The bump is dead. The marking contest is dead. Contact footy is dead. Or so we’ve been told recently. To my eyes, it all looks much the same.
It was James Kelly’s suspension for a hip-and-shoulder on Brendon Goddard that saw the mourning of that particular tactic. Likewise the marking contests between Ben Reid and Tom Bellchambers, then Scott Thompson and David Hale.
But really, the only umpiring rule that has annoyed me on occasion this year has been the free kick for sliding into the legs of an opponent.
When a player is running from distance and slides into another, regardless of whether it’s head, legs or body first, that’s a dangerous act that should concede a free kick.
The rules are right, it should be out of the game. You don’t want to see the knee injuries or broken legs that can come with a dangerous slide.
But there’s confusion in applying the rule.
We’ve seen players fighting for a ball on the ground, then penalised when they dive toward it, hitting the legs of an opponent without significant force. We’ve seen others not pinged for the same thing. That’s where the discontent lies.
In this case, the only question should be whether the player is at risk. Those occasions should stand out, and the call has to be made, not calls based on a technicality.
Sure, it’s tricky for players. But whenever a rule changes, players adjust to try to make it benefit them. That’s just being smart.
We had some fun on Fox Footy the other weekend with footage of Jason Dunstall, docking goals from his career record based on the pushes and blocks he employed on opponents.
But really he probably would have been as good a player under modern rulings by adapting his tactics.
The Reid-Bellchambers contest was accentuated because it happened at speed, and with a big feller like Bellchambers having got moving, he was propelled forward.
You can argue over it, but it involved a straight-arm push along with use of the defender’s hands. I think it was more the vague explanation from Jeff Gieschen that caused the uproar.
Once the hands-in-the-back rule came in, we were told by the umpires on their yearly visit to training that if we used a forearm to hold ourselves, or brought a hip in to that contest, we’d be ok as long as we didn’t shove when we pushed off.
I don’t think their adjudication has changed. They look for two motions, and if it’s forceful they call it. Players understand that.
As forwards, I’ll continue to teach my AFL/AIS Academy students that the first thing in the marking contest is to be the quickest to pick up the flight of the ball. Then you can put yourself in the spot to protect the drop zone of the high ball coming in.
If that means you find yourself caught on the side or behind your opponent you can block with body or forearm and position yourself for the flight, keeping your eyes on the ball at all times and you’ll generally be rewarded with the mark. If you use your hands to push, you put yourself on the borderline.
With your forearm under the other guy’s armpit, for instance, it doesn’t matter how big he is, you can still move his centre of gravity. You can tilt in your favour the percentages that the mark will be paid.
In saying all this, things happen quickly once you’re in position, and you have to fight. Sometimes that means breaking a rule, but you can’t give up on the fight to win the contest.
You may get called here and there, but generally if two players are contesting on even terms, the umpires will let them play.
Those same percentages apply to the bump. In live action, Kelly’s bump on Goddard looked fair and effective, its effect exaggerated given Goddard was caught by surprise.
But the Match Review Panel slow down available video to frame-by-frame, and even in slow motion it looked like there was jaw contact.
It meant they had to make the call, because it’s the player’s responsibility when they bump to avoid the head. Lindsay Thomas being cleared caused some confusion, but players should know they’ll at least be reported in that instance.
It doesn’t mean the bump’s dead, no way. If you bump well – whether coming from the side, choosing to block, or a shirtfront like Kelly’s – you just have to avoid the head, and the bump is still a part of the game.
Across all these areas, I don’t think it’s a case of the game softening up. It’s more that we’re hyper-aware of these kind of decisions right now.
Footy’s issue of the moment tends to work in two-week cycles, then be replaced. Overall, I think the umps have done a great job on most occasions this year.
Where there’s the odd contentious decision, it’s good to remember a handful of borderline calls aren’t the same as the rules being changed.