If you’ve thought games this year have been interrupted by the umpire’s whistle a little less, you’re correct. Photo: Michael DodgeThere’s some rich irony about the start to the AFL season which won’t have escaped those running the show at league headquarters.
The league is rightly copping a hammering for just about everything at the moment, its scheduling, its ticketing and its public image generally, while the football itself hasn’t been inspiring enough to lift the apparent veil of gloom.
Funnily enough, about the one area that seems by popular consensus to be running smoothly is one for which those running the game have traditionally copped the most consistent brickbats, namely the umpiring.
New AFL umpiring director Wayne Campbell and his assistant Hayden Kennedy made it clear in a series of pre-season briefings that this year was going to be one of “back to basics” when it came to officiating the game. And they’ve been true to their word.
After two rounds of the new season, one emerging trend stands most significantly above others. That fewer free kicks are being paid. And the vast bulk of players, clubs and fans seem to agree it’s a good move.
If you’ve thought games this year have been interrupted by the umpire’s whistle a little less, you’re correct.
So far, we’ve seen an average of just 16.5 free kicks awarded to each side per game, the lowest figure for more than a decade, just 14.5 the average after two rounds of the 2002 season.
It’s certainly a massive drop (28.5 per cent) on last year’s numbers at this stage, which had crept up to 23.1, as many as AFL football had known since the turn of the millennium.
Umpires can’t be accused of not following their instructions. Two of the specific areas Campbell and Kennedy highlighted as those most overdue for a change of interpretation were high tackles and contact in marking duels. That is exactly what has transpired.
While most other infringements have remained at about 2013 levels, two that are clearly being paid less are the high tackle and the push in the back.
The former at this stage last season was being paid at the rate of 7.4 per team, but so far in 2014 teams are winning an average of just 4.6 of them per game. The push in the back has dropped from five free kicks per team per game this far into last season, to only 4.1 to date in 2014.
Those numbers correlate with the stated intent of the umpiring department to both crack down on players who were ducking their heads to win free kicks, and to allow more latitude in marking contests, incidental contact in a jostle for position by two marking players less likely to attract the whistle.
It’s latitude that has seemingly won the favour of fans, who, whilst they may not have been enthralled by some of the sort of football they’ve seen played so far, haven’t been ritually teeing off about particular decisions, the popular view that to miss the odd free kick might be preferable to paying one and getting it wrong.
Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley has been vocal in his support. “I’m loving how the game is being umpired,” he told 3AW last weekend. “It finds its own level and the players and coaches get used to it.
“I think the umpires department under Cambo’s guidance has done particularly well through the pre-season. We’re letting it flow a little bit more and we’re seeing the various strengths of each of the players come through as a result.”
The fans are certainly appreciative of the new tougher approach to free kicks for around the neck. While ducking wasn’t necessarily the plague some were making it appear over the past couple of seasons, enough attention was being drawn to the trend to see it start to become a trigger point for supporters’ ire.
The hands in the back interpretation in marking contests, meanwhile, had been a ruling altogether too inconsistent. It’s still being paid, but in a more realistic context, with genuine body-on-body tussles for best position possible without a defender having to sweat quite so much about the dangers of giving away soft free kicks.
Not everyone is a fan of the looser approach. Former rules of the game committee member Kevin Bartlett told SEN earlier this week that he believed umpiring standards had dropped.
“I think at the moment [umpiring] has deteriorated,” he said. “It’s all very well to let the game flow, but you have to umpire by the rules. If it’s in the rule book, you pay the free, or you change the rules.”
But AFL football has always been a code in which interpretation was always a more decisive factor in how the game was umpired than the black-and-white letter of the law. And in 2014 so far, umpiring is at least one area of AFL football in which most would agree common sense is prevailing.
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