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Does the AFL need a decision review system?

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8th April, 2021
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The Round 2 clash between Geelong and Brisbane, effectively decided in the last minute of the game by an umpiring non-decision, could have major ramifications for finals aspirations and ladder positions.

While clearly not condoning that Collingwood fan’s outburst against umpires following last week’s Collingwood-Brisbane game, there are and have been significant umpiring issues this year (and previously) associated particularly with the holding/dropping the ball rule.

What exactly is prior opportunity and how is it properly measured and communicated to players? I shudder to think of the possibility of a grand final outcome being determined by a wrong or non-decision or a contentious interpretation.

As a Magpies tragic I am particularly sensitive to this given the Wayne Harmes knock-on from (outside!) the boundary line in 1979 grand final and the disallowed goal against Anthony Rocca in the 2002 grand final.

Umpire Ray Chamberlain gestures during the round 18 AFL match between the Western Bulldogs and the St Kilda Saints at Etihad Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.

(Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

I also do not buy the argument that free kicks even themselves out in the end. While numerically teams may gain approximately the same number of free kicks at the end of play, the impact of a decision in the first minute of play is vastly different from the ramifications of a free kick deep in time-on in the last quarter when the game is on the line.

Umpiring AFL is tricky, and to be sure it’s difficult to get everything right all the time, especially given that the ball pings from one end of the ground to the other in a matter of seconds. Interpretation is still part and parcel of the game. This is where I think a decision review system (DRS) could be brought into play.

There are a host of rules and interpretations in AFL, and I would not suggest that DRS be brought into the frame for every single ruling, just at least in the first instance for holding/dropping the ball. Otherwise the game would go nowhere.

Before I get laughed off this site, hear me out.

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Allow five holding/dropping the ball reviews for each team to an umpire off the field who would have full access to slow-motion vision and replays. Ten seconds would be allowed to request a review. The review could be for a decision made – or a non-decision, as in the case of Mark Blicavs in the Geelong-Brisbane game. Hypothetically the Lions could have challenged the non-decision of holding the ball in the goal square.

To ensure that the game does not get bogged down, I suggest that more focus might be put in place. This could be through limiting the reviews to the final quarter of a game and/or limiting reviews to decisions or non-decisions that occur in the 50-metre arcs at each end of the ground. I have a particular preference for the latter. By concentrating the reviews in the 50-metre arcs the impact of decisions on potential goalscoring could be addressed.

As in cricket, a successful challenge could mean retention of the right to review. Unlike cricket, I think a third umpire decision could be simply whether a decision is correct or incorrect on balance. A simpler approach than cricket is necessary given the frenetic nature of AFL. In cricket the decision about whether more or less than 50 per cent of the ball would hit the stumps in the case of LBWs is needlessly complex.

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The technology of replays is certainly there, so why not use it? After all, the goal review is now largely an accepted part of the game. As for whether teams would somehow use the decision review system to gain a tactical advantage, such as by changing field positions and utilising the interchange bench during the delay in play while the review is underway, this could occur during a goal review.

And in any case, does it matter? It all adds to the theatre and drama. Imagine the further fever-pitched excitement in a grand final if the game is awarded on the basis of a successful review overturning a holding the ball decision or non-decision.

The decision to review could be up to review leaders in each team – say, a captain of reviews in the front half and back half if the 50-metre arc rule were put in place. This is because the actual captain of the team may not be in the vicinity at the time of the alleged umpiring error.

Such an approach could be trialled in the preseason competition. It’s not as though the AFL is averse to tinkering with rules.

Such an approach would have further benefits. Firstly, it could reduce the crowd angst over umpires, which can clearly get ugly otherwise. Second, through the lessons from this experience overall umpiring standards could be raised.

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One further point relates to umpiring more generally – there is a strong argument for attracting more ex-players into the umpiring group. The deliberate out of bounds rule is a case in point of the lack of feel for the game by some umpires. Hacked kicks out of defence when under pressure are not deliberate decisions.