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Reactive AFL tosses out its rule book


Australian football is confusing this year, not just because AFL teams are playing “home” games thousands of kilometres from home. Michelangelo Rucci looks at the mess with the league’s umpiring.


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“Send three and four pence. We are going to a dance.”

In football – just as in battle when a battalion calls for reinforcements to make an advance on the enemy – success (and failure) comes down to following orders.

In the AFL, there is a Laws of the Game committee writing the regulations in a game once mocked for having “Rafferty’s Rules”.

There is the AFL Commission that endorses or rejects these laws; and a football chief who passes them (with his interpretation) to an umpiring department that has a coach (with his interpretation) handing them to umpires.

On match day, there are three umpires expressing their interpretations of the rules.

And then there are coaches – such as Hawthorn premiership master Alastair Clarkson – using their post-game media conferences to influence change.

What could possibly go wrong?

By the growls of the fans now back at AFL venues, the disapproval of league coaches, in particular the influential Clarkson, and the condemnation of the critics, the game is more confused than the apocryphal story of the British Army commander who never saw those back-up troops he requested for battle in France during World War I.

So where is the problem in Australian football this season when the holding-the-ball rule has become a lottery, the deliberate out-of-bounds calls are mysterious and AFL umpiring boss Hayden Kennedy apologised to coaches Brett Ratten and Matthew Nicks for the confusing and erroneous calls made by the umpires who worked the recent Crows-St Kilda game at Adelaide Oval?

“It’s not the rule book,” says Magarey Medallist John Halbert, who sat as the lone South Australian on the Laws of the Game committee for more than a decade in the 1990s and 2000s.

“The game is not umpired to the rule book.”

After nine changes to the rule book last year, the AFL Commission in December appeased those pleading for stability – these included Collingwood coach and Brownlow Medallist Nathan Buckley – with no change for Season 2020. Instead of consistency from a well-worn rule book, confusion has grown.

“There is no doubt,” said Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley on Saturday night after the umpires were jeered off Adelaide Oval, “that it’s more confusing today than it has ever been.”

Little will be said by the players and coaches this weekend and beyond – and this change will not be by a sudden correction from the umpires. The AFL on Tuesday ordered “radio silence” on criticism of the umpires. Those who ignore the warning will be fined.



18.6.1 Spirit and intention

The player who has possession of the football will be provided an opportunity to dispose of the football before rewarding an opponent for a legal tackle.


No rule has tormented the game more – and for longer – than holding-the-ball. For more than a century this rule has continually drawn heated debate and been repeatedly rewritten amid reactions such as Clarkson’s effective outburst last month.

“Holding-the-ball is alright in the rule book… but it is disgusting how the rule is umpired,” says Halbert. “And that leaves me worried about the state of the game.”

Port Adelaide premiership captain Warren Tredrea describes the umpires’ interpretation of the rule as “embarrassing”. The Australian Football Hall of Famer is among a large chorus of the game’s former stars who do not understand how the AFL is directing its umpires. Fellow Hall of Famer Michael Voss says “we need some clarity for the umpires on holding the ball”.

Among the current AFL senior coaches, Hinkley adds: “Umpire the rules as they are written… then everyone will be clear with what to expect.”


18.6.2 Free kicks, prior opportunity

Where a player in possession of the football has had prior opportunity, a field umpire shall award a free kick if that player does not correctly dispose of the football immediately when they are legally tackled.


“They throw the ball all the time,” said Halbert. “The players throw it over their heads all the time. That is not legitimate disposal.”

Clarkson took issue with the umpires not awarding his Hawthorn players any holding-the-ball free kicks after they made 69 tackles and forced some North Melbourne players into incorrectly disposing of the ball in their round 4 match.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan publicly agreed with Clarkson; league football chief Steve Hocking then sent a memo directing the umpires to correct their interpretation of the rule and in round 5 there was a 51 per cent increase in holding-the-ball free kicks without the rule changing. Correction or over-reaction?

By the AFL’s calculations, the umpires are confused too. Before the Clarkson outburst, an AFL game had on average 6.7 holding-the-ball calls with 82 per cent deemed correct on review. Since the AFL reaction to Clarkson, the holding-the-ball average has risen to 9.6 with accuracy falling to 80 per cent.

Overall, accuracy on all free kicks has fallen from 82 per cent to 79 after Clarkson and McLachlan spoke out.

