Why won’t the AFL fall in line and adopt a send-off rule?

Glenn Mitchell Columnist

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There are few sporting leagues in the world that do not have a send-off rule and the AFL is one of them.

Football, rugby union, rugby league, hockey, water polo, basketball… you name it, it is hard to find a code that does not have some form of send-off or ejection rule that is enforceable throughout its grades from elite to juniors.

The fact there is not one in the AFL seems very odd.

In fact, it seems odder when you consider every grade of Australian Football beneath the AFL actually has one in place.

It is codified in the official Laws of the Game under Law 20, titled the ‘Order Off Law’.

Clause 20.2 (Order Off for Remainder of Match) reads as follows:

In addition to being reported, a field or emergency field umpire shall order the Player reported from the playing surface for the remainder of a match if the player is reported for any of the following reportable Offences:

(a) Intentionally, recklessly or negligently making contact with or striking an umpire;

(b) Attempting to make contact with or strike an Umpire;

(c) Using abusive, insulting, threatening or obscene language towards or in relation to an umpire;

(d) Behaving in an abusive, insulting, threatening or obscene manner towards or in relation to an umpire;

(e) Intentionally, recklessly or negligently kicking another person;

(f) An act of misconduct if the Umpire is of the opinion that the act constituting misconduct is serious in nature.

It sits there in black and white in the Laws of the Game.

As too does clause 20.1 which stipulates that, ‘This Law 20 applies to all competitions other than the AFL competition’.

But why?

It seems strange the highest level of the code which has the most experienced and, one should imagine, most proficient umpires in the sport, opts not to give them the power to send players from the field.

Most sports use an ejection rule as the ultimate deterrent to penalise a team on the day for extreme behaviour and actions by one of its players.

Suspensions are all well and good, but they are imposed after the event and, as such, do nothing on the day to penalise a team that has acted inappropriately.

Let’s just consider, in isolation, the instance of the AFL grand final – the sport’s ultimate prize.

Cast your mind back to the 2004 grand final, in which Port Adelaide ended Brisbane’s streak of three successive premierships.

Early in the match, Lions’ full-forward Alistair Lynch instigated a one-on-one fight with Port fullback Darryl Wakelin.

While Lynch swung infinitely more punches than he landed, he still incurred the wrath of the umpires and, by extension, the AFL Tribunal.

Despite announcing his retirement following the match, he was nonetheless hit with a 10-match suspension for being found guilty of two counts of striking and four counts of attempted striking – all as a result of the one stoush.

He was also fined $15,000 on top of the suspension – the largest fine dealt to a player for 14 years.

At the time, tribunal chairman Brian Collis said the penalties meted out were more hefty than would normally have been the case with the extra loading applied as a result of the grand final being the showcase event of the season and “ought to set an appropriate example for young players watching the game”.

Wakelin played out the match, and did so without having suffered any side effects from the altercation with Lynch, going on to receive his premiership medallion.

However, what if he hadn’t – what if Lynch had knocked him out and as a result ruled Wakelin out of the last three-plus quarters of the match?

Many AFL followers will remember Barry Hall’s king hit on West Coast’s Brent Staker in 2008.

The Swans’ full-forward KO’d Staker with a punch to the jaw, earning himself a seven-match suspension, while Staker was carried from the field.

How would a similar act be viewed if it was to happen in the opening minutes of a grand final?

One team would be a player down with still nearly two hours to play as a result of a case of out-and-out thuggery.

A subsequent suspension is little solace to the affected team and its supporters, especially if the player responsible, a la Lynch, retires after the match.

Or what if a player, either in a grand final or otherwise, chose to do what Essendon’s Phil Carmen did in a VFL match in 1980 and head-butt an umpire?

He subsequently received a 16-match suspension, but one could very well argue such an act should carry an immediate penalty on the day as it would in every other sport.

Surely the umpires should have the ultimate and immediate sanction available to them for such malicious incidents, whether they occur in Round 1 or the last Saturday in September at the MCG, just as they do in every grade below the AFL.

Some people rail against the introduction of a send-off rule at AFL level for two reasons.

Firstly, they argue that there would be cases where a player was sent from the field only to be cleared of any guilt or wrongdoing at the subsequent tribunal hearing.

I say so be it.

Myriad other sports have faced that very issue for decades and seem to have come to terms with it.

Secondly, many say AFL umpires will become overly officious and use it too often.

From my experience of seeing the rule in operation that is certainly not the case.

The WAFL introduced the send-off rule for the 1993 season.

In the 20 years that umpires have had it available as a sanction, it has been invoked less than ten times or, in other words, around once every two seasons.

I don’t see why umpires at AFL level would find it needs to be used more often.

In over 450 matches I have commentated in the WAFL since the penalty has been in place I have only ever witnessed it enforced first-hand on two occasions – hardly what you would deem an epidemic, as some fear it would be at AFL level.

While it would be used very sparingly and only in extreme circumstances it should still be available for AFL umpires to utilise.

If it is good enough for every other level of Australian Football in the country surely it is good enough for the AFL.

After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.

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