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Opinion

Six Points: The dangerous problem the AFL must fix now, and is there a better solution than red cards?

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26th June, 2022
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Nobody would have been surprised if they’d been told a round featuring all the top eight sides playing each other would feature the game of the year.

But to call Geelong’s win over Richmond at the MCG on Saturday just 2022’s best feels like selling it short: with drama, controversy, comebacks aplenty, a thrilling finish and a high standard of footy on display throughout, this was about as good as it gets in the home-and-away season.

And from red cards to protection for injured players, it’s no wonder the match provided the majority of the weekend’s talking points.

Elsewhere, it was a week of statements, with Carlton and Melbourne staking their claims as leading premiership contenders with significant victories, the Western Bulldogs and Port Adelaide keeping themselves well and truly in the hunt, and St Kilda proving that just because you’re an AFL team doesn’t automatically make you AFL standard.

Let’s pick apart all the action and dive straight in.

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1. Red cards make sense, but there might be a better way

Tom Stewart’s high bump on Dion Prestia to force him out of the game with concussion is the textbook case for those wanting red cards to be brought to the AFL.

It’s known that soon-to-depart league CEO Gillon McLachlan is against such a ruling, but there’s no doubt seeing Geelong’s most important player prove crucial to their thrilling victory after knocking out Richmond’s most important is a very bad look.

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I think, though, it’s important to recognise that this is like Tom Hawkins hitting the post in the 2009 grand final – a rare perfect example of where a rule change is needed that won’t account for the majority of other similar incidents with more shades of grey. Best player rubs out best player with a dirty act – take them both out of the game, and it evens the ledger.

>>READ: The AFL should send off players for violent actions that take a player out

If instead of Stewart, it had been Jed Bews or Jake Kolodjashnij bumping Prestia, or if Stewart had KOed youngster Judson Clarke, would there be the same level of furore? Compared to Stewart or Andrew Gaff’s hit on Andrew Brayshaw in 2018, calls for a red card were noticeably quieter when Tom Bugg punched Callum Mills off the ball in 2017; sending Bugg off as well would still have left Sydney with a more important absentee.

While the outrage over Stewart’s act is justified – this was everything that needs to be stamped out of the game – I’d argue it’s right on the borderline of what constitutes an off-the-ball act, which has been the basis for plenty of the red card debate over the years.

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The ball was gone, and the bump was late and high – but as bad as it was, it’s not Barry Hall king hitting Brent Staker, or Gaff knocking Brayshaw’s teeth out. It’s more in the realm of Jeremy Cameron’s elbow that KOed Harris Andrews in 2017; in play, but dirty as all hell and deserving a serious ban.

For me, there is too much grey area in the game for a red card to be anything but problematic. If we’re limiting it to off-the-ball incidents, Stewart might avoid it anyway; if we’re not, then maybe an incident like Zak Jones’ bump on Luke Parker on Saturday night, for which he was fortunate that Parker’s head is made of cement, would be unfairly deemed red card worthy in the right circumstances if the player is knocked out.

Imagine the endless debate over whether Patrick Dangerfield should have seen red for that Nick Vlastuin incident in the 2020 grand final. A decision there, either way, will have talkback numbers in overdrive for weeks.

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Red cards are a staple of most other sports, and they always tend to bring controversy. There have been enough questionably rugby union red cards (and ones not paid) as to leave fans tearing their hair out for me to be somewhat glad there’s not yet another avenue for an AFL game to be seriously affected in this manner.

My solution is this: every suspension of greater than two weeks (Stewart will surely be the first to cop a ban that size this year, and the new Tribunal fines system has made them exceedingly rare) will require one of those matches to be the next time the two teams play.

As an added penalty, that team will not be able to replace them in the 22 – so the next time the Tigers play Geelong, for instance, the Cats will not only be without Stewart, but with only three on the bench from the first bounce.

It’s not perfect, but it at least sets in stone the threshold for which acts go beyond the pale. It removes the grey of off- or on-the-ball acts – and the punishments are dished out by Match Review Officer Michael Christian as part of his job, not another official in a bunker playing judge, jury and excecutioner.

