Has the hip-and-shoulder become a low act?
Tom Scully of the Giants is tackled by Daniel Nicholson of the Demons (Photo: Slattery Images)
I’m afraid the game’s unique and time-honoured hip and shoulder is beginning to look grubby. The spectacle of the classic bump (hip-and-shoulder against hip-and- shoulder) has been a source of wonder for followers of other sports.
It can be a thing of beauty but it has degenerated into a dangerous art form.
Previously when Kade Simpson heard things go bump in the night, he assumed he was imagining it. That was before Friday night last week when he heard a bump, and a crack, and his lights went out.
Despite harsh penalties being imposed by the AFL over an extended period now – remember Michael Long’s collision with Troy Simmonds in the 2000 Grand Final – the awful sight of players heads being hit with shoulders continues.
There is something intrinsically malicious about the legitimate hip-and-shoulder. It has always been the one legal outlet for certain players to act on their aggressive impulses. In the past it provided the game’s celebrated “hard nuts” with an opportunity to make a statement and instil fear into opponents.
Even for the more timid player, choosing the heavy bump over a tackle is often the result of anger or frustration.
But the days of theatrical posers are over. No longer do players have the time or permission to strut around like Dermott Brereton dishing out punishment and receiving it in due course.
The modern game has few pauses and is played at breakneck speed. Players arrive at contests at a fierce velocity. If bumps are to be permitted then the consequences are clear.
Now while it’s not the intention of most players to make contact with the head – althugh Matt White’s premeditated shot on a crouching James Frawley came close – it appears that “making a contest” is the sole aim.
What was Sharrod Wellingham trying to do exactly when he approached Simpson? In a panel discussion involving Wellingham, Tim Watson was charitable enough to claim that he was originally going for the mark.
Wellingham didn’t say what his intentions were, only that he didn’t mean “to hurt him [Simpson] that much”.
Part of the problem lies with the code of courage enforced by the playing group and more importantly the coach. Now while coaches don’t recommend certain courageous plays like backing into a pack – they expect their players to do everything to win the ball; including forceful dispossession.
When Collingwood successfully appealed against Nick Maxwell’s suspension for his jaw breaking bump on Patrick McGinnity in 2009, the defending QC argued that if Maxwell had not committed the bump he was going against the “spirit” of the game and the orders of his coach Mick Malthouse.
“I’m a tenth of a second away from impact. I’ll pull out of this. Sorry Mick”, said the counsel.
The argument that such a collision was unavoidable was dubious, of course. Maxwell was quite fee to run alongside McGinnity and contest the rolling ball, just as Wellingham could easily have stayed behind Simpson as Heath Shaw contested the mark.
But they were only doing what was expected of them; to make a contest. Unfortunately that meant the accidental breaking of jaws and serious concussion.
In any case, the bump is often ineffective in gaining possession. A tackle is more likely to produce a turnover or a free kick for holding the ball.
If the speed and the ‘spirit’ of the game aren’t going to change then perhaps it’s time to get rid of the iconic hip-and-shoulder.
Admittedly, it may be difficult to enforce because the umpires would have to decide whether a hit was a deliberate act or an incidental collision. There is also the self preserving bump - wrapping yourself up in order to protect your abdomen and ribs from damage.
Many old-timers certainly wouldn’t want the bump outlawed. Ex-players like Malcolm Blight wax lyrical about legitimate bumps such as the one by Lenny Hayes that flattened Dale Thomas a couple of years ago: “He got down low and just met the body. It was beautiful!”
Contact is inevitable. The game is about aggressive men with the ball and similar men trying to get it back.
Adrenalin, desperation, anger and coaches orders are a dangerous cocktail so perhaps it’s time to limit the contact to tackles.