AFL’s rules committee needs to stop forcing Eureka moments

Tim Lane Columnist

By , Tim Lane is a Roar Expert


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    The modern sports broadcasting trend of having pre-prepared lines for the big moments can work brilliantly, but it can also backfire. I recall trying it out as far back as the 1970s, when calling footy for the ABC in Hobart.

    Clarence, the team from the eastern side of the Derwent, had just chosen a new spearhead named David Garlick.

    The thought of an opponent ‘having Garlick breathing down his neck’ was appealing. That opponent would most likely be Hobart’s full back, Peter Ratcliffe.

    So, at the first bounce, I was ready. Not only that, I was impatient. And you wouldn’t want to know… Clarence gained clean possession out of the middle, roosted the ball forward on the postage stamp-sized North Hobart Oval, and the commentary went like this: “A long kick over centre-half forward, out comes Garlick… he’s got Ratcliffe breathing down his neck.”

    Whereupon, I burst out laughing at my stupidity. The moral of the story is, don’t rush. Let it come to you.

    So, I did. No more weak puns for about 20 years. Then, one day at the MCG, Richmond had a powerfully built, young Western Australian recruit playing at full forward. His name was Stephen Jurica. It was said he could really be something.

    His game on this day lived up to the billing. He took some strong marks and gave himself scoring opportunities, but couldn’t kick straight.

    Finally though, the moment arrived. Quick movement by the Tigers produced a long kick to the young forward, who only had to pick up the footy, turn, and an open goal would be staring him in the face.

    But, not so good below his knees, Jurica fumbled. And fumbled. The defence was closing in. In the nick of time he got ball in hand, turned, and slammed it through.

    Yes, I admit I’d been waiting, and the scenario was perfect: “Jurica… Jurica… Eureka!!”

    Now, another 20 years have passed and I’ve had a different sort of ‘Eureka’ moment. This was a moment of discovery, like Archimedes when he sat in the bath and realised the same volume of water was displaced as the volume of the object doing the displacing. Archimedes supposedly jumped out of the bath and ran down the street naked, shouting “Eureka!”

    My recent Eureka moment came as I read (fully dressed, in case you’re worried) a column by Chris Judd in the Fairfax press. These days a member of the AFL’s rules committee, Judd – writing in a broader context – gave clarity as to who it is that drives changes to the game’s rules.

    “The driving force behind what the game should look like isn’t the commission; essentially, it’s the fans,” wrote Judd.

    “The AFL regularly surveys fans to hear their opinions on the game, the results of which are shared with the laws of the game committee.”

    This is a fascinating revelation, which makes sense of much of what perplexes many observers of the modern game. People with a genuine feel for football are under-represented on the AFL Commission. The best-represented group is business, and business people want to keep the fans happy.

    So, when surveyed and asked questions like “What sort of game do you want to see?”, fans no doubt tick the box which says, “One in which free-flowing football is encouraged ahead of repetitive short passages of play”.

    Rules are then introduced or amended to seek to produce this outcome. Thus, this season we’ve seen an ill-considered demand imposed on players that they show some arbitrarily judged level of intent to keep the ball from going out of bounds.

    This, the games’ guardians satisfy themselves, will keep things flowing.

    Sam Mitchell West Coast Eagles AFL 2017 tall

    AAP Image/Julian Smith

    For a long time now I’ve been critical of how the modern game is umpired. As I’ve written here previously, too much illegal contact is being permitted for the good of the game and for the good of players’ health.

    I shudder to join the dots between the fan surveys and rule adjudication. Umpires are the fans’ enemy, so you can imagine the attitude that would be expressed towards free kicks. What sort of free kick count do you like: 1. High, 2. Medium, or 3. Low? Most fans would be searching for the fourth box: Zero.

    So, the administrators want a game with a low stoppage count and with minimal free kicks. Oh, other than ‘holding the ball’, because fans love yelling ‘Baaalllll!!’ And because pinging the ball player supposedly keeps the game moving.

    And what do we get from this popular-vote form of rule-making? Well, now we have repetitive packs, which are let go endlessly by umpires to avoid free kick and stoppage statistics. Meanwhile, the occurrence of the other form of stoppage – the ‘out of bounds’ – is reduced by the infuriating new interpretation. And the statistics show the administrators are giving the fans what they want.

    So, why are those same fans, not to mention players, coaches, and commentators, in a lather of fury every time another ‘insufficient intent’ free kick is paid?

    Well, that’s for the next survey. This is a work in progress.

    Tim Lane
    Tim Lane

    Tim Lane is one of the most respected voices in Australian sport, having gained a strong following for his weekly AFL column in The Age. Tim has also called 32 AFL/VFL grand finals and was behind the microphone for Cathy Freeman's memorable gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. You can catch him on Twitter @TimLaneSport.