The AFL is a multi- million dollar organisation. It cannot be beyond the capacity of the organisation to set out the rules of the game in a clear manner. The current rules are set out in a document known as ‘Laws of Australian Football’ an edition of which is published each year. The 2014 edition can be found here.
The game at AFL level is played with reference to these laws. But thousands of local football teams across the country also play to these rules, usually modified by the relevant leagues’ by- laws, which themselves may vary to accommodate different age groups.
Frustration is sometimes expressed at how often the AFL laws are changed from season to season. I express no view on that. It is not the issue I want to address in this article. I am concerned with a different issue, namely, whether the current written laws clearly and accurately reflect how the game is actually umpired? In my view they demonstrably do not.
Does it matter if the written laws do not accurately reflect how the game is umpired? Arguably not- after all everybody can see how the game is being umpired without reading the rules. And no one can learn how to umpire or play the game simply by studying the rules. Practice and observation is obviously the best method of learning. Nevertheless, I think the AFL ought to be capable of writing rules that correspond to the way the rules committee wants the game adjudicated.
I accept that no matter how well the rules are drafted that they will always be open to interpretation. There is no escaping the fact that our game has shades of grey or what we refer to as “fifty-fifties”- incidents in which a decision could arguably go either way.
But it is important that the laws are set out as clearly as possible and that they clearly identify the matters that must be considered when the umpire is interpreting them. Basic protocol for writing rules should be observed. For example if a particular word is used within a rule it should mean the same thing in the various contexts, or scenarios of play. I demonstrate below that this basic protocol has not been used with the word “immediately” as it occurs in the “holding the ball” rule. “Immediately” in fact means different things in different scenarios of play.
This article aims to demonstrate how the “holding the ball” rule and some other rules fail to accurately, or fully, describe the way the game is being umpired. It provides some examples of where the laws might be better expressed.
Some specific rules
Holding the ball
The holding the ball rule is rule 15.2.3.
As this is one of the most misunderstood rules, and one of the most controversial, it is worth setting the current rule out in full, highlighting in bold the most important words.
“15.2.3 Holding the Football — Prior Opportunity/No
Where the field umpire is satisfied that a player in possession of the football:
(a) has had a prior opportunity to dispose of the football, the field umpire shall award a free kick against that player if the player does not kick or handball the football immediately when they are correctly tackled; or
(b) has not had a prior opportunity to dispose of the football, the field umpire shall award a free kick against that player if,upon being correctly tackled, the player does not correctly dispose or genuinely attempt to correctly dispose of the football after being given a reasonable opportunity to do so.
(c) Except in the instance of a poor bounce or throw, a player who takes possession of the football while contesting a bounce or throw by a field umpire or a boundary throw in, shall be regarded as having had prior opportunity.
(d) has driven their head into a stationary or near stationary opponent, the player shall be regarded as having had prior opportunity.”
The rule needs redrafting for grammatical reasons. Clause c) does not follow on properly from the introductory sentence. Applying the rules of grammar this is how the rule currently reads:
“Where the field umpire is satisfied that a player in possession of the football, except in the instance of a poor bounce or throw, a player who takes possession of the football while contesting a bounce or throw by a field umpire or a boundary throw in, shall be regarded as having had prior opportunity”.
Go on read it again! Does anybody seriously suggest this is a well drafted rule?
All the rule needs to say is that there is prior opportunity where the ball is taken from a ruck contest unless the bounce or throw, or boundary thrown is poor.
More importantly, the rule requires redrafting because “prior opportunity” is a fundamental aspect of all holding the ball decisions, yet what it means is scarcely addressed by the rules.
Prior opportunity is a fundamental concept in the holding the ball rule because it determines the expectation in relation to both how the ball can be disposed of and the amount of time that is to be given for disposal. Under the current rule the formulation is as follows:
- Prior opportunity means the tackled player must kick or handball the ball immediately. An unsuccessful attempt at a kick or handball is not good enough.
- No prior opportunity means that only a “genuine attempt” at correct disposal is required. A successful kick or handball is not required (although if the ball is disposed of by a throw, a free kick will result under the rule against throwing the ball). Also if there is no prior opportunity the player is clearly to be given more time. The disposal or genuine attempt is only required after the player has been given a reasonable opportunity to dispose of, or attempt to dispose of, the ball.