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It also ensures a team and player cop as even a punishment as possible, no matter if it’s the best player doing it or the 22nd picked – a la Bugg and Mills.

What greater justice would there be for Prestia and Richmond for an act which, let’s be honest, had a sizeable impact on the result on Saturday, then for the culprit to miss, say, a grand final? After Saturday’s epic, there’s every chance the Cats and Tigers could meet again on the biggest stage of all.

As for Stewart’s action, the consensus seems to be around four weeks. Steven May got five weeks in 2016 for a bump on Stefan Martin that, while more obviously violent, is actually pretty similar when you get down to it – but May had priors, so four for the previously clean Stewart is about right.

2. Rules to stop play for injured players are badly needed

Now that Stewart’s part is out of the way, let’s focus on the even more important bit: ensuring Prestia’s welfare.

No one likes to see concussions in the game, and the sight of an obviously affected Prestia in the hands of the trainers made for confronting vision.

Or it would, if play hadn’t inexplicably continued going on around him.

This is the second time in two weeks that the game has gone on with a player in major trouble – after Gold Coast’s Wil Powell suffered one of the more horrifying leg injuries in recent memory against the Crows last round, Taylor Walker was even allowed to take a set shot a good minute later, with a stretcher making its way over.

Saturday’s incident was even worse, with a Geelong player actually kicking the ball directly over Prestia and the trainers at one point.

Not only does it leave Richmond a player down for all the time it takes to get Prestia off the field, it’s a serious and obvious safety risk, too. It was a genuine farce.

It’s not even wholly the umpire’s fault – though I’d argue basic common sense should have been applied. Under the laws of the game, play is only required to stop if a stretcher enters the field of play, and is actually in the way of the game. Or under the blood rule.

Dion Prestia with cartoon birds flying around his head? All good, play on. Wil Powell with his foot facing his shin? Nah, you’re far enough out of the play, let’s keep going with it until there’s an actual stoppage.

A tiny trickle of blood on Joel Selwood’s face? Whistle, stop play, get yourself off the ground, son.

If the AFL is serious about concussion, or indeed the welfare of its players in any incident, then it’s time to seriously crack down on this. Thankfully, it appears it was addressed in Adelaide’s win over North Melbourne, with the game slowed a number of times with players down hurt. But even then, there were problems.

At the very least, the rule allowing players on a stretcher to leave the field via the most convenient possible means rather than through the interchange gates should apply in this case – getting Prestia off the ground and out of harm’s way should be priority number one.

Could it be rorted? Sure – a team could theoretically have a player feign or exacerbate an injury to stop play with a fast break going on.

Two problems, though: one, it takes them out of the play and relies on an umpire noticing, which is a huge risk to task; and two, the current stretcher system can also be gamed. Sydney did it in 2016, when they rushed the stretcher out at a crucial late stage against Brisbane for Callum Sinclair, only for him to limp off under his own steam.

Fingers crossed Prestia is okay, and will be ready to play again once his mandatory 12-game concussion protocol expires – but the game let him down badly on Saturday.

Dion Prestia of the Tigers is helped from the ground after being bumped by Tom Stewart.

Dion Prestia of the Tigers is helped from the ground after being bumped by Tom Stewart. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

3. AFL shows its hypocrisy in chasing Robbie Williams

Reports this week surfaced that the prime target for the AFL’s grand final entertainment is Robbie Williams, with the league pursuing a multi-million dollar deal to have the music icon perform at the MCG.

If it happens, surely the majority of fans would agree with me in thinking it’s a colossal waste of money for a competition still purportedly feeling the after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And given how much time he has spent lambasting Meat Loaf’s infamous 2011 grand final performance, it seems an odd way for Gillon McLachlan to finish his tenure by proving he’s learned nothing at all.

The 2020 and 2021 grand final entertainment pieces proved that Australian talent can still put on a great show. Yes, Sheppard weren’t The Killers, but frankly nobody is going to be. (And somehow, I can’t really see Max Gawn jumping on stage with Robbie to belt out Let Me Entertain You.)

