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Opinion

Six Points: The broken rule that the AFL must fix, and the simple, obvious stat that will cost someone the flag

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3rd July, 2022
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Damien Hardwick once said July was ‘big boy month’ in the AFL. And after this weekend, it sure feels like he’s bang on the money.

A number of serious statements have been made by some of the leading contenders, most notably Brisbane and Melbourne, while St Kilda showed their season, thought shot last week, remains well and truly alive.

But it was also a week for disappointment, with Carlton, Gold Coast and Sydney all letting slip golden chances to prove their bona fides, with defeat set to have some major ramifications.

Along the way, we saw some epic highlights – none better than this grab by Mitch Georgiades.

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Let’s wrap it all up!

1. Bad goalkicking will cost someone a premiership this year

For all the talk about winning contested footy, gaining territory and stacking on heaps of pressure, kicking for goal is still the most important part of footy.

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All your work to win the ball, work it forward and find a teammate within scoring range is wasted if said teammate can’t finish off by putting it through the big sticks.

Many teams this year have spurned a game they should have won due to errant kicking for goal, with Carlton, Port Adelaide and Sydney the latest high-profile examples.

The Blues should have buried St Kilda in Friday night, but in perfect conditions, player after player missed simple set shots. Charlie Curnow kicked four behinds for the night, George Hewett and Tom De Koning both shanked gimmes from close range, while Harry McKay’s usual deadliness from the snap let him down.

Then, on Saturday, the Swans couldn’t buy a goal to save their lives while Essendon couldn’t miss. Tom Papley was the prime culprit with a number of wayward snaps, but a number of teammates weren’t that far behind.

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12.14 to 15.5 is a scoreline that would have Swans fans tearing their hair out, and could well cost them a home final come September. As for the Blues, their top-four chances have been rocked by the same.

Port Adelaide at least kicked very well for much of the match, but deep into the final term, Robbie Gray and Todd Marshall both missed chances to bring the deficit back to within a goal. Just about every player in the game would have been expected to nail both – that the misses came from the most clutch player in the game and the most accurate set shot of the year made it farcical.

It’s bizarre that, for all the advances made to the game, goalkicking remains as much of a crapshoot as ever. It’s not better or worse than days gone by – teams tend to have more players taking shots than 30 years ago, when it was mostly down to the big full-forward – but it’s alarming how much of an impact it has on games, and how little there seems to be done about it.

Make no mistake, bad kicking will cost a team a big final this year – the season is too even for it to not have a sizeable impact somewhere down the line. It may have already cost the Swans and Blues a high enough ladder finish to have a reasonable chance of impacting September action.

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I’m always staggered that many players, especially forwards, don’t seem to put the hours in at training kicking for goal the way they do other things. It’s really only when a forward has a particularly bad run that they are pressured into acquiring a goalkicking coach, a la Joe Daniher or Levi Casboult.

There have been too many great goalkickers over long careers – Tory Dickson made a career out of it at the Western Bulldogs, Matthew Lloyd was incredible and Todd Marshall is the best of the modern players (until Sunday evening)- for there not to be more science into the art, surely? It matters too much to not be given full attention.

The team that finally figures it out – West Coast have gone closest, but even they were wayward against Richmond – will have a crucial edge on the rest of the competition. It might even be a premiership-winning edge.

Patrick Cripps of the Blues looks dejected after a loss.

Patrick Cripps of the Blues looks dejected after a loss. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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2. The deliberate behind rule is broken

It’s been problematic for a good long while, but two incidents this week – and one from last – convinced me that something urgently needs to be done about the deliberate behind rule.

On Thursday night, Brisbane defender Jack Payne chose to waltz the ball over the line for a point with not a Bulldog within the frame. All clear, one behind.

Then, on Saturday afternoon at the Adelaide Oval, Jake Lever, under no pressure whatsoever, decided to concede rather than turn back into congestion and risk a hacked turnover kick. There were other examples from this weekend, and this season, but those two in particular stuck in the maw.

Contrast that to last week, when Darcy Moore, under genuine pressure, made the fatal decision to try and get it through for a point from outside the nine-metre mark.