The meaning of “prior opportunity” is not set out apart from two specific instances in sub-clauses c) and d) of the rule, which “deem” prior opportunity to exist in two specific situations- taking the ball in a ruck contest and driving one’s head into a stationary or near stationary opponent.
But the main problem is that current rule simply does not correspond with the way the rule is being applied in practice. It is obvious from watching the game, at any grade at which it is played, that even where there is prior opportunity, that which is considered “immediate” in one scenario, is quite different from that which is considered to be “immediate” in another.
In practice the following approach tends to apply to these different scenarios:
- If a player has taken possession of the ball and then bounces it, and is correctly tackled, a holding the ball free is normally paid without any further opportunity at all being given to dispose of the ball. If after bouncing the ball, the ball returns to the players hands and he/she handballs or kicks the ball away in the very same instant as when tackled, a free may sometimes be avoided. But if the tackle is applied during the bouncing of the ball a free is invariably paid with no further opportunity to dispose of the ball being given.
- If a player catches the ball out of a ruck contest, again the immediate disposal rule is applied quite literally- the player will need to dispose of the ball through a hand ball or kick more or less instantaneously with the tackle being applied to have a chance of avoiding a free.
- On the other hand, if a player dives on, lies on top of the ball, or drags the ball in they are deemed to have prior opportunity. But in practice they are not required to dispose of the ball immediately even though the rule says that this is the requirement. Instead they are still normally given some time following the tackle to knock the ball out from under them. The umpire might even call upon the player who has dived on the ball or dragged it in to knock it out before paying a free if the player fails to do so.
- Although the rules are silent on how to determine prior opportunity in general play, in practice it is decided with reference to the amount of time that elapses between when the player takes possession of the ball and when the tackle is laid, and/or the amount of ground covered by the player between when the player takes possession of the ball and when the tackle is laid. Although the rule states that the ball must be disposed of by kick or handball “immediately” in these instances, in practice the player is normally given more time to dispose of the ball than after they have bounced it or taken it out of a ruck contest. They might for example be swung in the tackle 300 degrees or even 360 degrees before getting off a handball and not be penalised. Some players have become quite adept at getting a handball off some time after being tackled and just in time to avoid a free kick being paid against them. If this is the way we want the game played, then fine. But why then does the rule require “immediate” disposal when this is not what is actually being required of players by umpires?
- If a player “takes on the tackler” by attempting to run away from the tackler, or by fending off the tackler or by attempting to break through the tackle when the player could realistically have disposed of the ball instead, the player will usually be penalised if they do not lawfully dispose of the ball in the same instant, or very soon after being tackled. They will almost certainly get less time than the player who has had prior opportunity but has not obviously “taken on” the tackler.
- Although a player who drives his/her their head into a stationary or near stationary opponent is deemed to have prior opportunity under sub-rule 15.2.3 (d) above, they will not normally be penalised, or penalised straight away, if the player had no or little alternative course of action. In practice they are more likely to be penalised if they take this action when they could have avoided it, or where they could have disposed of the ball instead.
The existing rule, if read in its natural and literal sense, suggests that all instances where there has been prior opportunity are treated requiring the same “immediate” disposal time. But the examples above show that in practice this is not the case. Even where there is prior opportunity, more time is given in some scenarios than in others. The rule needs to be redrafted to better reflect the current practice and the different scenarios. There is no reason why the scenarios themselves cannot be included in the rules as clarifying examples.
The second part of the rule, where there is no prior opportunity also needs review.
As previously stated this rule does not require a lawful disposal. As long as there is no breach of the separate rule against throwing the ball a “genuine attempt” is sufficient. This is often not understood with fans and players alike often yelling at the umpire “How did he get rid of it”? The answer is as long as the player did not throw the ball and tried to handball, or kick the ball, or knock the ball out, how the ball is actually disposed of simply does not matter.
Nevertheless there are least two distinct scenarios in which the rules could be clearer:
- The first scenario is where the tackled player has at least one arm free. The expectation here should be that the player demonstrates an attempt to use this free arm to punch the ball free from the tackle. This is fairly clear and unproblematic.
