The Thoughts of ‘Rulebook’ – Umpiring woes everywhere


I readily admit I fell out of love with AFL footy a while ago – in reality, it’s an extended VFL.


Then, in this bizarre season, I have found it to be unwatchable without spectators – it’s soulless, in my opinion. Coaches and clubs are more scared of losing than actually trying to win. The incredible fitness levels of the modern AFL player, in terms of being able to run and compete so much, means fewer and fewer open passages of footy. The scrum-like footy that results, with seemingly all 36 players in close proximity, isn’t exactly enticing and is, a lot of the time, bloody boring.


Suggested solutions have included 16 players a side, players having to stay in zones, and rewarding teams scoring over 100 points.


The SANFL had a great game on Sunday, Glenelg v Norwood, with one of the factors being that, with the players not being as fit as at AFL level, especially in this bizarre season when it looked like the season was going to be abandoned, there were open passages of footy and actually some one-on-one contests.


The only disappointing factor was the umpiring, which I don’t entirely blame on the umpires. Whoever in the umpiring fraternity came up with the idea that the umpires should be positioned out on the boundary line instead of being in the corridor and getting side-on to the contest should be shot. I worry about umpires getting in the way and/or players colliding with umpires – it’s just ridiculous. I don’t understand why the umpiring fraternity haven’t been more militant and stood up to be counted.


Umpiring is the art of being side-on to the contest and you must NOT guess. As an experienced umpire, I do appreciate how hard it is, but the golden rule is DO NOT GUESS! I always look where an umpire is positioned when a blatant howler occurs. Unfortunately, on Sunday, that occurred on way too many occasions and is just so wrong!


By the way, I actually thought Glenelg played the more cohesive footy overall and deserved to win. I am making this point in pure and utter frustration at umpiring at both the so-called elite level and in lower divisions. A few years ago, I considered SANFL footy umpiring to be in well in front of the AFL level. I would love to know why the instructions changed and why the SANFL fell totally in line with the AFL.


Blatant footy common sense has fallen right away! The retirement of several umpires has contributed. Personally, I think the standard is the lowest it has ever been in both the AFL and the SANFL with regard to the appalling instructions.


Alistair Clarkson complained about the lack of holding-the-ball free kicks paid last Sunday in the Hawthorn v North Melbourne game. I’m the other way. ‘In the back’ and ‘over the shoulder’ aren’t seemingly in the rulebook any more! Paying the first warranted free kick by being in the correct position would help the game dramatically!


Overall, attacking footy is desperately needed and the majority of games just seem like a ‘push the replay button from the previous game’. Thank goodness for Matty Rowell and, heaven forbid, Port Adelaide at AFL level. We wait to see whether this crazy season can run the distance and hope that SANFL footy continues to show the way overall.

Community footy commences in South Australia this weekend, so we hope for some normality in our lives and that the conditions improve in Victoria in this very scary time.



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Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.



  1. Randal Williams says

    I agree with most of your comments Malcolm. If you don’t notice the umpire, he/she has usually done a good job. Umpires need to have a feel for the game ( ideally having played it at a reasonable level) and umpire WITH COMMON SENSE. Our newest female field umpire said the best advice she was given was ” if they want to play footy, let them”- in other words the ball players should be given a bit of latitude, as opposed to those who want to sweat off, scrag or tackle all the time. I always believed the player going for the ball should be given every protection, and common sense needed in the holding the ball rule. If a pack of players descend,and the player has no chance to get rid of it DONT PAY HOLDING THE BALL. In the AFL the 50 meter penalty, given for trivial infractions of the rules is a blight on the game and should be scrapped. It often results in a goal to the opposition and is too great a penalty, The 25 meter penalty in the SANFL works well and could be adopted. Mostly , SANFL umpiring is OK but like you saw a few “howlers’ last weekend. Umpiring positioning is most important and frees are missed because of bad positioning. Just my thoughts. The best SANFL umpire i saw was Murray Ducker, WA’s Ross Capes also was excellent.

  2. Tim Wedding says

    Very well said. The 2020 season is a farce and the game is floundering. When it comes to umpiring, common sense never prevails, for example… if you get taken high in the tackle, whatever you do, don’t stop and look at the umpire as if to say, “come on mate!!” You’ll get pinged. If you get swung around in a tackle and hand ball it over the boundary line accidentally, you’ll get pinged. When players pile on top of you and there is no chance in hell of getting rid of the ball, don’t stop trying, you’ll get pinged. Very frustrating stuff.