Under the rules, the Moore decision was correct – players aren’t allowed to rush the ball through from further than nine metres out – and the Payne and Lever ones were not – players are also required under the laws of the game to not be under ‘immediate physical pressure’.

But this isn’t about umpires stuffing up; it’s about the rule becoming clearly bastardised from its initial intent.

In essence, the rule is now: if you’re within touching distance of the goal line, you can basically get away with murder. On the odd occasion, a particularly litigious ump will ping some poor soul, but it’s rare enough that defenders now know they have an out there.

The game has been trending towards removing that ‘out’ – look at how harsh the deliberate out of bounds rule now is. If Payne or Lever had done that over the boundary line instead of the goal line, it would have been the most obvious free kick in existence.

Returning the rule back to how it is in the laws – requiring immediate pressure – is an absolute must; because as it stands, the inconsistency is maddening, and the wrong players (like Moore) are copping the rough end of the stick. Even making it a harsher ruling, as it has for the deliberate out of bounds – where you have to have ‘sufficient intent to keep the ball in’ – would be better than the current version.

3. Time for the AFL to decide where it stands on umpire contact

I’m willing to give Eric Hipwood enough of the benefit of the doubt for pushing Ryan Gardner into an umpire on Thursday night for me to believe suspending him for it would be over the top.

Some good vision from behind the goals from Luke Hodge paints a pretty clear picture of what happens: in my view, Gardner looks to engage, Hipwood sees the umpire, realises he can get some space if he gets the ump in between himself and the Bulldog, attempts to shunt him to the side to cause the screen, and things go awry.

Having said that, it was a perfect encapsulation of how badly the AFL have dropped the ball on umpire contact, and allowed unbecoming trends to creep into the game.

Gardner is a sizeable fella, and most umpires, well, aren’t. Nothing good can come of collisions between the two parties.

In 2018, the AFL had a chance to undertake a serious crackdown on umpire contact. But, aside from suspensions for Tom Hawkins and Ed Curnow (the latter only after a league complaint), the wet lettuce leaf option was taken: fines, and fines galore. Which, as we all know, do diddly squat for changing behaviour.

The league has slackened its grip so much that players that a dangerous age-old trick remains as prevalent as ever – as Eddie Betts said during the weekend, it’s a common tactic for forwards to, where possible, get the umpire in the road of an opponent. Unless you’re a moron (hi, Toby Greene) then you can get away with most contact, as Lachie Neale did last year.

Hipwood became the poster boy for it, but when all the focus was on Nat Fyfe touching the umpire against Carlton last week, hardly anything was made of the real culprit – Blue Matt Cottrell, who shunted him forwards in the first place.

This isn’t about necessarily increasing the punishments for indiscretions – Hipwood will likely cop a hefty fine, while Cottrell didn’t even get that, and fair enough under the current interpretation.

It’s more about the AFL deciding, once and for all, where it stands, removing the grey area, and making it clear that any umpire contact that could have been avoided, whether it’s you directly touching them or forcing someone else into them, starts with suspension.

But the mere fact that Hipwood felt safe enough to get try to use the umpire that way is such a bad look for the game. If he knew that it was at least a week on the sidelines for the faintest touch, then I doubt he’d have rolled the dice.

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4. North Melbourne need – and deserve – a priority pick

North Melbourne’s only win out of another ghastly weekend was former club great David King ratioing Stephen Quartermain on Twitter, on the subject of a priority pick.

There’s an idea in some circles that because this hole is of the Kangaroos’ own making – and there have been few deeper in modern AFL history – they have lost the right to ask for a priority pick.

Here’s the thing, though: no club ever falls into a hole by accident. The Roos have made a series of poor decisions to get to this point, to be sure, but so does every struggling club.

Equally, you can never convince me that delisting Jamie Macmillan, Mason Wood and Majak Daw was the difference between North being competitive and the swirling black hole they are now. Of the players shown the door in their massive list cull at the end of 2020, surely only Ben Brown would really move the needle towards the positive.

The only thing that can fix North Melbourne is time. Time and patience. One priority pick, be it near the top of the draft a la Gold Coast with Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson, or at the end of the first round, won’t make an instant difference. But it will at least increase the chances, marginally, of getting in a game-changing, generational talent.