- The second scenario is where the player does not have an arm free because the player is locked in a tight bear hug tackle, or is being tackled by more than one opponent, or is caught under a pile of players. The problem here is that the player cannot realistically make a genuine attempt to knock the ball out of the tackle. The reason is that there is no arm free to do so. Often the umpire decides on a ball up in this situation. But there have been frees paid for failing to make a genuine attempt in this scenario which does not seem fair. Greater clarity is required on what a player can do to demonstrate a “genuine attempt” in this scenario.
It is a largely semantic point but the word “genuine” could be removed from before the word “attempt” in this part of the rule. The better view is that the player either demonstrates an “attempt” or he/she does not. This can only be judged by observing the player. The inclusion of the word “genuine” adds nothing. Worse, it suggests that umpires should be able to reach conclusions about the state of mind of a player beyond the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from observing the tackled player’s physical actions.
Finally in relation to the “holding the ball” rule it needs to be recognised that players are usually capable of disposing of the football through a handball very quickly, almost instantaneously, after taking possession of the ball. It is certainly the case that it is usually possible to dispose of the ball through a handball or by knocking the ball on, more quickly than the ball can be disposed of through a kick. So the question arises: Is there prior opportunity if there was enough time to get off a handball, or does it require that there was enough time to get off a kick? Holding the ball should have been paid when Angus Monfries was tackled here as he took three or four steps before trying to kick the ball. But even if there is an argument that he did not have adequate opportunity to dispose of the ball by a kick (which I doubt that there is), he clearly could have handballed it off- the fact that there was nobody in the vicinity t receive his handball to is not really relevant unless the rule is applied differently depending upon the part of the ground where the incident occurs (which cannot be the case).
Deliberate out of bounds/deliberate rushed behinds
Deliberate out of bounds occurs where a player “intentionally kicks, handballs or forces the football over the boundary line without the football being touched by another player”.
This is a relatively straightforward rule. A player is not permitted to deliberately put the ball out of bounds just because the player in possession of the ball is under pressure from an opponent. However, in practice, where the player is under pressure from an opponent this may appropriately influence the umpire’s decision as to whether or not the actions of the player who forces the ball out were intentional. Realistically the decision may also be influenced by the player’s ability to hide his/her real intentions when deliberately going for the boundary line.
With deliberate rushed behinds the rule states:
“A free kick shall be awarded against a player from the defending team who intentionally kicks, handballs or forces the football over the attacking team’s goal line or behind line or onto one of the attacking team’s goal posts. In assessing whether a free kick should be awarded under this law, the field umpire shall give the benefit of the doubt to the defender.”
This rule does not reflect the current practice. It is quite clear that where a defending player is under pressure, or perhaps even where that pressure is imminent, deliberately rushed behinds are permitted.
The new rule was really brought in to prevent time wasting by teams who are in front near the end of a game and who deliberately give away rushed behinds by taking the ball across the opponent’s goal line when under no pressure whatsoever. Thankfully the new rule has attained this purpose.
However the rule requires redrafting to reflect the current practice. The suggestion that deliberate rushed behinds are not being penalised because umpires are giving some “benefit of the doubt” to the defender is a complete fiction. The actions are not being penalised because players are allowed to deliberately put the ball across the opponent’s goal line if under pressure, or even if pressure is imminent.
The umpires know perfectly well that the actions are deliberate. They are not giving the “benefit of any doubt” to anybody. This is reflected by the fact that defenders will be penalised if the defender miscalculates and ball goes out of bounds instead of across the goal line as the defender intended.
The rule should be amended to reflect the reality that deliberate rushed behinds are permitted provided that the defender is under immediate or imminent pressure. This better reflects the actual interpretation that is required of the umpire.
The rule should also set out the existing practice that if a defender deliberately attempts to rush a behind but inadvertently forces the ball out of bounds they will be penalised.
Rule 15.4.1 requires that in order for a tackle to be correct, the tackled Player must be held below the shoulders and above and including the knees. So, under this rule, a tackle on or above the shoulder results in a free. This rule contains no reference to level of force.
But rule 15.4.5 (a) is also relevant to high contact and states:
“A player makes prohibited contact with an opposition player if the player makes contact or attempts to make contact with any part of their body with an opposition player in a manner likely to cause injury above the shoulders (including the top of the shoulders or bump to the head).”
