Crisis came early this football year. Round one of the pre-season Wizard Cup was scarcely complete, the home-and-away competition still weeks away, and already the new centre-bounce ruck rules were being denounced as the deathblow for the big man of footballing tradition. Meanwhile the new holding-the-ball interpretation, complained Sydney Swans coach Paul Roos, was killing the ball player. This was news to Australian Football League umpires’ boss Jeff Gieschen. These two innovations, he declared, were pointing the code towards salvation.
This sort of disagreement is part of Australian Rules culture. Ever since the days of Ivo Crapp, the first umpiring legend of the old Victorian Football League, and allegedly the only umpire in history for whom spectators did not need to concoct a nickname, the game’s ambience has thrived on the belief that the men in white can do no right. Suddenly, it seems, the modern-day men in many colours are doing nothing at all. These days, three umpires blow their whistles for a free kick about 30 times a game between them. When Collingwood hosted Adelaide on April 3 the number dropped as low as 24; when the Kangaroos pipped the Magpies on April 15 it was 21. And on some occasions in recent seasons it has sunk to the mid-teens. That’s about once every eight minutes in a sport of continual, inevitable contact and collision.
Two decades ago Harry Beitzel took over as coach of the VFL umpires and promised to reduce the average number of free kicks to 50 a match. His pledge was greeted with scepticism and derision. Back then the average was around 80, which seemed about right for such a physical game. In the mid-1990s things changed dramatically. Fewer free kicks were given in general and yet, perversely, an increased proportion of these were awarded against the player with the ball. The tackler was now accorded something close to equal rights in a game that had always made a priority of encouraging and protecting the ball player. It was what, in no small part, had distinguished Aussie Rules from the rugby codes. In the old days of debate about whose football code was better, Melbourne’s or Sydney’s, a persuasive argument in favour of Aussie Rules was that its ball skills, not its tackling, were what won and lost matches. That is arguably no longer true, as endless rugby-like packs have become an infuriatingly predictable part of the indigenous game.
In recent years the AFL’s rules review committee has gone so far as to enshrine within the laws this less generous approach to the ball player. Now a player who has already had a chance to get rid of the footy is no longer given “a reasonable opportunity” to dispose of it once tackled. Instead he must do so, and not merely attempt to do so, immediately. In other words, adventurous and attractive aspects of the game – running with the ball, baulking, blind turning – are now discouraged by the rules. Likewise, a player who dives on the ball is granted no tolerance; either he offloads it or else. The same goes for a ruckman who, instead of knocking the ball, chooses to take possession of it at a throw-in or ball-up.
Intentionally or not, the rule-makers have introduced changes that actually deter players from trying to win the football. This is what makes Paul Roos worry. He watches his men get knocked to the ground, or lose their footing, but still fight on for possession, risking injury in the process, only to be treated by the umpires as though they have done something wrong. What’s going on?
Several factors appear to have contributed. First, there is the modern maxim that a fast game’s a good game. Football’s powers-that-be want quick, free-flowing football which is not constantly being interrupted by free kicks. (The fact that those same powers-that-be are now looking at ways to cut down the number of ball-ups in general play, an outcome that can be controlled by the distribution of free kicks, suggests this tactic may have backfired.) Second, umpires are understandably wary of attracting attention to themselves. Every time an umpire awards a contentious free kick, play stops and the TV cameras launch into replay mode. At least half the audience decides the umpire is a mug. They are encouraged in this view by commentators, particularly when those commentators are ex-players and thus imbued with the belief that if there is dispute between an umpire and a player, the umpire must be wrong. Safer, therefore, for the umpire to call “play on”, for the cameras to keep following the action, and for that contentious free kick that might have been to never be shown again.
Then there is the fact that the umpires’ advisers are full-time AFL employees, their job security contingent on their masters’ approval. This means delivering the right sort of game and keeping it free of umpiring controversy. But perhaps the most forceful factor is modern football’s most powerful lobby group: the coaches. Since the early 1990s, when Mick Malthouse’s finely muscled West Coast Eagles emerged as the best defensive team in history, tackling has become a prerequisite to winning football. So coaches want tackling, and tacklers, rewarded. It underlines the message they preach on the training track. Coaches drill into their players the importance of taking the first good option in disposing of the ball. They encourage percentage play. They discourage “Fancy Dan” footy. The rule-makers have obliged them. And so football is being umpired according to the wishes of coaches, rather than in keeping with its abiding philosophy.
On the second weekend of the Wizard Cup, a match between the Western Bulldogs and St Kilda hung on a tight decision in the dying seconds. Chris Grant, the lumbering Bulldogs veteran, seemed to take possession of the ball near goal. He was tackled, fumbled, then palmed the ball to a team-mate, Cameron Faulkner, who kicked the goal and put his team in front. Allan Jeans, four-time premiership coach at St Kilda and Hawthorn, used to tell his players there were three phases of the game: “We’ve got it, they’ve got it, or it’s in dispute.” For umpires, there are only two: the ball is in a player’s possession or it’s not. In this case, Grant had to be in possession for a tackle to be permitted. It was. That meant, according to the rules, that he had to “correctly dispose or attempt to correctly dispose of the football”. He didn’t.
A few days later Derek Humphery-Smith, a former umpire and now a media commentator, presented a modern umpire’s assessment of the incident. He suggested that Grant did not have possession of the ball yet the tackle laid on him did not warrant a holding-the-man free kick. In other words, either the ball was now in a mysterious third phase – somewhere between possession and non-possession – or the hold on Grant’s jumper did not constitute a tackle. That might just be the definitive word on the state of modern-day umpiring.
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