Hawthorn won a flag off the back of a priority pick in 2004 – they used it to nab both Jarryd Roughead and Lance Franklin, and the rest was history. Some others don’t work – remember James Strauss, Dees fans?

Melbourne themselves are a prime example of how quickly things can turn around with just a few young guns: they nailed three high draft picks in consecutive years on Angus Brayshaw, Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca in 2014-15. It’s arguable that trio will earn the six Brownlow votes between them against Adelaide.

None of them were priority picks – Brayshaw’s was a compensatory one for losing James Frawley – but it’s unarguable proof that if you nail your picks and develop your youngsters well, good things can come.

Luke Davies-Uniacke and Jy Simpkin were the Roos’ best against Geelong in an encouraging sign, but this is a club at rock bottom, and somehow still falling fast.

In a year full of gruesome losses and unwanted records, their 112-point loss to Geelong, featuring 39 scoring shots to seven, was the worst of the bunch.

If any team has ever needed a priority pick, it’s this mob.

5. The AFLW draft needs urgent fixing

It’s been written about at length, but it’s clear the AFLW has some serious issues regarding the integrity of the competition.

Too many star players are being lured to new expansion sides for my liking, and now even the draft is being impacted, with number one draft pick Montana Ham going to Sydney under dubious circumstances.

Ham, Victorian born and bred, opted to nominate for NSW in the draft – under AFLW rules, players rightly get to choose which state they can be drafted to.

The thing is, that rule was designed so that players didn’t have to shift states for their careers and sacrifice their day jobs. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth, and that of many clubs, that this clear violation of the spirit of the rule has been given the all clear.

This is nothing against Ham – she’s an absolute star, and deserves to play for the club she wants in the place she wants to. But then again, so do all the men’s draftees who get sent around the country.

It goes without saying that pretty much all of these issues would be solved with a pay hike to fully professionalise the game. Let’s start there, and fix it up when we get that done.

6. Nic Naitanui is still ridiculous

You could have forgiven Nic Naitanui for being rusty on his AFL return, having not played senior footy since Round 4.

Instead, he could well have been the best man on the ground, even with his Eagles going down by 35 points in a tussle with Richmond that was tighter than the scoreboard reflects.

Naitanui’s tap work, particularly at centre bounces, is legendary. That the Eagles, who have been battered into submission at the coalface all year, smashed the Tigers 44-32 in the clearances was just about all down to the big ruckman.

It’s remarkable, too, how much of a better footballer Tim Kelly looked with someone palming the ball down his throat. The explosive speed was back, as was the penetrating kicking, with his 40 disposals cutting the Tigers apart all afternoon.

This wasn’t against some nobody in the ruck, either – Toby Nankervis is just about the most brutal big man in the game. But he couldn’t compete with Naitanui, either in the air or even in the battle of strength around the ground.

And for those of you in the back that say he doesn’t do enough around the ground, I’d say 19 touches, three marks and a goal is a pretty handy effort!

At 32 years of age, Naitanui is still pretty much the difference between the Eagles being a seriously competitive outfit as they prepare the next generation to take over, and the wayward mess we’ve seen for much of the year. Playing just 69 per cent game time, too, his efforts seem pretty sustainable to keep playing for a while yet.

There’s been talk of involving him in trade deals to try and get Luke Jackson, and previously Tim English, over to the Eagles. Nonsense. Nic Nat is still just as valuable in the here and now as either of them. He deserves to, and almost certainly will, finish as a one club player.

Nic Naitanui of the Eagles takes the ball

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Random thoughts

– I counted about nine times Mark Howard mixed up Nick Blakey and Callum Mills on Saturday. Any chance one of them could dye their hair blue or something?

– Collingwood waiting for Darcy Moore to arrive before singing the team song was just so gosh darn wholesome.

– Any chance the footy gods could give Hunter Clark a break at some point?

– Mitch Brown might be one injury away from being a premiership player this year. It’s been a wild ride for him.

– Daniel Rioli has been a genuine game-changer for the Tigers this year. His pace off half-back is wild.

– There’s something completely fitting about it being Luke Parker that set up Nick Hind’s winning goal on Saturday.

Am I the least fun person alive for thinking for a split second Mitch Georgiades shouldn’t have been paid that mark?

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