The AFL’s rules mishmash

Les Zigomanis Roar Rookie

By , Les Zigomanis is a Roar Rookie

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    Here we are, approaching the halfway point of the season: brace yourself for the declarations that thanks to the AFL’s rule changes football this year has been the greatest spectacle ever.

    It happens every year, because how could the AFL ever go wrong? They are the arbiters of everything that is right and graceful and holy when it comes to our game.

    Aren’t they?

    This year the big change is the abolition of the third man up at ruck contests. Yes, good – great, even. Finally a rule the AFL’s introduced with which I can agree. I will insert the small qualifier that the AFL need to work out the nomination mess, but I’ve always believed the ruck contests should remain the purview of the two ruckmen, just as they are for every centre bounce following a goal.

    I like this rule – in fact I love it – and that hasn’t happened often in the history of the AFL overreacting to what they consider blights on the game.

    Take the appalling deliberate rushed behind rule, which came about all because Richmond’s Joel Bowden walked the ball back through for a behind rather than kicked it out.

    It was smart by Bowden, but not a great look for the game. All the AFL had to do was ban the player kicking out from rushing it, but instead it introduced a deliberate rushed rule which will be paid every now and again just to remind people that it exists and to encourage players and fans to appeal for a deliberate rushed behind.

    The AFL must like players appealing because we see it now whenever the ball goes out of bounds. Even before the ball’s rolled over the line – and, hey, sometimes it doesn’t even get there – players will pirouette and appeal that it’s rushed. It is such an ugly look that the AFL have created this slips cordon of players throwing their arms up as if appealing a faint nick from the batsman.

    What’s wrong with pauses in our game? What’s wrong with a rushed behind? There is a penalty for such an act – it’s called a behind. Last time I checked, you needed only a solitary behind to win a game.

    (Image: AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

    And why should a player running at breakneck speed who gathers the ball a foot from a line be compelled to keep it in if he’s only going to surrender it to the opposition? I agree, penalise the blatant ones, but what about these grey decisions?

    Too often the player attacking the ball is denied the instinct of clearing it, and that’s all that’s happening sometimes. If it takes odd bounces and goes out of bounds 50, 30, or 10 metres away, how can the player be penalised? What is their option? To keep the ball in play where they are, risk losing it and give it up to the opposition? That to me reads as no option.

    Football should be about common sense, but every time the AFL prod the game with some new stupid rule, some schism of abhorrent behaviour crops up that then needs to be addressed.

    The head is sacrosanct, remember that? Now the players start ducking to take advantage of it, so umpires need to adjudicate whether head-high contact is legitimate or whether the player is trying to create a free kick.

    I grew up with football in the early 1980s when you won a free kick for being hit in the head. It was called ‘too high’, and players who ducked did so at their peril. How did something that was once common sense become so convoluted?

    My easy answer is that somewhere along the line the AFL grew apprehensive of packs that formed around the ball. The solution should’ve been to start paying free kicks – holding the ball, illegal disposal and all that – but the AFL wasn’t happy about stoppages either.

    Look at the way changes have been made over the years – penalising the deliberate rushed behind, allowing a player to take a kick-out immediately (they used to have wait until the goal umpire had stopped waving the flags), increasing how often deliberate out of bounds is paid, decreasing the time a player has to get rid of the ball from a mark or free.

    In all case changes are designed to try to keep the ball in motion, meaning tackle-based free kicks have been marginalised. I’ve seen games in which a team will get 90 tackles and be rewarded only a handful of times.

    (Image: AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    There are three explanations as to why this is occuring.

    The first is that the players are really bad at tackling. Given this is their profession and they they tackle every week, I find it unlikely that they could be consistently this bad.

    The second is that the opposition are just too good at disposing of the ball from a tackle. I guess you could suggest this is the correct option if throwing and dropping the ball have become accepted practices.

    The third is taht these free kicks are just not being paid as much, Which is a shame because a team should be rewarded for their work ethic, especially if they’re applying legitimately good tackles that are dispossessing opponents.

    But let’s keep the ball in motion. Let’s keep it moving. Let’s not pause because God forbid we don’t want it to become ugly – that is, stop-start – as a spectacle, even though by allowing imprecise disposal you’re actually undermining precision of ball movement and thus inviting congestion.

    Rule changes, which are often kneejerk reactions, have become eyesores. One player slides into congestion and breaks another player’s leg in just about the only instance of such an incident in 150 years and we ban diving in for the ball, even when it’s the only viable alternative. It’s denying players the capacity to legitimately contest and win the ball.

    Rules are being designed solely to pretty up the game, because what we need is the ball constantly in motion (while depriving teams interchange opportunities), higher scores (because a low-scoring game can’t be good) and rules with interpretations so grey that they become lotteries to the extent that even players, fans and commentators hold their breath for a determination because they know the outcome could go either way.

    If you want aesthetically pleasing rules, at least consider how they’ll they affect the game and the way that they will evolve from that point. Is it for the better? I think I can count about three rules the AFL has introduced over the last 25 years that have worked.

    Or will the game schism? Will the rules become novelies sighted infrequently? It really shouldn’t be that hard.

    And pauses in a game that’s as frenetic and physical as AFL? Well, it’s really not that bad.