While watching the St Kilda versus Port game on Saturday, I wondered what exactly has happened to footy.
There was no flow, no rhythm and no structure. The play looked hectic, hurried and rushed. It was chaos. No one seemed able to get a clean hold on the ball – what you might expect in heavy rain or maybe from players at a much lower level.
At first I credited the intense pressure both sides were applying. Good for them, I thought. They were really going after it. It wasn’t pretty, but it showed heart and determination.
As the match slogged on, I realised I was misinterpreting what I was seeing. The real explanation was much less admirable.
In reality, no one was taking meaningful possession of the ball because no one wanted to take possession of it. They were all afraid of getting pinged for holding the ball.
Over the last month or so, we’ve all seen and talked a lot about the AFL’s effort to keep play moving by asking umpires to adjudicate the holding the ball rule a bit differently.
Umps have been instructed to pay a free kick for holding the ball whenever a player does not make a genuine attempt to dispose of the ball, even without a prior opportunity to dispose of it.
Pundits, coaches and fans shouted immediately that this would lead to possession aversion. It punishes aggressive play, they said. It will ruin the game, they said. And now, it seems, we’ve reached that point.
I initially supported the change in interpretation. The expectation of a genuine attempt at disposal had long been a joke. Players would jump on the ball, grip it with every ounce of strength they have, and proceed to lamely tap the ball with the other fist while waiting for the ump to whistle for a ball-up. It was pathetic.
A couple times a game, someone would get called for dragging it in, but it was never enough to keep players from simply trapping the ball. So when the push came to force players to get real about keeping the ball in motion, I thought it seemed apt.
In the first few weeks, we saw some pretty stiff free kicks paid. It was inconsistent, and didn’t quite fit the intent of the new interpretation. The groaning from all quarters got louder. After his side’s win over Adelaide, Brett Ratten commented publicly that players would become hesitant to take first possession.
I kept thinking, “Give it time; they just need to work out the kinks.” However, after four rounds or so, we do not have improved movement, we have hot potato. No one wants to grab the ball. Something has to change.
When someone uses the tired adage about the early bird getting the worm, I always consider the rebuttal: “Yes, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” While a little macabre, I’ve always sort of like that line, because I like to think prudence is as important as speed (my tendency to procrastinate is unrelated, so quiet).
That doesn’t mean always rewarding hesitancy. The goal is to figure out a way to outsmart the trap. Find a way to get there first, be wise about it, and get that cheese. On the footy field right now, though, the message is clear: pick up the ball first, and you’re dead.
So what to do? Should we return to the traditional application? I’d rather not, for the aforementioned reasons. Yet, what we see currently cannot continue.
How do we do all of the following at the same time:
1) Keep the play moving (this is, after all, the whole purpose of the holding the ball rule);
2) Hold players accountable for genuinely attempting to dispose of the ball;
3) Ensure prior opportunity is well understood and consistently afforded;
4) Maintain the incentive for players to take first possession in most cases.
Can we even attain all those things? It’s a tall order, and I’m sure the answer is not simple. I desperately hope the AFL can find a way to bring back some coherency to this aspect of the game.