If ya don’t mind, umpire!

OK there’s probably a bit of “Aggrieved Tiger Supporter” that’s prompted this outburst. But seriously, when, in the history of the game, has a forward, 30 metres from goal, with less than a minute to play and his team five points down, been pinged for deliberate out of bounds (or, rather, “insufficient effort” to keep the pill in play)? And had Jayden Short’s desperate lunging fumble been replicated by a Bulldogs defender in the same spot at the same time of the match, would the umpire have adjudicated similarly, knowing that the resultant free kick would have been a potential match-winning shot for goal?

In the current environment, who the hell would know?

I’m not sure how the AFL’s lawmakers approach the task of deciding changes in rule interpretations, but being serious for a moment, I can detect two overriding priorities. Priority 1 – player safety – is clear and indisputable.  Priority 2 is more messy.  It seems to be a muddle-headed intention to keep the game moving at all costs even if this involves penalising defensive measures that for decades have been regarded as reasonable and legitimate tactics.

What’s notably absent in all this rule-changing frenzy is a third priority – ensuring that rule interpretations are consistent with the spirit of the game.  Defining “spirit of the game” is, I admit, a difficult task, but for the purposes of this piece, let’s just say that it includes:

  • giving players recognition and protection for winning the hard ball
  • dealing with obviously illegal acts harshly, whilst accepting the real risk of injury from legal actions (tackles, bumps, shepherds etc) and the very fine line between legal and illegal acts given the intensity and pace of the game.
  • Encouraging an attractive, attacking manner of play, but recognising that defensive skills and tactics have an important role in the game too (we don’t think that highly of sides that kick 25 goals a game but leak 20).
  • perhaps most importantly – acknowledging that the game is unpredictable and players should be encouraged to try unpredictable things (within the rules).

Without this important third priority, what we are seeing are arbitrary and poorly thought-out rule interpretations that are contradictory and infuriating.  Some examples:

  • Crazy inconsistency in applying holding the ball. At times players first at the ball are taken to the ground, jumped on, with contact often above the shoulder, being deemed to have dragged the ball in and penalised for holding the ball. At others, the umpire virtually never pays holding the ball. In either case the result is ugly congested scrimmages, contradicting both priorities of safety and attractive play, undue penalising of the “hard ball” winner and allowing dangerous tackling, thereby contradicting the player safety priority.
  • Penalising sling tackles. I can’t argue with the logic that this rule will reduce the risk of head injuries but it often seems arbitrary and harsh compared with the way the above “regular” tackling is treated and looks like a feeble attempt to keep up with the ever-growing body strength and fearsome tackling prowess of modern-day players, who can often body-slam a 100kg opponent. In the pace and intensity of the modern game, a perfectly executed roll tackle can quickly and unintentionally become a dangerous sling.
  • Players first at the ball being penalised for taking out the legs of an opponent. This may reduce risk of leg injuries but more often unduly penalises the “hard ball” winner as it fails to acknowledge the instinctive split-second nature of diving to win the ground ball, which we’ve traditionally admired.
  • Recalling lopsided bounces. A nonsense rule that ostensibly seems to be sacrificing unpredictability in the search for fairness, but is tacitly building pressure for the seemingly inevitable abolition of the bounce altogether.
  • Nominating ruckmen at stoppages and banning third man up. This is a mystery to me. It could bring about wholesale changes to ruck tactics which would be ironic given that, like the straight bounce rule, it has been brought in solely to ensure fairness at the expense of unpredictability.
  • Penalising rushed behinds when under no pressure. The rule is obviously designed to eliminate the defensive tactic of conceding a point to gain time and possession. As per the previous example, although this tactic at times looks unattractive and cowardly, it is occasionally highly justifiable but unlikely to ever likely to become a regular tactic. I’m just not sure that the additional confusion and pressure on defenders is warranted.
  • Insufficient attempt to keep the ball in play. A major shift in interpretation that unduly penalises hitherto legitimate and smart attempts to gain field position in both attack and defence. Even if the current over-zealous approach is pared back, genuine skill errors will continue to be mistakenly penalised (see Jayden Short example above).

It particularly worried me when I heard Jack Riewoldt this week actually defend the new “insufficient effort” interpretation as something new that is “engaging the fans”. I’m sorry, Jack, I love your work as a footballer but that is obsequious drivel. We’ve had a game for over 100 years that has engaged fans by the million. Infuriating loyal supporters because they’re seeing the fabric of the game they love being destroyed in front of them is not “engaging”. It is callous disrespect. Tinkering with rules on the spurious grounds of improving the game’s attractiveness and flow without really thinking through the consequences conjures images of dead geese and golden eggs.

The sleeper in all of this is actually Priority 1 – player safety. For all the rule changes to protect heads, legs and eliminate thuggish acts, bigger, faster bodies are inevitably elevating the risk of a catastrophic injury occurring in the AFL. I have no immediate answer to this challenge. We simply cannot eliminate the physical risk of the game which makes it so thrilling. All I will say is that the lawmakers should be trying to protect players as their absolute priority rather than pissing around with other rule changes that only elevate the risk of supporter deaths from apoplexy.

About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. Peter Clark says

    Strong arguments Stainless. If you have a rules committee they are bound to tinker. The game evolves naturally, while knee-jerk reactions are usually counterproductive. Perhaps one annual half hour meeting of the ‘game changers’ would be enough! All we ask for is fairness and consistency.

  2. Dave Brown says

    I’m a conspiracy theorist from way back, Stainless, particularly as it relates to ‘insufficient intent’. I believe the AFL has manufactured this season’s silliness to make us more comfortable with the last touch rule when they bring it in in the next couple of seasons. So much of the narrative at the moment is ‘how is an umpire supposed to read a player’s mind?’. At some point the AFL will go ‘you’re right, therefore we shall introduce the last touch rule (although it’s really last disposal) to remove the element of umpires guessing intent’. The SANFL has been using it for the last two seasons, presumably at the request of the AFL. For the most part people are now comfortable with it. My major problem with it is it penalises bad luck but then again, more than many, our game is built on luck so such an element would not be inconsistent with other features of the game.

  3. Mick Jeffrey says

    Every rule change I can remember is a knee jerk reaction to what probably was a single isolated incident that every so called journalist who gets paid to say something jumps up and down about. Perhaps they and every rule maker should realise that if life was truly fair, every game would be drawn because everything would be perfect.

  4. Daniel Flesch says

    You have to love those “deliberate ” out of bounds decisions when the ball has clearly been a mis-kick off the side of the player’s boot. Same for the kick down the ground which bounces at ninety degrees and goes out. At these times i wonder about the umpires’ powers of perception. Same for “holding the ball ” decisions when the bloke has the ball pinned underneath him with one or more blokes on top of him making it impossible to do anything like correct disposal. For mine , i’d like a free paid against players clearly playing for a free rather than keeping the ball in play. Nah , just kidding – what a can of worms it would be. On the other hand the umps are deciding on the players’ “intent ” with the deliberate o.o.b. “interpretations ” so since they’re apparently so good at reading the players’ minds maybe it is a goer :-)

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