Ground rules for keeping it simple
The AFL pre-season competition is a tease. Starved of football for more than five months, we finally get to see our favourite players back on the park, only to soon realise what we’re watching is far from the real thing. As coaches manage their players, fans quickly learn to manage their expectations.
This year has a slightly different feel, with the overwhelming early success of AFLW perhaps tempering our anticipation for glorified training runs. While it’s still fun to see which blokes spent their summers bulking up or fashioning a bold new haircut, the pre-season only ever tells us so much about game plans and the roles certain players might fill. The brief thrill of live footy generally doesn’t take long to peter out into a contest that fails to offer much excitement – save for the rare practice run that is played to completion with such intensity that it seems like the result actually means something.
One constant, however, is that we are exposed to the unique combination of rules that will never be used in the season proper (that's you, super goal) and those that have been re-evaluated, refined and reinterpreted over the break. We’ll be able to get a feel for how umpires will adjudicate shrugs and high tackles, and assess the impact of new rules such as the banning of the third man up and the last-minute crackdown on rushed behinds.
I’m a bit on the fence when it comes to change. I appreciate the need for sport, like all things, to evolve, but would also occasionally enjoy seeing consecutive seasons played under the same conditions. The game is barely recognisable to what we saw just a few decades ago – and is better for it – but it also gets tiresome how often the most basic regulations can come under such constant scrutiny.
The infuriating beauty of a sport with so much grey area is just how regularly part-time umpires are forced to blow their whistles based the latest incarnation of a rule. If three people can pore over slow-motion replays of an incident and each come up with a different opinion for what the umpire should have done, how can we expect those officiating in real time to get it right?
So instead of trying to fine-tune rules that are adjudicated on interpretation and judgment, here are a handful of tweaks I’d like to see implemented that should make life easier for umpires and fans alike.
First, let’s acknowledge that goal-line reviews are here to stay. Second, it’s crucial we get these calls correct. And since the replay technology exists but probably won’t be vastly improved any time soon, we’re going to be stuck with a lot of long-range camera angles that aren’t overly helpful. So how about removing some of the difficulty from the equation. Should it really matter if the ball skims the woodwork and goes through anyway?
How about this: If the ball bounces back into play off a post and is touched, everything stays the same as it is now (hitting the goal post registers a behind, while hitting the behind post means a boundary throw-in); if it clips a post and clears the goal line untouched, the score simply depends on which side of the post it crossed; and if it hits the post and deflects out of bounds, then we'll go ahead and throw it back in. It might not impress traditionalists to see a ball bounce off one of the big sticks and be called a goal, but would it really be so bad?
I have a tough time figuring out how people can get annoyed by the few seconds “wasted” to ensure the correct decision is made on the goal line but are completely opposed to getting rid of the centre bounce. Making an oval ball bounce straight up is a neat trick, but recalling a wayward one is an unnecessary waste of time – especially if Max Gawn is around. Want a compromise? Just do it to start each quarter or something. See, I’m flexible.
Part of what drove fans crazy about the “deliberate” out-of-bounds rule last season was that there was a drastic reinterpretation of a rule while maintaining the same language associated with it. Angry and confused, fans raged that a ball tumbling over the boundary was often not the intention of the player who disposed of it – they just chose to go wide instead of back into the middle. I’m open to suggestions as for how to define the new interpretation in a word, so supporters have something to scream as a hurried kick wobbles its way towards the boundary line, but branding it as “deliberate” is unnecessarily misleading to a fan base that has come to associate the term with a significantly different act.
Similarly, it could be argued much of the frustration with video replay stemmed from hearing the off-field officiator use the wrong terminology when relaying information back to the field umpires. Countless times last year, viewers would hear words such as “confirm goal” when there was no confirmation of the sort. Decisions are verified or overturned based on having substantial evidence to do so, otherwise the correct response should be “umpire’s call”. A minor issue, maybe. But getting these sorts of technicalities right isn’t difficult and could go a long way to increasing fans’ acceptance of technology – and decreasing their blood pressure.
Beating the clock
Mason Wood did an excellent job of exposing the AFL for rushing in the controversial shot clock with no consideration of the potential implications. The subsequent survey of fans and the compromise that followed was done in the most AFL way ever, therefore making the reaction even more farcical than the original decision. What's the point of having a shot clock if it disappears for the most critical part of each quarter? Here’s an idea: umpires are more than capable of counting in their heads – and if they can't, they're more than welcome to look at the scoreboard and use the giant game clock to help them along.
While we’re on the topic of time, is there any reason we still display real-time clocks around the grounds instead of how much actual game time there is left in each quarter? I’m not sold that I’d like to see this changed, but it’s a strange aspect of our sport that players have to guess how much time is left. Who knows, watching teams go all-out on the offensive with one eye on the clock in the dying minutes could result in just as much drama as what comes from not knowing exactly when the siren will sound.
Them’s the breaks
A bit of on-field aggro after the siren generally seems to fire everybody up. Unfortunately for the players, their wallets often take a hit as a result. Umpires are essentially powerless bystanders – so why not give them the authority to defuse the situation by awarding a free kick in the centre square to start the next quarter? We’re not going to see a send-off rule anytime soon, but the threat of a game-day penalty when there’s not a ball to be won would be a good test of a team’s discipline and leadership.
Get off the stage
Nobody likes to see guys diving or staging for free kicks. A couple of harsh fines or suspensions during the week for serial offenders or the most obvious cases would go pretty close to stamping out this sort of rubbish entirely. Whether it’s Brent Harvey tricking the umpire into a 50m penalty, or Jordan Lewis trying to milk a free kick, these sorts of acts are an embarrassing part of the game, which is difficult enough to officiate without players going out of their way to make it tougher. The league has brought in plenty of rules to help protect the players – how about one to help protect the umpires?