Enough of Using the Umpires as a Scapegoat

Placing blame on decisions that we, the supporters, the players and coaching staff can’t control is the easiest way to weasel ourselves out of a disappointing loss. It’s a common factor to use the umpiring or officiating as a scapegoat in all sports, especially in our Australian Rules Football, and it was never more prevalent than this weekend.

Two games in particular stick out. The Grand Final rematch between the Western Bulldogs and Sydney Swans in Melbourne, and West Coast Eagles against St. Kilda in Perth.

Although there were controversial decisions in both games, lets firstly address ‘fans’ referencing the free-kick count to support an argument of highway robbery. Free kicks are given away by breaking or not abiding by the rules of the game. Free kick or penalty counts in any sport aren’t meant to be even, they’re designed to measure the discipline or ill discipline of the opposing sides. Only arm-chair sports fans that do not have a deeper understanding of sport as a whole use purely a free kick count to support their argument.

This is the premise many ‘fans’ and some so called ‘experts’ used to justify highway robbery – FALLACY.

Let’s move on to the more educated analysers and fans of the game that can actually bring up individual incidents to support their arguments.

In the Western Bulldogs, Sydney game there were two which the spotlight shined on in particular. A free kick to Tom Boyd fifteen metres out straight in front of goal, and a Callum Mills rushed behind halfway through the last quarter.

The Tom Boyd ‘Holding the Man’ free kick was given away by Aliir Aliir with just under thirteen minutes left in the third quarter. It was a soft free kick, a very soft free kick. Aliir was playing a risky defensive game though and was continuously holding Cloke and Boyd throughout the night. If you want to play a risky defensive game, and have your arms around your opponents, the umpires will keep their eyes on you and you’ll be prone to giving away a soft free kick.

Tom Boyd converted the goal, and yes it was a direct consequence of the incorrect free kick, but it put the Bulldogs twenty points ahead, with more than a quarter and a half left in the game. The free kick had no bearing on the result as the Bulldogs eventually waltzed away with the game late in the last quarter by twenty-three points.

The other controversial free kick in this game was a deliberate rushed behind by young Sydney defender Callum Mills with seven minutes left in the last quarter. At this stage the Bulldogs had just retained the lead after a Sydney comeback early in the fourth quarter.

The ball was kicked deep into the Bulldogs forward fifty by Matthew Suckling, the ball fell behind the pack and Mills deliberately rushed the ball for a behind. Yes, the ball was rushed within the ‘nine metre zone’, but the new interpretation, like the old one, states you have to be under immediate pressure in which you can’t take possession and dispose of the ball.

Mills was under little to no pressure with Liam Picken the nearest rival around 1.5-2 metres away from him. Just like rival defender Marcus Adams had done at the other end throughout the game he could have taken possession and disposed of the ball. It was either a brain-fade or a misunderstanding of the rules by Mills.

The correct decision was made.

The next question is where should have Picken taken the free kick? It was awarded along the point post on a narrow angle, but should it have been given straight in front? This mattered little as Picken converted the goal.

After the match Sydney Coach John Longmire queried the rushed behind free kick and the general umpiring. The next day the AFL stated the correct decision was made in the Mills case.

I personally query why Longmire needs to query the umpiring? Sydney lost the contested possession and tackle count; those are usually key indicators as to why you lost a free kick count so comprehensively. Sydney was also placed fifth in 2014, second in 2015 and 2016, and now first in 2017 for free kicks against which show a clear sign of consistent ill discipline amongst the team.

In the West Coast and St. Kilda game in Perth the controversy was over the inconsistency of the ‘push in the back’ free kick, and the free kick count…

In the last quarter West Coast were on the comeback and dominant forward Josh Kennedy took a mark thirty metres out after what it looked like, he’d pushed out his opponent. Kennedy then converted the goal and put West Coast level.

The question isn’t whether it was a free kick, because if it were given it would have been just as soft as the Tom Boyd free kick mentioned earlier, but were the umpires consistent with it throughout the night.

The home-ground advantage may have an effect on the umpiring. With such a large differential in supporters for Perth games is it really surprising the umpires get pressured in giving a couple extra free kicks to the home side? Imagine having a ratio of 35,000 people to maybe 1,000 screaming at a 50/50 decision – you’re sub-consciously going to lean to the larger number. This is the nature of a home ground advantage, and when Victorian and South Australian teams play interstate teams they also aren’t immune to it.

Regardless the free kick count becomes totally irrelevant when St.Kilda butchered so many scoring opportunities, kicking 13.19 to West Coast’s 18.8. That’s the storyline of the game right there, not the umpires.

Yes, there were some horrible free kicks over the weekend, namely the ‘push in the back’ to Paul Puopolo, but they very rarely, if ever cost a team a win. Yet again, bad kicking is bad footy and umpires are rarely a genuine scapegoat – certainly not in these situations.


  1. Earl O'Neill says

    Agreed. I’ve always thought that if a team has to blame the umpires for a loss then they didn’t deserve to win.

  2. Well said Jake. I said several times on Saturday evening that my Eagles were getting a good trot from the umpires. I thought the Kennedy non-decision was right, but I thought there were several holding the balls/incorrect disposals we were lucky to get away with.
    You, Alan Richardson and Dave Warner (https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/almanac-umpiring-2016-pro-vic-bias-in-free-kicks-is-getting-worse/) were right in attributing it to the unconscious confirmation bias (previously called “home town decisions”) that umpires get from a one-sided crowd.
    Non-Victorian teams that travel more suffer (like my Eagles) suffer more across the season. Saturday night was the swings, but trust me we will get the roundabouts against Richmond at the MCG on the weekend! I have seen us get crucified by umpires every time we go to Kardinia Park and play in front of the baying mob.
    As well as their own bad kicking the Saints suffered from only playing one ruckman in Hickey. I thought he was their best on the night, but when he got tired in the last quarter Vardy and Giles got on top and we dominated the clearances.
    Live by the sword – die by the sword.

  3. Dave Brown says

    Two points I’ve been thinking about Jake:
    1. Positive free kick counts do not appear to be positively associated with winning
    2. Clubs (and fans) should be entitled to fair officiating of the game

    I think a lot of the commentary this week in, appropriately, suggesting people give the blaming of umps for losses a rest fails to address the second point at all. Probably compounded by the fact that very few people have actually read the laws of the game, so often blame the umpires for correctly interpreting the rules. As PB mentions above, the series of pieces by Dave Warner demonstrate a long term pattern of free kick counts favouring the Eagles and Victorian teams playing interstate teams at home. The latter seems to defy any reasonable explanation that non-Victorian teams are being dealt with fairly by an umpiring fraternity which all live in Victoria.

    Second point is umpire coaches’ unwillingness to admit error. Hayden Kennedy could not even bring himself to admit the Puopolo call was wrong on the weekend. Surely we would be better served by an umpiring boss that says ‘we all make mistakes and that was one’ rather than the current system which avoids admitting mistakes or problems at all costs yet is responsible for standards of umpiring. It’s a system designed to fail and is one that is concerning independently of the scapegoating of umpires for individual losses.

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