Given the opposition from club presidents around the impact a new Tasmanian team could have on the game’s bottom line – Tony Cochrane said last week too many teams are struggling financially as it is – what bigger middle finger could the AFL hand the people of Tasmania than to prioritise a music act over giving a heartland footy state what it clearly deserves?

I have the same thoughts on this as I do a night grand final making the entertainment pop: the awesome thing about Australian sports is that the sport itself takes the main stage. It’s not like America, where the razzle-dazzle of the half time Super Bowl show takes centre stage, mostly because – in my opinion – American football is just painful to sit through.

Ask people what they remember of the 2005 grand final – nobody is going to say, “Well, Leo Barry’s mark was pretty good, but really Michael Bublé’s performance was the highlight”. The game itself takes precedence over the other goings-on, as it should.

I’m probably being too cruel here, but frankly if your only reason for watching a grand final, or worse still going to the game, is for the entertainment, then give your ticket to someone else.

Robbie Williams might be a great get. Who knows. But with local footy in serious strife, Tasmania being told the game can’t afford to give it the respect it deserves and a whole host of other financial issues directly affecting the code, giving him millions to be a secondary act on grand final day would be pissing money up against a wall.

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4. Just one tweak is needed to make Friday double-headers perfect

Considering the crowd issues that have plagued the AFL this year, getting a tick over 32,000 to the Western Bulldogs-Hawthorn game on Friday night was a pretty decent effort.

As an attendee, while I can’t offer anything more concrete than ‘the vibe’, it certainly seemed like a lot more kids were at the game than previous Friday night matches, such as the Geelong-Bulldogs match a few weeks ago. No doubt for any parents involved in junior sport on Saturday morning, the 50 minutes would have made a sizeable difference.

A 7pm starting time feels a smidge early to me, with outer-suburban or rural footy fans – and that’s a decent chunk of the Dogs’ supporter base – really needing to get a wriggle on to get to Marvel Stadium for the start. But with the AFL flagging earlier first bounces as soon as 2023, it seems like a reasonable idea.

I’m also slowly coming around to Friday night double-headers as a concept – for all the criticism about the two teams playing there this weekend being both outside the eight, the actual footy played by the Dogs, Hawks, Essendon and West Coast was free-flowing and fun to watch. Provided they don’t dilute actual blockbusters – hi, Showdown – it actually has wheels, and uses the two-hour time difference between the east coast and Perth quite effectively.

Indeed, the only change I’d make would be to, where possible, move the later match back a bit. A 6:40pm first bounce in Perth seems too early; shift that to 7:20, say, and you’d remove a big chunk of the overlap.

Then, instead of getting back home from Marvel to only watch the last quarter of the Eagles’ drought-breaking win, you could plonk on the couch for the entire second half. Or if you’d stayed home for the evening, split your screen for a quarter and enjoy five uninterrupted hours of footy.

Super Rugby have done this well in the last few years – they’ll have a game starting at 7:45pm on a Friday or Saturday night in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, and a 10pm starting time (AEST) for Western Force games.

It won’t always be as straightforward – or as entertaining – as this Friday, but there’s already enough proof of concept to give it a cautious thumbs up for the future.

James Sicily of the Hawks and Marcus Bontempelli of the Bulldogs wrestle.

James Sicily of the Hawks and Marcus Bontempelli of the Bulldogs wrestle. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

5. Port prove you have to take the ruck seriously

Port Adelaide got away with not having a recognised ruckman against Sydney, and for longer than expected against Richmond.

They didn’t pay the price for it against Gold Coast, but you couldn’t say they got away with it. A supreme performance in the ruck from Jarrod Witts, up against the unintimidating duo (in ruck terms at least) of Charlie Dixon and Jeremy Finlayson kept the Suns right in the hunt all the way through.

It’s one thing to best a mobile ruckman, as Peter Ladhams was for the Swans last week; it’s quite another to take on one of the game’s best and biggest in Witts. Ken Hinkley is very, very lucky it didn’t cost them dearly.