There is also a rule prohibiting “front on” contact when a player has his or her head over the ball. But let us leave that rule aside for the moment acknowledging that high contact in these circumstances will be penalised by this rule.
Reading the other two rules together one is drawn to the conclusion that if there is any high contact in the process of laying a tackle a free results. However if high contact occurs other than through a tackle, for example, from a push, fend off, bump or shepherd this must be “in a manner likely to cause injury” to result in a free kick. Deciding whether or not high contact is “likely to cause injury” would seem to necessarily involve consideration of level of force.
But this does not represent how the game is being umpired.
Apart from high tackles, there are also plenty of free kicks paid for high contact where the high contact does not lead to injury. Unless there is an actual injury, it must logically follow that the high contact was not made “in a manner likely to cause injury” because it was “likely” then injured would result in all, or at least most cases, where a free is payable.
High contact should arguably always be penalised, at least at lower or junior levels of the game. But even at AFL level requiring force that is “likely to cause injury” is surely too high a requirement for a free. The rule could state that high contact should be penalised unless it is “minor contact”. Or if this is regarded as “too soft” the phrase “in a manner likely to cause injury” could be changed to “in a manner that creates an unacceptable risk of injury”, or even to “a possible risk of injury”. These latter two phrases more accurately reflect the way the game is umpired at AFL level.
Contested marking contests
The way the rules deal with contested marking contests can only be described as a confusing shambles.
Law 15.4.3 sets out permitted contact such as by hip, shoulder, arm, open hand, pushes to the chest or side, correct tackles, shepherds etc. It then states that “Other than the prohibited contact identified under Law 15.4.5, a player may make contact with another player if such contact is incidental to a marking contest and the player is legitimately marking or attempting to mark the football”.
It is hard to know exactly what this rule means. But if read literally it seems to be saying that a player can make contact with an opponent by hip, shoulder, open hand, pushes to the chest or side, or even with a tackle, provided that this contact is incidental to a marking contest and the player is legitimately marking or attempting to mark the ball, provided that the contact is not prohibited by law 15.4.5.
The key issue here is the meaning of “incidental”. This is where the dubious distinction of whether the contact is part of the same action or movement which is made to mark the ball is sometimes invoked.
A better approach might be to consider whether the contact is made by a player who is trying to hold his or her own ground, or who is trying to protect the drop zone for the ball. These instances should not be penalised. These instances contrast with a scenario in which a player is trying to use the contact to dislodge the another player from a space that player is already occupying thereby interfering with that player’s attempt to mark the ball.
Be that as it may, when we go to law 15.4.5, the rule contains various clauses on prohibited contact. These include the rule against high contact in a manner likely to cause injury referred to above. There are two sub- rules in the section on prohibited contact that specifically mention marking contests. These rules state that there is prohibited contact if a player:
- pushes an opposition player in the back, unless such contact is incidental to a marking contest and the player is legitimately marking or attempting to mark the football;
- pushes, bumps, blocks, holds an opposition player or deliberately interferes with the arms of an opposition player, who is in the act of marking or attempting to mark the football.
The rules, read as a whole, do not reflect the current practice regarding marking contests because:
- Although the rule allowing pushing in the back incidental to taking a mark allows for a knee to be placed in the back to facilitate a “speckie” there is no similar exclusion for knees on the shoulder or head used to take a “speckie”, even though this is commonly allowed;
- Players frequently place a knee in the back of an opponent to punch the ball away without making any actual attempt to mark. This is usually not penalised. And perhaps it should not be. But it would be penalised if the rule as it is expressed above was followed.
There are also at least two other types of incident that typically occur in marking contests that the rules should be clearer about:
- Is there an infringement where a first player’s arm or hand makes contact with a second player on or above the shoulder if the force is not such as is “likely to cause injury” and there is no interference with the arms of the opponent? Sometimes frees are paid for this- sometimes not.
- Is it permitted for a player to place a hand or two hands on an opponent’s shoulder to launch for a mark/ speckie? Typically here a free will is paid if the “speckie” is not successfully completely but won’t be paid if the “speckie” is successful. But what is the actual rule?
Instead of trying to discern the rules on marking contests from the general rules about “permitted contact” and “prohibited contact” it would be preferable for the laws to state exactly what is or is not permitted in marking contests within the current rule that deals specifically with marking.