AFL rules and their implementation and interpretation have long threatened to make the competition a national joke, and we may have reached a tipping point.
Four prime-time Friday and Saturday night matches in a row have been decided by a single figure margin.
All of them involved big, finals-bound clubs.
All of them were epic encounters.
Yet, all of the water-cooler talk after three of them has been the umpiring, especially the ever-changing interpretations.
The rot started with Hawthorn vs Geelong, one of the matches of the decade.
Legitimate questions should have been asked about Hawthorn’s mental weakness, whether Geelong were indeed ‘back’, and if Hawkins was the best power forward in the league.
But Twitter and talkback radio only had one topic in mind – should Cyril Rioli have been awarded a free kick for holding the ball after his tackle on Mitch Duncan deep in the last quarter?
This of course led to various debates about the rule between seasoned, educated observers, with most conversations going in circles.
No one was right, and no one was wrong, because whether or not that particular incident was worthy of a free changes from year to year, match to match, minute to minute.
There were ten different points of view, all of them legitimate.
Umpires boss Jeff Gieschen weighed in with his usual nonsense. This time it was something about Mitch Duncan being ‘blindsided’, and not being in a ‘natural state’.
Well, AFL is a 360 degree game, so lack of awareness isn’t an excuse. Perhaps Duncan needs to wear a ‘preservatives added’ label.
The following night was Collingwood defeating St Kilda by a goal.
It basically ended the Saints finals chances, and a largely unimpressive Pies outfit were struggling to produce football worthy of their top four position. Could they still finish top two and secure a home final?
None of this was being discussed though, because all focus was on a free kick awarded to Harry O’Brien against Stephen Milne for an alleged front-on push in the dying seconds.
It was hard enough to tell whether Milne had actually infringed after watching it many times from a friendly camera angle, but this time it was the umpire that was blindsided.
Instead of giving the benefit of the doubt to ‘play on’, he made an educated guess. An incorrect one, as Gieschen later observed. Most thought the moon would be blue that night after such an admission from the most irrelevant voice in football (apologies to Kevin Bartlett who continues to fight hard for the title).
Guesswork is much of what the umpires are forced to do these days. With the game played at such a hectic pace, they’re often caught in a position where they can’t see everything, and there are a thousand things to administer. It is easy to sympathise with their lot.
West Coast and Geelong was the next encounter to draw the wrath of observers, and I’m not just talking about the 35,000 Eagles fans at the ground gutter-crawling beneath the lowest common denominator. Their complaints and objections have as much relevance as a grass-green golf ball.
There was the courage of a depleted Cats outfit fighting every inch of the way in a hostile environment, the magnificence of Dean Cox and magnetism of Nic Naitanui, plus the genius and will-power of Steve Johnson on display.
Yet the poor standard of over-umpiring and incredibly strict interpretation of deliberate out-of-bounds were the key topics being discussed after there was more of that decision in one game than is usual over the course of an entire round.
64 free kicks paid, against a season average of 37 going into the game, is more than just an anomaly. Was this officiousness at its worst, the egos of the men controlling the game running wild? Or was it simply the direction of their bosses being enforced?
This was the fifth prime-time marquee match in a row where the free kick count was higher than the season average, suggesting a little umpire ego was involved?
Collingwood’s amazing, backs-to-the-wall defeat of the top of the table Sydney on Saturday night was the least controversial from an umpiring perspective, and a welcome relief it was.
The umpiring was largely excellent, and it was no coincidence that the final free kick figures of this match were smaller than the other three by some margin. Less than half the amount paid compared to the night before, for one.
What a joy it was to see two top sides go at each other without fear of being pulled up for every piece of minor contact.
There were more stoppages in this match than most, which meant more ruck contests, and greater bodies around the ball, men throwing themselves in from all angles, collecting each other heavily without fear or favour.
Now if you want to be technical, you won’t find a stoppage that doesn’t involve some degree of infringement. But in the main, no decision is made because the umpires understand that most of it is completely incidental, which only makes it more frustrating when they do decide to pull one out.
How ridiculous it is to see a pack of fierce competitors each look towards the umpire with one third fear, one third expectation and one third confusion when the whistle is blown? Each one remonstrates, trying to prove they’ve done nothing wrong, when in reality, all of them probably have to some degree.
And what about where one player is on the ball with three 90kg members of the opposition on top of him intent on keeping the ball in, and the umpire decides that he wasn’t trying hard enough.
Don’t even get me started on the ‘protected zone’ either. If there’s one rule that could me make me stop watching football, this will be it. What a joke it is.
Why was it introduced? Forgetting that, the enforcement is even worse.
Players encroach on this ‘protected’ area, which is malleable by the way, five hundred times a game, yet only one or two gets paid, presumably when the umpires remember their superiors are watching.
And what about ‘hands in the back’ in a marking contest?
You almost can’t have a marking contest between two stationary players jostling for position without someone’s hands being in someone’s back at some stage.
And how laughable is it that in order to hold your ground from behind, you can do the exact same motion with the exact same power and have the exact same influence on the contest, yet you’re pinged if using hands, but fine if using the forearm.
Again, this is another one that only gets paid from time to time.
It’s just plain embarrassing.
As for those who say they don’t mind what the umpires pay ‘as long as they’re consistent’, then wake up to yourself. This is the biggest cop out in the game. There’s right and there’s wrong, and making the same bad decision for the length of a game is an exercise in stupidity.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not for all of these free kicks being paid. Far from it. I’m just highlighting the ridiculousness of them being rules in the first place.
Andrew Demetriou, Adrian Anderson and co will point to large crowds, huge television numbers and billion-dollar broadcast deals as evidence of the success of these changes.
But it’s reasonable to say that the game continues to grow and capture our rapt attention in spite of these farcical changes, not because of them.
The game will survive and thrive due to the wizardry of Gary Ablett, the genius of Scott Pendlebury, the freakishness of Buddy Franklin and Cyril Rioli, the brilliance of Trent Cotchin, the hands of Jobe Watson, the explosiveness of Patrick Dangerfield.
The game will survive and thrive because people love their clubs and are passionate about them in every way. The clubs have done a superb job in building and catering to their fan-bases.
Improvement to the spectacle will come from stripping back.
Strip back the rules into a simpler form. Don’t create them on the run. Don’t try to prevent and punish accidents. Let the players play.
Strip back the umpires decision-making to the absolute minimum. Let them relax. Let them use their experience to make judgement calls. Don’t let them guess.
Fans and players get more upset with an incorrect decision than the one that is missed. The incorrect decision is dwelled upon as replays are shown and frustration builds. The missed one is easier to handle because the play is the focus, and it continues.
The umpires instinctively know this. It’s why in a big game, we often think they’ve ‘swallowed the whistle’.
Each round brings us a week closer to what should be a memorable finals series of close results.
I can only hope that when September comes around, it is the football we are focussing on, and not some ‘rule of the week’ or the enforcement of a stupid rule.
Please let it be so.