  3. Martin Rumsby says

    From the spectator’s point of view, open free-flowing footy is preferable to gridlocked defensive battles – Norwood v West Adelaide in the Bassett-Collins era spring to mind. You’ve already identified the increased fitness of AFL players as a factor in reducing scoring. This year you can add the reduced length of quarters as a further factor. Perhaps 16 a side will not only help to create a more free-flowing game, it could also decrease the financial burden that clubs at all levels are facing in the COVID-19 era. In terms of the rules I would hate to see the players winning the ball further penalised by stiffening holding-the-ball rules.

  4. Rick Kane says

    There’s an old adage that bureaucrats are really good at bureaucracy and so it is with the AFL. It operates as a Forbes 100 business and believes it’s really good at being a top of town business. Melbourne Club as opposed to Melbourne Football Club and all that. So it looks at its business (footy) through a risk mitigation lens. From the fixtures to what players promote the product and yes, to the rules of the game. And clubs by and large have fallen for this, probably because the gold they accumulate is intoxicating. But the game is the loser. Also, business models are not designed for such extraordinary times as COVID-19. And as we have seen, they can’t cope without government intervention. Footy was beset with all the problems you raise one minute before COVID-19 struck. The AFL risk mitigation plan was to protect their income not their mission or values or god forbid, the game itself. If that was the case, they would have acted on these matters well before COVID-19 showed them up. I’m not sure what the solutions are. Maybe footy was as ordinary as it looks now. Maybe I should settle for local games, the Ammos or VFL. But the AFL has pretty much wrung every bit of good will from me. Rule changes are just going to be piecemeal. I don’t know. I really don’t know. Great thought piece Rulebook.

  5. Book – I always enjoyed being umpired by and watching you umpire – time for you to step up!

  6. Richard Adams says

    I get misty eyed reminiscing the old days when players pretty much stuck to their positions. A player could kick towards half forward or full forward knowing a team mate would be there. I don’t like watching a pack of 36 players following the ball around the ground, leaving half the ground completely vacant of players. It’s like watching school boys.

  7. Peter Myers says

    I would also add that there seems to be an ever increasing tolerance for throwing, not handballing the ball.

  8. Graeme Adams says

    We have referees, not umpires. Umpires officiate by rules, that hasn’t happened for years. What Clarkson is talking about is something that has annoyed me for years. Players are tackled now before they take possession and it should be a free for holding the man, but doesn’t happen. As a result, the player is limited once he takes possession. Rules, what rules? Do we still have them? According to the written law, players throw every time they handball now, ruckmen infringe every time they contest a ball up, the list goes on. We have three times as many umpires now, and less free kicks. Something to think about. Pay the frees, open the game up, and the game as a spectacle will be better for it. The only thing that will help AFL is less players on the field, and less interchange. Remember the days when players actually looked tired after the game?

  9. A most enjoyable rant, RB. And on the whole, I agree with your comments.
    Like you, I have really gone off AFL footy in recent years, much preferring local footy (see my piece today!).
    I believe that the standard of umpiring in the AFL this year has been poor – and inconsistent, which is a cardinal sin for umpires.
    I find it ridiculous that Clarkson (and then McLachlan) made comments about holding-the-ball decisions and, what do you know, the way those decisions are adjudicated were altered slightly last night.

  10. Jeff Milton says

    Absolutely agree with your last comment Graeme re the AFL Very sad but true. Probably wouldn’t chnange much but it would have been if the 2017 AFL Grand Final had been won by the team that had been high scoring and attacking throughout the season rather than the team of constant scraggers and tacklers who did win it.

    Apart from the result it was an absolute pleasure watching last Sunday’s Norwood Glenelg. The umpiring may have been poor but the open game made up for it.

  11. Luke Reynolds says

    Well said Malcolm. The inconsistencies in decision making make the AFL a very frustrating code to watch, especially on TV since we are stuck at home.
    Great to see community football starting again in SA, can’t see that happening this side of the border at all. Was quite looking forward to my first local footy involvement in many years with my son starting club level under 13 football, maybe they can still get that going.

  12. Malcolm, a few points. I agree with Richard. There’s nothing worse than flooding. These days there’s no such thing as positions. Most players perform like mid fielders. Seeing Tex Walker chasing a kick at half back and therefore not able to kick to himself at full forward is ludicrous. The result is, as Richard has pointed out, is similar to watching Primary School kids playing.

