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Here's how to improve the AFL

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Roar Rookie
24th August, 2020

From teams having to relocate out of their state, to the fixture becoming denser, it is undoubtedly the toughest season in the modern era.

However, one specific part of the game has endured heavy scrutiny throughout the entirety of the season. The rules in the game have never been as confusing as they are today, to the point where decisions made by the umpires are random.

Almost every round this season, there has been a dispute debating whether the umpires have made the correct decision or not, and there are many split-opinions on these outcries.

The following rules are ones that I have questioned the most, and within are suggestions to improve the state of the game, and remove current thoughts of the game such as, ‘slow’ and ‘stop start’.

1 – Holding the ball
This is perhaps the most confusing of them all. All season it is been near-impossible to decipher whether a player is caught ‘holding the ball’ or not, as the umpires seem to focus on a certain part of the rule every week, thus changing how it is adjudicated.

The rule: A player is judged to be ‘holding the ball’; if they have had prior opportunity and failed to dispose of the football, or if they have no prior opportunity but make no genuine attempt to dispose of the football, or if a player dives on the football or drags it underneath themselves.

The issue: The main issue for inconsistency within the rule, is that the decision is completely subjective. Every umpire has their own view on the decision on; what prior opportunity is, what a genuine attempt is, or whether a player is dragging a ball in to dispose of it cleanly or in an attempt to claim a stoppage.

The resolution: The easiest way to remove the subjectivity, would be to state a time limit that acts as prior opportunity. Say three seconds is long enough to dispose the football, if a player has held the football for longer than three seconds and is tackled without disposing correctly, it should be ‘holding the ball’. All umpires can count to three, and it allows a much more precise adjudication.

In terms of making a genuine attempt, it made the prior opportunity rule much more complicated. It isn’t necessary, if you have no prior opportunity to dispose of it, why do you have to try anyway? Scrap it.


Dragging the ball in has had next to no issues, it is the most stable component of the rule. It is easy to judge whether or not a player has done so and it has been judged well by the umpires too.

My improved rule: A player is deemed to be ‘holding the ball’ if;
1. They possess the football for more than [a certain amount of time] (prior opportunity) and are tackled without correct disposal.
2. They drag the football underneath them and fail to successfully dispose of the football.

2 – Deliberate out of bounds
This rule is never consistent, and once again it is completely subjective to the umpire. Yes, there have been a few instances where the call is correct, but more often than not, the decision is controversial.

The rule: The act is deemed ‘deliberate out of bounds’ if; a player intentionally kicks, handballs or forces the football over the boundary line.

The issue: This season, it is highlighted that this rule comes into effect in most instances when the game is tight, and in the dying minutes. This has been the norm for the best part of a decade; however, it is becoming most of a regular occurrence this season.

AFL umpire Matt Stevic calls for a score review.

How good is the standard of umpiring in the AFL? (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

This rule is forcing players to disguise themselves trying to keep the ball in, when a throw-in is preferred. When it isn’t disguised well, which is most of the time, players wave their arms in the air, in hope of a free kick. Almost every time.

Players are opting for stoppages a lot of the time, hindering the pace of the game. This can be fixed.

The resolution: This is a tad out there, but why not copy the AFLW. The rule in that competition deems a turnover against the player that last touched the football before it travels out of bounds, outside of the 50-metre arcs.

Within the 50-metres arcs, they keep throw-ins.

This will encourage teams to use the guts of the ground and play a more fast-paced, attacking style of football. This is not only more entertaining, but also removes the need for deliberate calls to be controversial, as it will no longer exist.

My improved rule: When the football exits the area of play, between the two 50-metre arcs, it is deemed a turnover (free kick) against the team who last touched it.

When the football exits the area of play, within the 50-metre arcs, it is a throw in.


3 – The protected area
This rule is completely ridiculous. For a third time, it is mostly subjective toward the umpire. The protected area is so intricate, making it so much harder for players to judge where they are permitted to run.

This has caused so much outrage within the football community as it enforces a 50-metre penalty and on some occasions, two 50-metre penalties.

The rule: The protected area is a corridor ten metres on either side of the ball carrier backwards from the mark, including a ten metre semi-circle behind the ball carrier.

The issue: As said above, this rule is so intricate. Most people would read that rule and have no idea what it means, or where the protected area would lie. As an avid spectator of the game, the protected area turns on and off. Thus, meaning the umpires decide when to enforce it.

It is also so difficult for players to judge such a precise area around the ball-carrier, as well as the umpires to judge what is an infringement. Hence why this rule isn’t enforced as much as others, but when it is, it is a heavy blow.

An additional part of this rule that makes no sense to the game whatsoever, is that if a 50-metre penalty is gained, it seems that no player is allowed to be near the ball carrier.

Forcing the infringing player to run his or her guts out to get in front of the ball-carrier without infringing again, which is near impossible. As most of the time we see the infringing player give up, allowing the ball-carrier to play on once gaining the 50-metre penalty.

A focus point of AFL should be to have pressure on the ball-carrier, rather than a player running to a position or following a player.

Dean Cox

Dean Cox of the Eagles receives the ball for a free kick. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Too much confusion lays around this rule, and you want rules to be clear, so that is a blatant red flag.

The resolution: Two words. Scrap it. This rule has next to no positive effect on the game and is severely frustrating to how confusing the rule is.

Without this rule, it allows players to run freely around the ground without worrying about an invisible ‘protected area’.

Not only this, it will also make the ball-carrier more cautious about their surroundings, if play-on is called, which is a skill within itself.

My improved rule: Players can run near the ball-carrier at dead ball situations, without worry of being penalised.

4 – Nomination rule/third man up
In 2017, the AFL made the decision to scrap the third man up rule, and only allowed nominated ruckmen to compete for a contest such as a throw-in or ball-up. You could say it has been a success, but you can also say there was nothing wrong with the previous rule.

The rule: Only players nominated by the umpire, are allowed to compete for a contest (primarily ruckmen).


The issue: This rule has been questioned a number of times. Yes, it does allow the ruckmen to show off their one-on-one skills, however there is still a grey area, and since 2017 there is still no answers.

There have been plenty of instances where the umpires don’t nominate someone from a certain team, because there are no clear ruckmen, or the umpire nominates the wrong player. Without this rule, anyone can go up and compete.

The resolution: Bring back the old rules. The third man up rule also had some grey area, with blocking issues. But a ‘blocking’ issue is less of a worry compared to a ruckman getting a free run at a ball because the umpire nominated no one.

Who wouldn’t love watching Patrick Cripps or Nat Fyfe take it out of the ruck over the ruckmen, like Lenny Hayes used to do? It makes the contest much more competitive, and may offer less stoppages and congestion, with the higher chance of the ball being cleared.

Nat Fyfe

Nat Fyfe – set him free! (Photo by Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

My improved rule: No more than two players from each team can go up for a ruck contest, as a third or fourth man up.

5 – Centre bounce
Not a rule, but something that has exceeded its time in the game, the centre bounce. I’d give the chance of a ball being bounced straight into the air 50/50.

The issue: Yes, it’s tradition, but it’s also unnecessary when an umpire can throw it in the air successfully every time.


It is a waste of time, not game time, just time.

I don’t particularly see the AFL removing this anytime soon, but the question has to be asked, is it necessary?

The resolution: Throw. It. Up.

That is my take on some suggestions that could improve the ‘state of the game’, especially with the game being called ‘slow’ and ‘stop start’, these improvements could extinguish those thoughts.