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Footy Fix: No, the umpires didn't gift Carlton the game - but Freo sure did

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Editor
6th April, 2024
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If you’re a Fremantle fan – and I’m basing this on the social media reaction to what happened on Saturday afternoon at the Adelaide Oval as well as that of the one Dockers supporter I know – chances are you’re feeling pretty jilted right now.

It’s bad enough to lose a game you’ve led for 105 minutes in the last minute. To add a controversial non-decision to that, plus the added indignity of giving up the sealer for umpire dissent in the same crazy minute, just rubs it in further.

Which is why it’s a dangerous game to run with the headline I’ve rocked with here, and to say this: sure, one or two decisions at the death didn’t help, but Fremantle were their own worst enemies against Carlton.

It’s internally, and internally alone, where the blame game should begin for Justin Longmuir and his coaching staff.

For a previously watertight defence to give up five goals from 11 final-quarter inside 50s, having conceded five from 37 in the first three quarters, to an opponent that didn’t do a whole lot different to suddenly become more prolific, is a problem. To once again be so dominant from clearances – Freo finished with a 44-27 stoppage differential over last year’s most potent clearance team – yet unable to capitalise on the scoreboard with any weight at all is a problem.

Most of all, the way the Dockers bumbled their way through the final few minutes to drop a match which had been theirs to lose from halfway through the first quarter is, you guessed it, a problem.

James Aish speaks with the umpires.

James Aish speaks with the umpires. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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Let’s begin at what should have been the end: three minutes exactly are left on the clock, and captain Alex Pearce, having won a holding the ball free kick, roosts it long down the line.

A few seconds earlier, the umpire’s decision to deny James Aish the advantage from that holding the ball, with his kick having found Matt Taberner on the wing, is one of the decisions most decried by Freo fans.

To get it out of the way first: it’s a tough one, but Aish’s momentary pause before kicking is, I imagine, why the kick was brought back. As it happens, Aish had thrown it onto the boot trying to gain ground and was under pressure; if that kick gets marked by a Blues player instead, as it very well could have, then no Dockers are complaining about it being brought back.

Call it an issue with the rule if you will – no doubt the Dockers were disadvantaged. But this just wasn’t a horrendous shocker – and as it happens, Freo should still win this game from here.

Pearce’s long kick comes to ground on the wing, with Blues and Dockers alike both scrimmaging for the footy. It’s here where the bigger mistakes start to multiple, and they’re all from the men wearing purple.

To begin with, with the ball in dispute, it’s Nat Fyfe fighting for it against three Blues, and it’s about to become four when Patrick Cripps arrives.

The Dockers have had great success in holding their space around disputed balls; letting one, maybe two, players fossick for the hard ball while Hayden Young and Andrew Brayshaw, among others, wait for the handball receive has allowed them to dominate the clearance count all evening.

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Here, though, they needed to take a leaf out of Collingwood’s book: look at all the Magpies’ close games in the last two years and note how many of their players scrap around on the ground to keep balls in tight.

Hell, look at how Carlton did it late in their game against Richmond in Round 1.

Umpires don’t pay holding the balls in scenarios like this, especially when it’s two players from the same team grappling for it. It’s in Freo’s best interest to force ball-up after ball-up, pack numbers around and behind the ball, and chew up the time that’s left.

Fyfe does his best solo, but the ball spills slightly out of the contest, and it’s here that Cripps pounces: with bullocking strength, he fights off a tackle from Young, with Brayshaw closing in, and handpasses out of congestion. The best players make things like this happen.

His handball reaches Zac Williams, waiting out the back of the stoppage – and unlike Freo, he’s able to do that because the Blues have adequate numbers directly attacking the ball – and he takes a risk. Rather than whacking the ball forward from that stoppage, the kind of kick Luke Ryan has intercepted all afternoon, he spies an opening between a trio of Dockers, and bolts through it.

First, he nimbly skips clear of Luke Jackson’s despairing lunge; then, more problematically, he gets through a gap between Brayshaw and Bailey Banfield. Banfield touches him but can’t tackle him, while Brayshaw, for reasons known only to him, doesn’t even attempt one. He’s had a great game, but this is a moment he’d love back.

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As Williams finally kicks long – from 65 rather than 80 – the Dockers’ next mistake, this one from Longmuir, becomes clear. With so little time left, and two deadly forwards in Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay to contend with, Freo don’t have a spare behind the ball.

It’s poor on two fronts: one, it should be a given at this stage of a tight game that a Josh Treacy or Jy Amiss should be stationed behind the ball. Most teams do it. And secondly, you do it ESPECIALLY when your second key defender is a guy in his third game standing Curnow.

Williams’ kick is to the perfect spot: Pearce, standing McKay, hasn’t had time to rush over from where he was when taking the free kick, while Ryan is also caught out of position, having anticipated a kick closer to the boundary line. At the hot spot, it’s Curnow versus Draper; and of course Curnow marks, via a spectacular one-handed grab.

He goals. With two minutes and 17 seconds left, the Blues are within a kick.

From the next centre bounce, the Blues surge it forward – but this time, the Dockers should be prepared. Treacy, at last, has moved behind the ball, and as Adam Cerra’s kick wobbles inside 50, he’s perfectly placed, without a Blue jostling him, to intercept.

He drops it cold.

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A ball-up ensues inside 50 – it’s still a danger zone, but the Dockers have dominated clearances all day. Multiple ball-ups ensue as both teams to hammer and tong, until at last, one team cracks.

It just so happens Freo crack in the most extraordinary way.

For reasons I’m still unclear of, the Blues decide Cripps will nominate for the ruck contest, with Tom De Koning standing nearby. Why? No clue, but if the idea is to lure Jackson into a false sense of security, it succeeds.

Naturally, Jackson wins the tap, and wins it easily, but his hitout proves the meaningless of that stat line – it’s a wild, bouncing tap back inboard, exactly the opposite of where he should be hitting. He should either be tapping straight at his feet and then scrimmaging, or whacking it as far away as he can towards the boundary line.

As it happens, George Hewett is the first onto the loose ball, and he hacks a kick forward.

Yes, his kick does brush Aish’s shoulder on the way through, but get real: there’s no chance an umpire can notice that, similar cases probably happen dozens of times every weekend with no issues raised, and there’s no mechanism currently in place to overturn such a call.

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It certainly pales in comparison to the amount of errors Freo have been making, and continue to: Clark is slower to react than his opponent, Cottrell, to judge the fall of the ball from the quick snap, and takes a chest mark away from the Docker’s despairing spoil.

We all know what happens next. Cottrell goals to give Carlton the lead, Freo continue to debate the touched call, and eventually, the umpire pays a free kick for dissent. Matt Kennedy, from the same spot, drills the sealer.

At the time of writing, it’s unknown what was said, or even really by whom – Treacy is the prime culprit – to trigger the free kick. But already, the accusations are flying. The umpires are soft. It’s a ridiculous rule. Freo were robbed.

Consider that the Dockers had been questioning the decision for a minute prior with no 50 metre penalty awarded for dissent; it was only after the goal was kicked that the line was deemed to be crossed.

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God knows if we’re ever going to fully know what happened, but even if this was an overly harsh ruling, it’s worth remembering that Freo had already sacrificed the lead when it happened.

This was a game lost by Fremantle far, far more than any umpiring decision.

The last few minutes could scarcely have been played worse by the men in purple. And they paid the ultimate price.

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