AFL Umpiring Has A Serious 'Holding The Ball' Problem

There’s some football debates which are perennial, and often pretty tedious. 

One concerns tribunal decisions. But the most frequent, occurring on almost a weekly basis, is about umpiring.

I’ve made it a personal policy in recent years to try to stay out of either, mainly because they’re almost always a case of same plot, different characters.

But sometimes you get to a point where you simply can’t ignore the mounting evidence that it’s no longer just the usual back-and-forth that goes with a game about which people are passionate- and that there really is a problem.

And that’s how I’m starting to feel about umpiring, and one aspect of it in particular.

It’s the holding the ball rule, and umpires’ seemingly increasing reluctance to pay it to the point it appears to have been wiped from the Laws of the Game altogether.

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A few weeks back, I asked whether a now huge roll call of rules, interpretations and officiating responsibilities which go with an AFL umpire’s job were beginning to clutter their heads to the point it was taking a toll on even basic decision-making exercises.

That was in the context of an extraordinary free kick paid against North Melbourne’s Cameron Zurhaar for “insufficient intent” to keep the ball in play, when he had clearly been having a shot at goal which had instead skewed off his boot.

Instances like that, fortunately, whilst bewildering, remain relatively few in the course of a game. Holding the ball doesn’t, though. It’s a decision which needs to be made a lot. And too often, umpires are getting it wrong.

Right now, the interpretation of holding the ball is a mess. And again, it’s hard not to conclude that the amount of qualifications which go into determining whether a holding the ball free is there or not is the cause of the trouble.

For most of this season, it seems, it’s been getting harder and harder for players to win a free for holding the ball, the player in possession seeming to have ever more latitude. We’ve seen players in some cases swung around a full 360 degrees, still hanging on to the ball, go unpunished. Most games have one or two examples.

Last Saturday night in Perth, Richmond’s Jake Aarts was absolutely nailed in a tackle by Essendon’s Jordan Ridley, the ball dropping from his grasp as a result. Even Aarts’ teammate Dustin Martin stopped, expecting the whistle. It didn’t come.

In the same game, Tiger backman Dylan Grimes was tackled perfectly in his defensive goalsquare, the ball hitting the ground before he could get a foot to it. It should have been a free kick, and most likely a goal. It wasn’t paid.

The most memorable example this season, of course, came at Geelong in round two when Brisbane’s Zac Bailey had the Cats’ Mark Blicavs done for all money just a few metres out from goal with the Lions just two points down. Inexplicably, it wasn’t paid, the ball rushed through for a behind, Geelong surviving, the Lions effectively losing the game on a call the AFL subsequently conceded was a mistake.

The myriad other examples this season may not have cost teams games. But the non-payment of so many of those free kicks is having a more pronounced impact on play because players have become a lot more adept at standing up in a tackle and despite the harassment, still being able to dish off a handball to a teammate.

That is seeing more players prepared to “soak up” a tackle than immediately make an attempt to offload the ball. And of course that willingness is also going to increase if there’s a belief they’re unlikely to be penalised for doing so.

The Blicavs example certainly doesn’t appear to have been just an anomaly. But is it any great surprise that tacklers ‘buy’ a holding the ball free now given the amount of elements the umpires have to consider in order to pay one?

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Holding the ball is laid out in 18.6 of the Laws of the Game. That section, however, takes in five different sub-clauses. 18.6.1 concerns “Spirit and Intention”. 18.6.2 is “Prior Opportunity”, 18.6.3 “Incorrect Disposal”, complete with a further clarification, 18.6.4 “No Genuine Attempt” and 18.6.5 “Diving on Top of the Football”.

Given the amount of interpretation that goes into officiating the rules anyway, do we really need that level of detail?

Removing the “prior opportunity” would go a long way to simplifying the rule, meaning the umpire wouldn’t need to make one judgement about whether or not that consideration had applied before deliberating on a whole secondary set of considerations based on the first. All within a split second.

It doesn’t need to be that formalised. All of us who watch football have a decent gut feel for when a player with the ball had a chance to get rid of it and didn’t. We know instinctively when a ball has been disposed of properly or just dropped. And how long is enough time to do something with the football when tackled.

I’m becoming more and more convinced the level of detail imposed upon umpiring isn’t helping to clarify how the rules are policed but in fact making it a lot harder.

It’s one thing when those heads full of clutter lead to shockers like the Zurhaar “deliberate” call. But a lot more significant when they lead to a refusal to pay free kicks for a frequently-occurring and fundamental part of the game.

That’s what’s happening now. And it needs to be addressed.

*You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at footyology.com.au

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Rohan Connolly

Rohan Connolly, managing director of the footyology media brand, is one of Australia's most experienced and respected sports journalists. With a 38-year track record of observing a range of sports, primarily AFL football, at close quarters in print, online, and on radio and TV. A multi-AFL Media Association award-winner known for his passion, knowledge and love of the game, he's renowned for his hard but fair approach to football analysis, informed by facts not hyperbole.  

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