“There are rules, and there are interpretations,” says Halbert. “And we are today asking the umpires to interpret the holding-the-ball rule not in the way the rule-makers intended.”

And it is not just the umpires taking direction on interpreting the rules. Halbert recalls leaving a Laws of the Games committee meeting on the first floor of AFL House in Melbourne to find VFL-AFL premiership coach David Parkin in the lobby.

” ‘Parko’ said to me, ‘John, by the time you left the lift, the coaches were already finding a way to beat your new rules’,” Halbert said.


18.6.4 Free kicks, no genuine attempt

Where a player in possession of the football has not had prior opportunity, a field umpire shall award a free kick if the player is able to, but does not make a genuine attempt to correctly dispose of the football when legally tackled.


McLachlan noted – true to Parkin’s warning to Halbert – that AFL coaches have trained their players to “ride the tackle” and fake a genuine attempt to dispose of the ball. Fans repeatedly see players punching the ball while locking it to their chest to avoid a spillage – and a free kick. The result is a ball-up – and congestion as players gather at the stoppage.

“Pay the free kick,” says Halbert. “When we wrote the rule, the emphasis was – wherever possible, keep the ball on the move. But the umpiring has gone mad – it has taken the game the other way.

“The umpires are ignoring the rule.

“They don’t want to award legitimate free kicks. So they stop the play. When the umpires don’t pay the free kick, they create scrimmages. It becomes a game of stoppages (not movement).

“And it is not just holding-the-ball. Push in the back? That rule is almost ignored today. Nine out of 10 times you will get away with pushing your opponent in the back. I saw the one in the St Kilda game at the weekend and thought, ‘At last, at last… the rule is still there’.

“And there are free kicks missed when players are interfered off the ball. The rule book (with the holding-the-man rule) says players must have a legitimate run at the ball. You can bump, you can tackle when a play has possession. But when you don’t, you should be able to go for the ball without interference.”

Carlton midfielder Patrick Cripps, who was repeatedly manhandled off the ball against North Melbourne at the weekend, would have enjoyed Halbert as an umpire.


18.6.3 Free kicks, incorrect disposal

Where a player in possession of the football has not had prior opportunity, a field umpire shall award a free kick if that player elects to incorrectly dispose of the football when legally tackled.


Hocking insists he prepared his memo to tweak the holding-the-ball rule before round 5 out of his own frustration, not in reaction to Clarkson’s outburst.

“After four rounds, there’s a monthly snapshot of the game – and one of the frustrations for me was the fact players were looking to (avert control of the ball being lost to the opposition with a free kick),” said Hocking, picking up Halbert’s point that free kicks are being missed by the umpires. “So they will try to create a 50-50 by having a stoppage.”

Halbert, a former SANFL league coach with Glenelg and Sturt, notes “it must be totally frustrating for the coaches today – they’d be watching a tackle wondering, ‘what will the umpire ruling be this time’?”

Everyone is confused.

This frustration was obvious with Hinkley on Saturday night when he described the umpiring as “interesting”.

“I don’t understand that (monthly review from AFL House or a week-by-week focus): we should play with the same rules every week,” Hinkley said. “I don’t know that we need to make adjustments. We shouldn’t behave like there is something that needs to be fixed every week.”

Halbert responded: “I agree with Ken entirely. The game should not change week to week – and it wouldn’t if the umpires consistently interpreted the rules correctly.”


18.6.5 Free kicks, diving on top of the football

A field umpire shall award a free kick against a player who dives on top of or drags the football underneath their body and fails to immediately knock clear or correctly dispose of the football when legally tackled.


“Someone will get seriously hurt one day,” warns Halbert. “A player is tackled to ground and does not release the ball – and a third player jumps on top, either to help the tackler lock the ball in, or to help his team-mate because he is not good enough to dispose the ball.

“There should be a free kick straight away when the third player jumps in – it is not necessary and it is dangerous.”

The holding-the-ball rule currently has five clauses plus two sub-clauses.

When Halbert left the Laws of the Game committee in 2008 he was presented with a replica of Tom Wills’ original laws for the new game of Australian football written in May 17, 1859.

There were just 10 laws… and there was no holding-the-ball rule. This was first written in 1874 to say a player with the ball was required to immediately drop it when tackled by an opponent.

For the rest of the AFL season, you can read news and insights from Michelangelo Rucci – SA’s most experienced and credible football writer – every Friday in InDaily.

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