Watching replays of Barry Hall’s left hook to Brent Staker’s chin, it’s hard to ignore the devastating ease of the punch.

One moment Staker is harassing his opponent, pushing and shoving in the attentive manner of the modern backman. The next his skull has been rattled and the medical staff are rushing onto the ground. Hall’s movement was fluid, effortless even, and disturbingly natural.

The Channel Ten commentary team knew immediately that it had captured something big. Replay after replay confirmed that Hall’s punch was not only a gross contravention of the rules, it broke the code of acceptable, off-the-ball contact. And, perhaps uncomfortably for the AFL, it was great television.

In many ways, the physical argy bargy of AFL is what gets bums on seats. The high marks and bone-jarring sidebumps inspire fans and former greats to intone about conviction and courage. It’s what people who are unfamiliar with the game notice first – “You guys do that without padding?” And it’s why an action like Hall’s is such compelling viewing: it’s the logical (if illegal) end point of what the rest of the game is about — physical superiority. The true greats just manage to do it within the rules. 

Of course, AFL is much less violent than it was 20 years ago. Punch-a-thons are a thing of the past, a sly jab or jumper-punch now the preferred means of bloodying your opponent’s lip. All-in-brawls are a once in a season occurrence. But putting 44 super-fit young men into battle is always going to lead to moments of ugliness. Can the AFL have the high marks and the running goals without the occasional broken leg or haymaker? Can the AFL take $780 million from television broadcasters and not expect blanket coverage of the good and the bad?

Staker had barely regained consciousness before Channel Ten’s commentators were touting a special half-time analysis of Hall’s predicament. How many demerit points did he have from previous offences? How will the match review panel grade the offense? How many weeks will he get? And what of his previous indiscretions, the eye gouges, the brawls, the suspensions? It was sharp, relevant and proactive broadcasting.

But the incident itself was a blight, and has now been replayed countless times on television alone (the various YouTube videos have notched up 140,000 views). It highlights the problem the League has in selling a contact sport which expects players to be aggressive and fearless, but also expects them to curb their natural and often justifiable urges to clobber one another. Human nature will make the occasional cameo.

The AFL worries that the image of the game is damaged by these moments of violence. Hall himself said “NSW certainly doesn’t need that, trying to bring another team up here in rugby league territory.” But the rugby league states are no strangers to king hits. Two weekends ago Canberra Raider Michael Weyman battered Gold Coast Titan Daniel Conn with an unprovoked series of punches (watch it here). How many parents of young sportspeople did that turn off rugby league?

Now that Hall has been sentenced and League boss Andrew Demetriou has signed off on the incident, Hall’s punch now embarks on the journey of becoming legend. It’ll star in the 2008 highlight reel. And who knows, maybe Barry and Brent will catch up in 20 years to talk it through for a Channel Ten pre-match. Ah, the good old days.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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