It’s ten weeks since the implementation of the AFL’s “zero tolerance” interpretation of the hands in the back rule, and for the tenth straight week the rule has made headlines. Is it, as Andrew Demetriou suggested yesterday, a hysterical reaction or is the controversial rule bad for the game?

There aren’t too many people publicly supporting it right now. The AFL’s banning of free speech within its ranks has silenced a flood of dissent on a range of issues, but in spite of those rules, there are still a few brave souls who are letting their feelings be known on this one.

Sydney coach Paul Roos, the man credited with building the Sydney fan base, says the rule will turn people off the game, comparing AFL 2007-style with the non-contact Gaelic football.

The fans are adding their voices, too. On Saturday night, the umpires left the SCG under security escort to the derisive hoots of the crowd, a crowd which has been lampooned for its lack of knowledge about the game. But aside from the Adam McPhee blunder, even they could see that Barry Hall wasn’t getting a fair go.

That’s not an abstract concept. The laws of the game should protect players from unfair contact, yet this law appears to create free kicks out of nothing. Good body-work now contravenes the laws of the game, whereas before it was a valued skill. Hall’s opponent — it appeared to the crowd — wasn’t being unfairly muscled out of the contest, at least not by the standards of the preceding 148 years of Australian football. So they yelled nasty things at the umps.

Two weeks ago, when Matthew Richardson nudged Mal Michael under the ball and was penalised, commentator Robert Walls noted that Richardson would not have been penalised for his actions in 14 out of his previous 15 seasons of football. In round 10, this was repeated in the Mal Michael-Barry Hall battle. Essendon are the better from wins in two close games on account of one rule change.

Roos believes the AFL wants to minimise contested football. He worries that the rule will affect the outcome of football finals, yet in affecting the outcomes of home and away games, it’s already doing that.

If the hands in the back rule is part of a broader plan by the AFL to reduce contact, what style of football does the AFL want? If they want less contact, why not be up-front about it rather than stealthily re-engineering the contest? It’s foolhardy to think that by tinkering with the genetic code of the sport, they are not creating a different spectacle, and that fans won’t notice. 

The choice of changes is also interesting. Last year’s introduction of a new kick in rule sped up the game, as it was designed to, yet flooding, which slows down play and reduces the intensity of the game, still blights the sport. The round-eight clash between Hawthorn and St Kilda was a case study in uncontested football. Add the new hands in the back rule, and it suggests what the 2007 game might be evolving towards — a surefire cure for insomnia.