Controversy seems to be the resting state of the game these days – particularly when it comes to free kicks.
But while there was plenty of it in Sydney’s clash with Richmond – and we’re going to be hearing about a lot of it in the next few days – this was just too good a game to not have the footy be the main focus.
This was a cracking game of twists and turns, literally right to the final siren, between both sides desperate to occupy that 5-8 space on the ladder by the end of the season. Both the Tigers and Swans have flaws, sure, but they play high-octane, aggressive footy at their best that resulted in end-to-end action with momentum swings aplenty.
If you’re still looking for reasons to love the game, this match offered all you could ask for.
The reaction to Lance Franklin’s evening at the office probably tells us quite a bit about the imbalance of priorities around the modern footy landscape. It’s incredible that a 35-year old forward, having missed a full 18 months of footy in the not-too-recent past, can still shape the outcome of a match to the extent he is at the moment.
Yet for many in the media, the big talking point for the next 24 hours will be his incident with Trent Cotchin, in which he may or may not have landed a blow to the chin of the former Tigers captain.
For that to be the story, and not his superhuman final quarter in which he looked like kicking a goal every time the ball went near him (he’d end up with three for the term) is, I would argue, more of a problem than any off-the-ball free kick or dodgy holding the ball. If we can’t enjoy a high-scoring game like that, warts and all, then maybe we don’t deserve more.
Franklin was magnificent. After half time, the Swans were too. Let’s worry about whether he misses next week… next week.
For much of the first half, it was vintage Richmond at the SCG. Phenomenal tackling pressure across the ground, a perfectly tuned defensive structure that strangled the life out of Sydney’s forward forays, and ruthlessly efficient with every attacking foray, they looked every bit back to their triple flag-winning best.
Ferocious in close, it was veterans Shane Edwards and Trent Cotchin having as big a say as anyone; Toby Nankervis was a titan in the ruck, and Daniel Rioli and Nick Vlastuin rebounding at will.
The Tigers’ first four goals all came from clearances, with the Swans’ defence unable to cope with quick and precise Richmond entries. It could have been even more emphatic had Tom Lynch’s marking power been available; but the visitors were more than up to feasting at ground level.
Edwards, Hugo Ralphsmith and Maurice Rioli were among those in the thick of the action, with Rioli’s major – coming after two Swans got in a terrible tangle contested the same high ball – epitomising their defensive disarray.
Franklin’s goal on the stroke of half time – coming moments after his clash with Cotchin – was just about the only thing keeping the Swans in the hunt. It would prove a portent of things to come. Poke the bear at your own peril.
The difference after half time – following a stern talking-to from assistant Don Pyke, brought to the club for his attacking prowess – was stark. Winning the ball at the coalface far more, moving the ball directly and finally stable in defence, it was a completely different Swans.
Central to it all was the bold move by John Longmire to switch Callum Mills into defence. Risking their centre deficiency becoming even more profound, the change paid instant dividends. No more were the Tigers able to swarm like bees around the honeypot when the ball hit the ground: instead, Mills arrived from three deep, spoiling the ball into safer waters.
The stat line doesn’t tell of his influence there, with the Tigers suddenly unable to move the ball forward by hook or by crook with Mills sitting in the hole. They’d managed only one mark inside 50 in the entire second half, having taken four in the first.
Just as influential in midfield was Chad Warner; quelled early, his electric movement out of the centre was a sight to behold after half time. Regularly cutting through the middle, his pace was a game-changer: the Tigers, in contrast, had no one to do likewise, with Shai Bolton largely remaining forward.
And of course, on the end of it all was Franklin. Up to half time, youngster Josh Gibcus, with help from Dylan Grimes and Vlastuin, had done a mighty job restricting the great man. Refusing to engage one on one, he used his athleticism to give Buddy an inch of space, then close the gap with a timely spoil.
But with more space in the second half, that tactic would start to unravel. Franklin hasn’t kicked 1000-plus goals without having more than one trick up his sleeve: pushing hard up the ground then sprinting back, his ability to find open space was Gibcus’ kryptonite.
As exciting as the first-year back is, he’ll need a few years to earn Alex Rance’s experience and defensive nous. With the Tigers’ defence falling down around him amid a weight of entries, Buddy exploded.
Okay, now to the controversy. Let’s start with the big one: Warner booting the ball away on the final siren, not realising a free kick had been paid to Prestia.
Was it a 50-metre penalty? There’s no doubt you can make a serious case for it. But you often see players get away with kicking the ball away in the instant a free is paid. ‘Common sense’ was the call from the umpires at hand; it’s a no-win situation for the umps whichever way they had gone. Surely there’s some empathy for the decision, even if you disagree with it.
My take is that it would have been a far worse outcome if the 50m penalty had been paid for it, setting up a shot on the siren. Warner, caught up in the exhilaration of a thrilling win, reacted thinking the game was over: had he known a free had been paid, there’s no way known he would have booted it away and risked turning the impossible into the very possible for Dion Prestia. It was right on the siren, too: I’ve got no doubt in my mind he didn’t hear the whistle, or assumed it was the one for full time.
The argument that anywhere else on the ground, or at any other time, it would have been paid 50 is beside the point, too: is Warner kicking the ball into the stands with five minutes to go in the game? No.
10 years ago? 50 every day of the week. But the game is no longer militant on continuing play after the whistle. Had it been paid, there’s every chance 50 per cent of the footy world would have hammered it anyway as another example of the umpires inserting themselves into the game.
By the letter of the law, Rule 19.2 of the AFL law book states that a 50m penalty can be awarded “if the field umpire is of the opinion that a player… has not returned the football directly and on the full to the player awarded the mark or free kick”. But that is extremely open to interpretation, including the consideration as to whether Warner had heard the call.
Equally, the following sub-clause states that a 50m penalty will be awarded for “any conduct which delays or impedes the play”, which might be the more appropriate clause to consider here. The siren had gone – there was no time to waste. And more to the point, Prestia was far, far too far out for goal to have any chance of kicking the goal. All kicking the ball into the stands would have done is delay the period before which Prestia had the chance to fall 40 metres short.
In any case, it’s another one of those decisions where either call would have been reasonable for the umpires to make… and then got shredded by social media for the rest of the week. Similarly to the infamous ‘Dane Rampe shakes the point post’ incident against Essendon three years ago, the call was made to not award the 50m penalty.
I think both decisions were justifiable by the spirit of the game. You, very reasonably, could argue I’m an idiot. That’s just how this game works.
I’m less happy to tick off the numerous incidents of ‘prohibited contact’ that led to another spate of frees. With 60 for the night, it wasn’t quite as whistle-happy as the Hawthorn-Brisbane game – but some of the frees, most particularly one against Daniel Rioli in the third quarter for the mildest of bumps and one against Robbie Tarrant in the first few minutes for an infringement I’m yet to comprehend – was certainly dicey.
Do we want to see those free kicks paid? No. Is there a directive from higher up to try and stamp all unnecessary off the ball contact out of the game? Clearly.
However, there’s also no denying that the large scorelines in both games – 106-100 tonight, 117-112 in Tasmania – have been brought about to some extent by the number of frees paid. There were millions paid in the ’90s, when scoring was at an all-time high, and people seem to look back on those years fondly enough.
Perhaps it’s time we choose: either a high-scoring, electric game like tonight with the odd free that we can grumble about; or a sport where the umps put the whistle away and we end with a far scrappier contest with repeat rolling mauls.
There will always be controversy in the AFL – there’s too much gray area, too many vested interests. But this game was a classic, and I’m willing to put up with a bit of controversy to get more matches as good as that.