The AFL hasn’t quite plunged a wooden stake into the heart of the stacks-on-the-mill scrimmages which can sometimes be a blight on their code but, on the strength of the opening round of the new season, it has certainly reached for the silver bullet, crucifix and string of garlic.

At the weekend, players who did everything their coaches asked of them — shown courage and won the football, only to be tackled a milli-second after taking possession — were getting penalised by overzealous umpires for holding the ball. Even players who had the ball trapped underneath them, and several other players piled on top of them, suffered the same fate. In the games I saw, it happened time and time again.

The Kangaroos-Collingwood match on Saturday was a special case in point. At one stage, Collingwood’s Shane O’Bree won possession in very heavy traffic and had barely put his head up before he was besieged by three Kangaroos players and brought to ground. For years and years, umpires would have understood that O’Bree had no chance to the get rid of the ball and called for a ball-up. This time, though, no such leniency was shown.

Ever since Charlie Brownlow was a boy, the ball player has been given a reasonable time to dispose of the ball. Certainly he has been given some opportunity to get a kick or handball away. Now, apparently, that age-old tenet of the game has gone. If you’re tackled with the ball, you’re gone. Simple as that.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be overly surprised by the change in accent on this aspect of the rules. For the league’s mantra in recent years has been: quicken up the game, quicken up the game. They see the stop-start nonsense that results in five ball-ups in the same area of the ground, and 24 players ready to converge on the sixth, as a bad look. And they want it eradicated.

But in giving the scrimmage the silver bullet, the league — and umpiring department — threatens to diminish another, more important element of the game. And that is the importance of the playmaker, the Chris Judd or Shaun Burgoyne or Nick Dal Santo who, rather than be suffocated by restrictive new rules, should be encouraged to give full expression to their skill and flair. Those players who are capable of lifting the game beyond the humdrum, of turning the course of a match, should be given — within sensible limits — their head. That’s what the crowds want to see, not a rejigging of the rules so the game’s footsoldiers, plodders and taggers are suddenly given centre stage and the spotlight. The rulemakers should be mindful of this: if it’s a fast, attractive spectacle they want, don’t stultify the players capable of producing it.

A parallel can be found in the NRL in recent weeks. Greg Inglis, the Melbourne Storm five-eighth and playmaker, has been the victim of several high shots from less talented opponents. So much so that his teammates have openly wondered whether there is a campaign now to slow Inglis down by continually crunching him in head-high “tackles”.

Now if there isn’t some sort of protection for a player of Inglis’ flair, brilliance and crowd-drawing abilities, then the NRL needs to have a serious look at itself. For here is a player who embodies much of what is good about the game and who, over the next decade, can help establish rugby league as a key part of Melbourne’s sporting landscape.

The weirdness in sport just keeps coming: Ben Cousins is hooked on ”ice’’, Bob Woolmer is murdered in his hotel room, now — the Everest of all shocks — Ian Thorpe finds himself with a drug slur against his name. What next? Tiger Woods a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Roger Federer a drag queen?

After producing abnormally high readings of testosterone and luteinising hormone, Thorpe must now produce evidence to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority that satisfactorily explains the result. If he cannot explain the result to ASADA’s satisfaction, Thorpe’s B sample will be tested. And if this confirms the original finding, he will — horror of horrors — be deemed a drug cheat.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Thorpe is riding a tidal wave of public support now, for who could ever imagine — even in the most drug-addled of dreams — that Our Thorpey, the darling of every Australian mum, would ever dabble in performance-enhancing products? But if ever a B sample confirmed the original finding then that enormous reservoir of goodwill would evaporate in an instant; the reputation of one of Australia’s best-loved sportsmen would be damaged beyond repair.

Australia has rankled many with its holier-than-thou attitude towards drugs in sport, and has been quicker than just about anyone to point the finger at, or example, the Chinese swimmers. Now the drug scourge has arrived on our doorstep and it may be that flapping sound in the distance is of our chickens coming home to roost.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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