Hey AFL, if you really want to change the rules, here’s one!


While the AFL fiddlefarts about with the potential for 18 metre goal squares and starting formations in an attempt to get an extra goal or so per quarter out of the big league, this weekend’s non-AFL football has demonstrated that they have neglected another rule for far too long.


Almost simultaneously on 16 September, state league teams in Queensland and South Australia ran out onto the ground for the last quarter of important finals (the Grand Final in the case of the NEAFL) with 19 players, and played short periods of the game with that accidental advantage. What happened next was quite different, however.


At Fankhauser Reserve on the Gold Coast, Sydney’s captain requested a headcount just seconds into the final quarter of the NEAFL Grand Final. The umpires determined that Southport (with a match winning lead) had an extra player on the field and reportedly asked Sydney’s captain if they would like law 5.5.3 applied. In a show of incredible sportsmanship, Sydney declined the offer.


Meanwhile at Adelaide Oval, the events are a bit less clear. North Adelaide, trailing Woodville West Torrens by 20 points at three quarter time of the SANFL preliminary final, played the first five minutes of the fourth quarter with 19 on the ground. During that time they scored eight points. Later in the quarter the Roosters kicked seven goals in 13 minutes to grab a five point victory.


Some reports suggest that Woodville West Torrens identified North Adelaide’s advantage and notified the interchange steward/fourth umpire but nothing was immediately done. Crucially, it would appear the Eagles were unable to get a message to their captain to ask for a head count before North Adelaide had withdrawn their additional player.


After much post-game controversy, including Eagles players voicing their disappointment/anger on social media, the SANFL issued a press release acknowledging that North Adelaide had 19 players on the field and that they would determine a course of action as soon as possible. Subsequently they have referred the matter to the SA Football Commission.



At the moment we are unsure as to who will be playing Norwood in the SANFL Grand Final.


According to the rules what should have happened?


Here’s where the great weakness lies with the law as it is currently constituted. At the moment, it is up to the other team’s captain to request a head count. It is odd as a law in the game (a throwback, one might say) in that it requires one of the teams rather than the umpire to initiate its enforcement.


In the case of the NEAFL Grand Final, it is not clear on what basis the umpires asked Sydney whether they would like law 5.5.3 enforced. The umpires had established that the rule had been broken and should have enforced the penalty, namely the resetting of Southport’s score to zero.


It is entirely unfair for the umpires to place the burden of rule enforcement onto Sydney in this instance because there is no way they could agree to it without being made out as the villains of this piece.


In their justification of not enforcing the rules properly, the NEAFL has determined that Southport merely committed an interchange violation and have fined the newly minted premiers accordingly.


In the SANFL, at this stage one can only speculate as to why Woodville West Torrens did not call for a head count but it has left the SANFL in perhaps a more invidious position. Had they done so and the rule enforced as written, a very unpopular Woodville West Torrens would now be preparing for a Grand Final.


Instead, the SANFL needs to quickly make a decision with very little framework on which to base it.



So what happens next?


The NEAFL is decided. The league, despite the laws of the game, determined that the infringement had no material effect on the outcome of the game and let the result stand. When considered in the context of a game ruled as much by loose understandings (AFL: The state of the game and the truth of the matter) as laws, this makes perfect sense. A fair outcome was achieved, even if it was done by putting Sydney in an unfair position.


As for the SANFL, who knows? The decision is now with the SANFL Commission. But given the points scored by the offending team during this period, a reasonable argument cannot be made that the infringement had no material effect on the game’s outcome. Equally, it is not as simple to suggest that the infringement had eight points worth of effect.


Woodville West Torrens’s failure to call for a head count removed the possibility of enforcing the rule we have. And now, with the benefit of hindsight, were the SANFL to strip North Adelaide of the win, they would effectively be levying a harsher penalty than the outcome of a head count. In which case, why would a team ever call a head count?


It’s a mess because the law as it stands does not make sense – it is incomplete and unfair on all parties.


What needs to happen?


The law needs changing, pure and simple. It should not be up to the opposing captain to call for a head count (while they should retain the opportunity to do so). In a modern footy world, particularly at elite levels, with interchange stewards and reserve umpires, the idea that it is up to a team to monitor and enforce their opponent’s numbers is farcical.


