be a free kick, but his hold-and-go allows Hopper to protect the ball drop, gain possession and use it.
It’s attack through defence.
Blocking or screening for a teammate has also become a crucial part of stoppage play.
Look here at how Dom Sheed impedes Gryan Miers, clearing a path for Liam Ryan’s run at the ball.
Defenders need to make a quick decision: do they switch opponents and try to make up ground or do they try to fight through the block and lose time on the pursuit?
Another recent example was seen in this much discussed incident involving Carlton’s Patrick Cripps.
While most of the debate centred on Shaun Higgins attempting to block Cripps, the key action happens before that, when Matthew Kennedy dives towards Cripps’s opponent Jed Anderson to force the mismatch.
Cripps’s running start and physical strength allow him to shark the Todd Goldstein tap, but he is grabbed by Higgins and the play is neutralised.
Less than a minute later the Blues repeat the manoeuvre, with Kennedy attempting to screen for Eddie Betts at another forward 50 stoppage. It’s easy to miss it at the bottom of the screen near the 50m arc, as most eyes drift to the ruckmen.
The easiest and safest place for a ruckman to tap the ball is close to his body. But varying the target location is important because going forward all the time can make a team too predictable. A planned hit-out to a designated side can be as effective as precisely choreographed movement.
The danger of getting burnt
As Collingwood is discovering this season, an aggressive stoppage strategy can be risky.
Trying to pass the ball forward through traffic can lead to easy intercepts, which at times happened against Fremantle last weekend.
Opposition teams have been feasting on the Magpies’ stoppage missteps.
Sometimes Collingwood has moved a player out of the stoppage to use behind the ball.
This has become particularly important since the injury to All-Australian defender Jeremy Howe. Up until Howe was injured, the Magpies had boasted the league’s most effective backline. It was keeping them in games while their forward line found its groove.
After two straight losses in the West, the Magpies are now perched outside of the top eight with less than half the season remaining.
To turn around their form they’ll need to find the right balance between using clearances as a weapon and winning enough of them overall.