IN THE 150 years since the foundations of Australian football were laid, so much about the sport has changed. The rules have been tweaked, the players have become bigger and fitter, and the scope has shifted from suburban to national. Now one of the game's remaining constants is under review: the ball.
The AFL has commissioned sports scientists at Victoria University to investigate the performance of the traditional leather ball and to recommend ways of making it better.
''As part of the AFL's charter it has a responsibility to gather in-depth knowledge about all aspects of the game,'' says an AFL spokesman. ''In this instance we're examining a fundamental element of the game that hasn't been subjected to scientific analysis previously.''
The research team, headed by Professor Hans Westerbeek, has already conducted nearly 50 interviews with elite players from eight AFL clubs as well as past players, coaches, umpires, administrators, the three main football manufacturers, a sport technology and innovation company, and assorted players from Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.
Professor Westerbeek is director of the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living, where up to 80 AFL players will take part in tests in a biomechanics laboratory later this year. He says one striking outcome of the wide-ranging interviews was that almost everyone commented on the inconsistent size and shape of the AFL match balls. Even the six footballs selected for each AFL match varied considerably.
''I was very surprised by these comments,'' he says. ''I'm not a footy player myself and my background is in soccer where the balls are more standardised. But part of the explanation for the wide variation in Australian footballs is that they are made from leather and when we spoke to Sherrin, the manufacturer, they pointed out that leather is a natural product and obviously can't be standardised because it depends on the quality of the raw material and how the different panels are assembled.''
Another surprising finding from interviews was the agreement that balls that have been ''kicked in'' perform better than those that are brand new.
And while the manufacturers say there is no difference between the yellow balls used in night games and the standard red ones (other than colour), most of the elite players and the umpires preferred the yellow version. ''This is an intriguing finding because, objectively, there should be no difference in performance yet subjectively there seems overwhelming agreement there is,'' says Professor Westerbeek.
''The manufacturer explained that bouncing and kicking the ball allows any stress in the stitching or the material to be taken out before the game starts. But the real story is that balls which are out of shape after kicking in can be discarded while the best balls maintain their shape - and that is why it is important.''
He says the second phase of the research will begin in early November and run through to the end of January. A range of unmarked balls produced by different manufacturers will be tested by 20 to 30 elite players. Subjective tests will also be conducted with players in Melbourne and interstate.
''We call it blind testing and we will put the players through different objective testing regimes using high-speed cameras to record every action,'' says Professor Westerbeek. ''We will run seven or eight different skill-based tests, five or six of which are widely used around the world in different settings and types of equipment.
''These involve kicking long and short distances, marking, handballing, bouncing, and measuring the coefficient of resistance by looking at impact of the ball while using high-speed cameras to record the types of impact.''
Researchers will then analyse the data to see if significant differences exist between those who play in different positions on the ground. The subjective tests will involve balls of different sizes, shapes and colours, with the players asked to rate them in terms of ''handability'', feel and whether they are too pointy or round.
''We will then translate the responses into a rating scale and the results should give us a good overview and cross-examination of the objectively measured skill performance and the subjective responses to the characteristic of the ball.''
The testing procedures are labour intensive, with people required to man cameras, set up the different systems, put markers on players and gather the balls after they have been kicked.
''We can probably put three or four players a day through the tests … The AFL wants to get a feel for the effect of position in terms of how players handle and deal with the ball's performance characteristics.''
The Sherrin football, used in all AFL games, was developed by Collingwood saddler Tom Sherrin in the late 1870s. The company has been the dominant maker since.
With the finals now under way, the AFL spokesman estimates about 1200 Sherrin match balls have been used so far this season.
''We want to ensure consistency from one football to another via increased knowledge and to gain this we need to look at all aspects of the football, from manufacturing to how it performs in different environments,'' he says. ''We are looking to gain a greater understanding of what makes a good football in the eyes of the players, umpires, clubs and fans.''
Professor Westerbeek says a lack of competition has meant manufacturers have faced little pressure to spend time and resources on improving their footballs. He says, however, that Sherrin told the researchers it continued to put significant resources into improving the quality of its products and extending its range of footballs.
''They have also tightened the manufacturing standards themselves without the AFL enforcing it. Now the AFL has stepped in, this could spur innovation and lead to further improvements to the ball for the betterment of the game.''
As for making the Australian footballs out of synthetic material so the size and shape would always stay the same, Professor Westerbeek says administrators might see this as in the interests of the game but it would require intensive and wide consultation, plus a well-planned transition.
''You would also need a big PR campaign to explain why this was being done because people feel you touch them personally when the rules or the equipment is changed - especially the 130-year-old Sherrin.
''In any case, all the stakeholders agree that a real Aussie football can only be made of leather.''
The AFL has no plans to introduce synthetic footballs at the elite level just yet, but the spokesman says the AFL believes it is important ''to assess the impact of manufacturing synthetic footballs given the potential to lower costs for junior and grassroots participants''.
According to Professor Westerbeek, the research results - expected to be available early next year - will be used to advise the AFL on tightening manufacturing specifications, and to consider possible improvements and innovations.