Another off-season, another fundamental change to the way football is played. The AFL administration’s plan to cap interchanges at 80 is the second major overhaul of the interchange system in three years. Considering how great our game is, and how “strong” it is at the moment, it sure does seem to be tinkered with a lot. I don’t recall any other major sport that fundamentally alters the laws of their game every off-season. There is no problem with introducing new rules when there are obvious problems to fix, but when the problem being solved is “I don’t like how some of these games look on my telly”, and more importantly, when the problem being solved is a result of previous law changes for previous so called problems, then we have some issues.
The rule itself is not really the issue here. It’s the reason behind its introduction in the first place. It seems to me that a lot of the problems the administration are trying to solve are of their own creation. The whole reason for this cap is to fatigue players more and in turn reduce the amount that can be present at every single stoppage (another thing we are trying to reduce…). The problem here is the reason there are so many players around stoppages is because of another relatively recent change to the game from the very same administrators. Their desire to see continuous play, because, you know, stoppages are the devil, or something like that, led to a change in the way holding the ball was called. The irony being that punishing people for “holding up the play”, “not getting rid of it” and “not making a genuine attempt”, in an attempt to reduce stoppages, has created a situation in which players swarm in massive numbers around the ball and jump on the person who has it, thus creating more stoppages. The player who is unfortunate enough to win the ball is jumped on by about four opposition players. One of these players will invariably hold the ball underneath the player who won it, and may be rewarded with a free kick because the player who won the ball held play up. The problem here is he didn’t. The tackler did. The tackler held up play, with the knowledge that the person he tackled will be the one getting punished for holding up play. “Not making a genuine attempt” may be the most ridiculous thing, as it is merely the awarding of free kicks on the basis of whether or not you swung your arm around wildly. That’s it. By punishing people for winning the ball and being tackled, the AFL has provided an incentive for massive numbers around the ball. There are free kicks on offer, and all you have to wait for the opposition to get it, then prevent them from getting it out.
Sometimes the presiding umpire will opt against murdering the ball winner with six players sitting on his back and instead bounce the ball again. This is a perfectly reasonable outcome for everyone but those running the game, who must shake their fists in anger and bemoan the interchange situation. This problem is obviously a result of footballers being able to rest too often, and not because of previous changes to the game. I’m surprised they haven’t outlawed the mark yet. After all, that kills off much more time than having to bounce a ball does. They should probably outlaw tackling as well. In reality it is the tackler, not the ball holder, who is slowing down play. That would be stupid, but then again punishing people for being willing to win the ball first and then being sat on a second later is also stupid.
It seems to me that there is a simple implementation toward holding the ball, and it already exists. It’s called prior opportunity. This should be the only thing that matters when we adjudicate holding the ball. If the player had a prior opportunity to dispose of the football before being tackled, and failed to do so, then he is guilty of holding onto the football. Right now, whether or not a player had prior opportunity seems more or less irrelevant. If you receive the ball and are gang-tackled .7 seconds afterward, you might get pinged for holding the ball on the basis that you didn’t flail your arm manically. Holding the ball is luck of the draw. We have identical situations with different results. Not only is holding the ball unclear, it’s alteration to facilitate the punishment of those who cause stoppages, because stoppages are bad, has created a situation in which teams wait until the opposition have it and then seek to cause a stoppage. Not only has it failed to prevent stoppages, it has provided an incentive to force them, a new problem which has resulted in the proposed interchange cap. For those who want a timeline:
Too many stoppages = law designed to punish those who cause stoppages.
Law designed to punish those who cause stoppages = more players around stoppages trying to cause stoppages.
More players around stoppages trying to cause stoppages = interchange cap to fatigue players to prevent them all from getting to as many stoppages.
Right now we have the same stoppage “problem”, and all we have to show for it is a more confusing holding the ball law. So you’ll have to forgive me if I have reservations regarding the AFL’s latest rule proposal. We’ve seen again and again that not only do their new rules have implementation issues, but they also tend to have unforseen impacts on play, many of which are addressed by future additions to the rulebook. Changing rules to fix problems is okay, but lately the AFL’s changes seem to fail at solving the problem and instead create new problems, prompting new rules to fix these new problems. It’s a bad cycle, and I’ve yet to meet a single person who is happy with it. Hopefully this latest rule fixes these so called problems, so we don’t have another this time next year. I’m not holding my breath though.