The penalty also requires review. Under the current rule, the effect of head counts in both games would have been to strip Southport of 76 points and North Adelaide of 48 points. While Southport could potentially have won, as Sydney was only on 16 at the time, North Adelaide would have found themselves trailing 68-0 with no hope of winning.


It is very hard to argue that, in these circumstances, the penalty would be in any way commensurate with the infringement. Or that a penalty that varies wildly based upon the stage of the game at which it is imposed, and the score of the game at the time of infringement, is fair in its design.


As it turns out, this problem may actually be the best argument for the 6,6,6 starting set-up yet conceived. It will certainly do much more to help officials determine that the correct number of players are on the ground than it will to ease congestion.


So before you get more line markers out, AFL, how about fix the problems that turned a weekend of finals into a farce? Law 5.5 is a throwback to the past and, as was amply demonstrated on the weekend, is no longer fair in 2018.




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About Dave Brown

Upholding the honour of the colony. "Play up Norwoods!"


  1. Dave, a well-developed argument that seeks to find a balance between the laws of the game and its spirit. Amazing that the same infraction can throw up two such dissimilar scenarios. No doubt we’ll hear a lot more at official levels about both situations as the week progresses. What about our Almanackers – what will they make of it?

  2. Thanks for exploring this Dave. On a personal level as I’ve taken our boys to the last three grand finals and was looking forward to Sunday’s match I’m now worried about how it might unfold if there’s a subtext of hostility given what’s happened. If North play and are booed constantly, well, I’d rather not be there with my boys. Of course it’d be a teachable moment but one I could happily avoid. Just a mess.

  3. The Ghost of Freddy Bills. Its only taken 43 years but my West Torrens have finally copped their penalty for stalwart (313 games) over enthusiasm as 19th man in what was to have been his last game in 1975. (He made a brief comeback in 1977). There were no interchanges until 1978 – just two substitutes. Asking the field umpire to organise a head count is like herding alley cats. Go the 14 minute point in the video and watch the next 4 minutes. Keystone Cops – literally. We only won 2 matches in 1975, and it would have broken my 20yo heart if we had lost all of our last quarter score.

  4. Thanks for the read and comments, folks. Following the SANFL’s decision I am completely at a loss to know whether it’s appropriate or not. The Eagles got the raw end of a stupid rule and North Adelaide were very lucky that the rule as currently stated boils down to “it’s only wrong if you get caught”. Hopefully this whole schemozzle provides the impetus the rules committee needs to reform this rule and tie it together in a sensible way with the interchange rules.

    Mickey, I’m really not sure what to expect on Sunday. Particularly if the Roosters come out on top. It will certainly offer a unique Grand Final experience.

    A fair trade to make, perhaps, PB. 43 years of interest on that incident has certainly built some appreciation.

  5. Peter Crossing says

    Thanks for the well balanced article, Dave. And as you say, “the best argument for the 6,6,6 starting set-up yet conceived”. The archaic rule is clearly at odds with the frenetic comings and goings that occur at the interchange point. And with TV cameras pointing in all directions. Unfortunately a great game of football was marred by the controversy around a spur of the moment stuff-up. Negligent? In my opinion yes, but not necessarily “grossly negligent” as the learned arbiter has decided.

  6. A thoughtful read, Browny.

    With all due respect to you and my other South Australian friends,
    there is a touch of “amateur hour” about this whole farce.

  7. Thanks Peter. I don’t know how to tell the difference between negligent and grossly negligent. I have a lot of sympathy for the Eagles who did nothing wrong in all this… other than surrender an eight goal lead in a quarter of footy, of course.

    The postcode for the Competition Committee is 3008, Smokie. This in itself is a problem – that they folded the broad remit of the laws of the game committee into the narrower one of the Competition Committee, whose focus is almost exclusively on the league, further demonstrates that the AFL Commission has no idea how to be a steward for the code. The prelim situation was such a mess that there was never going to be a satisfactory outcome. That the SANFL has made a decision that the aggrieved club has decided not to challenge, they would be pretty happy with. And the lengthy delay last night provided some of the best twitter content for days. As you can see, I’m fully into positive spin now – I’ve got a Grand Final week to enjoy!

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