Dixon, to his immense credit, dug deep to force a stalemate for large portions of the second half, and certainly held his own there more than Finlayson. But I’d argue that’s sacrificing too much in your forward line – there’s a reason Geelong have resisted the urge to try Tom Hawkins as the number one ruck despite crying out for a bona fide big man for about a decade.

In the end, it’s probably a good thing for the game that the strategy didn’t bear fruit; the ruckman is one of the game’s most iconic features, and the day teams move away from it will be a sad one. Even now, the preferred type is to have someone that can influence the game around the ground, a la Tim English, Tom De Koning and Luke Jackson.

But Witts is showing this season that there is still room for the old-fashioned tap ruckman, with a fierceness at the contest and a liking to throw his weight around. And that’s awesome.

6. The fixturing farce creating a slanted competition

Everyone knows the AFL fixture is basically a meme at this point.

From the method of choosing the teams each team plays twice giving a substantial advantage to 13th year on year, to the lack of MCG games for all but six or seven clubs, all the way to the venue of the grand final itself, there’s no shortage of things for footy fans to gripe about.

So here’s my one: Geelong should not be playing a home game against Richmond at the MCG in the home-and-away season. That the Cats squeaked past the Tigers anyway (mostly because of that Stewart bump) is immaterial in this.

Yes, I understand why it happens: there’s an AFL agreement mandating 45 games at the MCG. And of course, the AFL is keen to maximise their revenue for these games – the Tigers are obviously going to be a higher-drawing side than most. But the amount of problems it creates for the inequality of the fixture are such that it necessitates a closer look.

For starters, the Cats don’t want it: the club has long been forced to reluctantly accept only nine games at their true home ground, plus only finals in exceptional circumstances.

As a secondary, giving Richmond an extra game at their home ground, never mind that it’s where the grand final is anyway, is an obvious free kick. Nothing against the Tigers, but the difference between playing Geelong in Geelong and at the ‘G is enormous.

And as a third thing, it’s markedly unfair to the 11 teams that don’t play regular footy at the MCG – the eight interstate teams and the three Marvel Stadium tenants – to be deprived a chance of playing at that venue.

Fremantle play just one game at the ‘G this home-and-away season; Brisbane’s game against Melbourne was their first at the ground since Round 1, 2020; all of the Bulldogs, St Kilda and North Melbourne will play just twice there all year.

The strange thing is the AFL used to handle this quite well: fifteen years ago, the Marvel Stadium tenants would occasionally host matches at the MCG – even against interstate teams. There was an unwritten rule, too, that if you were any good, especially as a Victorian team, you didn’t have to play Geelong in Geelong. The Kangaroos got the Cats twice hosting them at Marvel Stadium in 2016 and 2017.

These days, it seems that the richer you are, the better deal you get. It has been a generation since Collingwood have played down in Geelong, Essendon went down there for the first time since the 1990s last year, and on the back of an 11-11 season and an elimination final got the Cats hosting them at the ‘G again this year. Richmond went down there in 2017, with the fixture coming out before they went on their three-flag tear.

In a competition as even as this, little advantages like that stack up, and can prove the difference between top four and squeaking into the finals, or missing altogether. It’s time to go back to the future on this.

Random thoughts

– Seen a lot of hate for it, but I loved Mitch Robinson’s still thinking he’d got Brisbane back into the game after this goal.

– Fans getting involved in scuffles is a great way to get those big metal barriers put up around the field. Let’s not be idiots.

– Roos giving further fuel to the conspiracy theory by playing Ben McKay forward, I see.

– You can praise Tom Stewart’s game after that bump, but I couldn’t stand the talk of him being the ‘hero’ of the day. Mostly because Tyson Stengle exists.

– Nothing has shocked me more this season than St Kilda’s fall. It’s almost happened overnight.

– Jackson Archer getting into a fight in the first quarter of his debut game was just perfect.

– I’m concerned as a Bulldogs fan that Sam Darcy and Jamarra Ugle-Hagan will break out the very year the midfield gets too old to get it to them.

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