So the mass confusion about the AFL’s rules has, like the march of the cane toads, begun to spread to all parts of the country, Saturday night’s match between Essendon and Sydney at the SCG ending in a cacophony of protest.
The final siren announcing Essendon’s one-point win was barely heard above a sustained barrage of booing and jeering from the local fans, unhappy at not just the umpiring but – as Sydney coach Paul Roos suggested afterwards – the rules they were being asked to apply.
The Swans’ full-forward Barry Hall was twice penalized in front of goal through the new interpretation of the hands-in the-back rule, and again finished on the wrong side of the free-kick ledger, conceding four and winning zero.
Essendon’s Adam McPhee ran out of bounds with the ball late in the game yet was not penalized and the Bombers were awarded a controversial rushed behind on the three-quarter-time siren – which proved, of course, to be the difference between the teams.
Melbournians watching from afar wondered what all the fuss was about. Unhappiness with the umpiring, confusion about the rules, apoplectic fans blowing gaskets in the voice box, tears, jeers, losing a match by a point. So what’s the problem? That sort of bedlam has part of parcel of a day at the footy since Charlie Brownlow first donned a pair of ankle-high boots and ran some Brylcreem through his hair.
So Sydneysiders, welcome to the weekly visit to the pleasuredome, or house of pain, depending on your leanings. Welcome, indeed, to football-watching. (By the way, remember when you beat Essendon by a point in the 1996 preliminary final at the SCG after Tony Lockett’s post-siren kick? Well the depression you felt on Saturday night was about one-tenth as bad as Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy experienced after that match 11 years ago. If that’s any small consolation.)
After Saturday night’s game, Sheedy lauded the passion shown by the Sydney fans, saying their reaction showed that the city’s AFL fans had come of age.
“Ten or 15 years ago, you wouldn’t have heard a thing. They’re really getting into AFL footy now,” Sheedy said.
“They’ve got emotion, they’ve got passion, they’ve got feeling. They know the rules better than ever before.”
But Roos said the crowd reaction spoke of something more sinister.
“There’s an enormous amount of frustration that was shown by the 30,000 people here. Clearly they were frustrated and I’ve never heard a crowd react like that in Melbourne, let alone in Sydney.”
If the game served to illustrate one point it is this: there are so many grey areas in the rules now there is rarely such a thing as a clearcut, unequivocal decision. Whoever said economics was an inexact science had clearly never been to an AFL match.
One man’s ‘holding the ball’ is another’s ‘push in the back’. One Essendon fan’s ‘dropping the ball’ is another Sydney supporter’s ‘holding the man’. One diehard Swan’s idea of a well-taken mark is another umpire’s blatant push in the back.
Given that they’ve got a split-second to make an interpretation on any one of a hundred different and ambiguous rules, AFL umpiring might just be the most thankless gig going around. Did that kick travel the required distance? Should I pay advantage with this free-kick or bring the ball back? Was that a legitimate mark or were the markers’ hands ever so slightly in his opponent’s back? How exactly do I measure out a 50-metre penalty? Was that tackle too high or did the ball-carrier duck his head?
No sport would require more of its umpires than our indigenous brand of football. Given a choice in the next life, it’d be better to be reincarnated as a point post, or even a match-day Sherrin. Even they wouldn’t be kicked about as much as the poor, put-upon whistleblowers.
Because of the ambiguity in interpreting these rules, it’s no surprise that crowds get worked up in the way they did in Sydney on Saturday night. Confusion breeds frustration and eventually outright anger.
But perhaps it’s time to redirect a little of the passion and criticism away from the umpires and towards the rulemakers, and the increasingly large and arcane rulebook they produce each season. It is this weighty tome that the umpires have to interpret each matchday.
Perhaps now it’s time to leave the messenger alone, and shoot the rulemakers instead.