    As regards umpiring, I have often wondered why few umpires seem to think players have no backs or necks. Quite obviously there should be more common sense umpiring. Players that continually appeal for frivilous free kicks should be warned off and then , if they continue, be penalised. Pushing the ball under someone and then asking for a holding the ball decision (and most times getting it) is a real blight on the game. 50 metre penalties handed out for minor infringements are often a joke whilst really bad incidents are sometimes not even penalised. With all the umpires on the ground, there’s really no excuse. The list goes on and on.Always enjoy your thought provoking articles Rulebook

  13. Greg Briggs says

    Great article, umpiring is never going to be easy but opening up the game is essential to it improving especially in the expanded VFL nearly national competition. Think back to the early Crows days, great football to watch. Scrap the interchange and go back to reserves, coaches will have no choice and will have to slow down and open up the game. I might watch it then.

  14. Matthew Huppatz says

    Malcolm couldn’t agree more, Umpiring over the last 15 years especially has been on a constant downward spiral. They lack reading of the play these days. They need to call ball ups quickly and throw the ball up quickly as well. If can see a stalemate/ or scrum if you want to call it forming, call it, and get on with it without all bullshit nomination of ruck and showing players where they’re going. As said, pay first decision straight away, it’s one of four things in general play, not including contesting marks etc.Holding the ball( player either retarded or loosing ball in the tackle without handball or kick), holding the man(ball not in possession before a tackle) too high (anything over armpit), push in the back. This is obviously all forgotten because too many little technical things they’ve been taught, and worrying about finer details. I could go on and on. This is only a small snippet of my opinion.

  15. Malcolm Rulebook Ashwood says

    Randal agree with every single word.Tim again couldn’t agree more.Martin I admit I’m coming around to the idea of 16 a side more and more not only financially it would help country clubs in particular to continue to exist.Rick v thoughtful post and yes while the circumstances are incredible it’s certainly showed up the lack of saving for a emergency my mail from a v good source is if the season was cancelled,13 out of the 18 clubs at least would become technically insolvent.Stinker unfortunately the body has decided those days are long gone and yes hopefully I showed more footy nous than what we are seeing at the top levels.Richard yes on
    Saturday mornings I am constantly saying to the little tackers back in to position bizarrely we seemingly need that at the top level zones is a distinct possibility.Peter I admit personally much rather see a throw missed than a in the back or grrrrrr the idiotic holding the ball against the guy who’s supposedly dragged it in on replay we see it’s quite often a team mate guesswork and lack of a footy brain really stand out then ( yes that happened on Sunday ) Grizz Yep lack of holding the man is a disgrace and in I agree totally with you’re direction poor coaching and instruction come to mind have always thought a ruck coach is desperately needed the overwhelming majority of umpires do not understand the art of ruck work what so ever.Smokie likewise give me community footy over afl crap every time has more meaning to imo.The afl industry is just so out of touch re the real world in general.Milts that is a fair point.Luke yes v v inconsistent is part of my frustration and loss of interest the Vfl not afl element is another,game style and the fact there multi million dollar corporations not real footy clubs is another. Fisho agree totally this absolute stupidity re reward the tackler more than the ball player goes against the basic fabric of the game.Greg I was totally against that idea I admit I’m coming around more and more by the minute.Matthew Spot on why oh why removing,3rd man up and this complete and utter idiocy of nominating who is rucking bizarre and incompetence by the fools in charge is putting it mildly thanks folks

  16. Trevor Blainey says

    I’ve been waiting to run this up the flagpole and quite prepared for no-one to salute but here goes. The NRL is a tackling game and AFL isn’t or at least it wasn’t designed to be. This whole ‘reward the tackler’ malarkey is nonsense. They should scrap penalising Holding the Ball. Deep breath. If the ball spills play on, if it’s pinned either throw it up OR (another deep breath) have a possession arrow on the scoreboard to decide which team gets possession. Problem solved. If you take away the incentive to pin the ball then it won’t get pinned. The coaches will coach that and the ball will keep moving.

  17. Spot on as always Book.

  18. Adam Sheridan says

    AFL lots it’s soul years ago, watching the Legs and SANFL always a better experience. Umpires let it go and it’s officiated more like the past, which is the game we love.

    Too many rule changes for me, trying to make it black or white. Like the tribunal it’s not that simple. It’s ruined the game.

    ‘Holding the ball’ is a completely different rule to what it was 10-15 years ago. It’s a joke. If you don’t possess the ball legally you should be penalised.

    Not sure about ‘in the back’ & ‘over the shoulder’ being a problem. A defender can’t even look at an opponent now a days with out it being a free kick.

    Agree 110% about attacking footy; it’s getting closer and closer to soccer ( have you heard Blighty on 5aa, hates coaches emphasising defence ).

