If you’re a Brisbane supporter – or you were barracking for a Collingwood loss on Saturday – then chances are you’re at least a bit miffed about THAT call of advantage in the dying minutes of the 2023 grand final.
In case you missed it, here’s what happened: with 80 seconds to go in the season, Lachie Neale, while handballing to Zac Bailey, was tackled below the knees by Oleg Markov.
But while the whistle rang through loud and clear on Channel 7’s TV coverage, with the umpires all with attached mics to amplify every decision, it seems almost certain that the clamour of an 100,024-strong crowd drowned it out on the field.
Certainly, Bailey missed it: weaving out of traffic before desperately hacking a pressured kick inside 50.
As it was in mid-air, the advantage was paid: Darcy Moore spoiled clear, the ball found its way into Nick Daicos’ hands, he’d pass to Will Hoskin-Elliott, and the Lions wouldn’t get another look at an inside 50.
Naturally, the reaction was swift and savage, with some former players even proclaiming on social media that the umpires had won the Magpies’ a flag.
But this simply isn’t just a mere moment of poor umpiring, a bad decision at a crucial stage that proved crucial in sealing the Magpies’ win: it’s the strongest sign yet, after years upon years of slowly swelling hints, that the advantage rule is totally broken.
It’s not the first time this specific rule has been cooked, either: in 2011, after years of conjecture, the law was tweaked with ‘the infringed player, rather than an umpire, given the power to determine the advantage rule’.
Previously, it had been at the umpires’ discretion only to determine whether a team had the advantage or not, with similar results to what we’re seeing now – because the truth is, that redefining of the law has failed to fix or even address the problem at hand.
Bailey didn’t choose to take the advantage, because he had no idea there was an advantage to be taken. We’ve seen similar on endless occasions across the last decade where players, in the dying stages of thrilling games with crowds at fever pitch, haven’t heard the umpire’s whistle, have continued to play, and been punished for not having super hearing.
Or worse: the countless instances of players instinctively picking the ball up after a free kick, taking a few steps, then holding up having decided the advantage wasn’t worth the risk – only for the umpire’s call whether to call advantage anyway or offering them leeway varying with every passing decision, so that every individual case is a spin of the roulette wheel.
The specific law, Rule 21.2, states that ‘a field umpire will call and signal ‘advantage’ when a team offended against demonstrates an intent to continue with play within a reasonable time’.
It’s deliberately grey to afford umpires leeway – there’s no definition on what constitutes a reasonable time and could change day to day and ump to ump – and it means both players and supporters have genuinely no clue what to expect out of the rule on any passing day.
It’s the reason the advantage law is the most contentious in our sport, and causes more angst than any other – including the insufficient intent out of bounds law, including the hands in the back law, including ruck infringement rules.
And there’s a simple fix.
Round-ball football has this down pat: the referee will refrain from awarding a free kick if a team continues to attack, instead merely raising their arms to signal their intent to have done so.
This has the effect of allowing play to continue uninterrupted – how many times in Aussie Rules do we see teams benefit from taking an advantage because the opposition have all stopped in their tracks upon hearing the umpire’s whistle?
It would then be to the referee’s discretion to determine whether play has continued uninterrupted for long enough that the fouled team had it better off not being awarded the free kick; if not, then the ball returns to the original spot where the foul occurred.
It’s not without its problems, and there’s still a hint of grey area – but it’s a million times better than the mess we’ve currently got.
Under this rule, it would have been perfectly legitimate to criticise the umpire who called the Lions on on Saturday, because it should have been clear from the moment Bailey kicked the ball, and certainly from the point that Moore spoiled, that Brisbane wouldn’t be benefitting from its result.
The way our system currently works is that it was Bailey’s action to kick that made the advantage necessary to be paid – despite the fact the Lions star clearly didn’t know that Neale had earned a free kick.
To change this rule to the alternative above isn’t just badly needed to fix a rule badly affecting the game and heaping further scorn on the umpiring department: it would also solve a host of other problems that flow on from the advantage law being broken.
We would no longer have farcical situations where one team stops in their tracks while the free-kicked team takes a hefty advantage: the old adage of ‘playing to the whistle’ would at last be fully true.
We would no longer have wild inconsistency over when players can choose to forego their advantage, with some occurring well and truly after an intent to play on and others, like Bailey’s done due to an understandable communication breakdown between umpire and player.
The past has shown us the AFL reacts swiftly to change any part of the game that causes it embarrassment in a grand final: Sharrod Wellingham being awarded a goal despite clearly hitting the post in 2011 saw score reviews brought in six months later, while Brent Guerra putting through a score of handballed rushed behinds in 2008 led to the birth of the deliberate behind rule from 2009 onwards.
One can only hope the AFL is sufficiently cajoled into making this latest badly necessary change, to fix a part of our game that has been going badly wrong for years.