    Good read Malcolm

  19. Matt Zurbo says

    It’s funny, I haven’t been watched enough to comment, but I still love a good Rulebook rant!!

  20. Fatigue, I think, is the key. Minimal rotations. But of more importance is umpiring that understands the game. The last quarter of Pies v Bombers last night was frighteningly bad. The umpires were calling decisions that aren’t in the rulebook!! There seems to be a new “vibe” rule where umpires blow the whistle based on the terms and conditions of the UN’s Charter of Human Rights and not the bloody rules of football!

    But perhaps discussing rules in the AFL is like shaking a dying man?

  21. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Trevor interesting thought would love to see a game with it trialled.Thanks Stormtrooper of love.Adam it’s interesting how our thoughts are different- positioning and 3 umpire system grrrrrrr putrid.Old dog thank you.
    Dips didn’t see it have seen the replay of the Snelling tackle in that one I feel sorry for the umpiring fraternity in general- the threat of litigation is massive but yes I reckon in general you’re last sentence nails it

  22. Good article Malcolm,I’ve watched both games at Adelaide Oval over the last 2 weekends and my main concern is, along the lines of Clarkson’s rant, is the lack of holding the ball decisions. As an Eagles supporter I was frustrated last week when, with South a goal ahead, South players merely grabbed the ball and engaged the tackle for umpteen ball-ups to whittle away the time. This week, while my side dominated for the second half I was able to relax a bit and observe that the poor ball player, who usually wins the ball, was continually slammed into the ground from behind and the umpires simply called ball-up. There must have been 50 ball-ups during the game and I firmly believe that at least 20% were either holding the ball OR in the back. So I agree with Clarkson. On another note why would the umpires wear their lime green tops when officiating Eagles games when they wear a similar colour guernsey??? Some common sense in preparation and officiating by the umpire would be handy.

  23. Paul Minogue says

    Agree with both Clarkson about tackles not being rewarded, and Malcolm about incorrect tackling being permitted. Taking possession of the ball doesn’t/shouldn’t make a player fair game. Problem is AFL ignoring the rules. Rather than further fiddling with the rules, why not trial actually applying them.

  24. Agree Malcolm,
    The game i have loved for 40 odd years has become boring. I would rather watch sanfl and local league than AFL . I much prefer the replay games from 90s than low scoring games today.

  25. Couldn’t agree more, especially in the back forgotten, except perhaps let’s not shoot administrators! Doing as directed from above, umps would give feedback that’s often “not aligned with national direction”. States can better empower their communities to tailor these rules back to more basic interpretations. Some local sports just do anyway as theyve retained experience in this area, positioning and other mentoring handed down. Local leagues best still for watchable and enjoyable football.

  26. Simon Trenorden says

    Malcolm sorry I’ve only just read this so I must have missed it. I think you’re spot on with this. I didn’t think the North West game was terrible umpiring but the clangers they made were horrible.

    Okay, here’s the scenario, there’s sort of a scrimmage developing so you have the main umpire ( usually the closest) who is in control who say 95% of the time will make any ultimate decision resulting from that pattern of play. You have the second umpire who might be say up to 30 metres away usually on a different angle or even on the other side of the play to the closer umpire. Then you have the third umpire who might be another 30 m away again who has the much wider field of vision.

    Now it seems to me that the umpire closest wants to try and see every nook and cranny of an incident so they have got into this awful habit of running bent with their heads parallel to the ground turned towards the contest.

    If you haven’t tried it, try it and just see how good your peripheral vision is – NOT!

    So instead of umpiring with two eyes in the correct position so they can see as peripherally as possible whilst focusing on the immediate passage of play from what they can see. They learn to skip side ways again so they’re eyes stay in the correct decision.

    Then they back their colleague to pick up any infringement from his angle. They may not cover every blind spot but they’ve got a darn sight better chance of making the correct decision because they can see better. This is umpiring team work.

    It’s so simple…….but

  27. SANFL Umpires are all volunteers this season. Something to bear in mind when criticizing them.

  28. Malcolm Ashwood says

    PM personally in general rather missed holding the balls than in the back lack of protection of the ball player caused as I have said my appalling coaching and idiotic positioning playing a major role.Paul agree totally.
    Jarrod yes accentuated during,Covid we’ve all watched a lot of older footy and loved the style etc umpiring wise no one remotely close to a Des Foster or Rick Kinnear etc.Andrew you nailed it.Simon the positioning currently is blatantly not working definitely worth giving a go.Chad while it’s reduced payments it’s incorrect re not being paid unfortunately a couple not even remotely close fitness wise love to no if they are tested re having to meet standards of years ago thanks folks

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