The Sydney Swans played the final, crucial 35 seconds of Sunday’s match against North Melbourne with 19 players on the field – one more than is permissible under the code’s rules which have been in place for more than a century – yet escaped with a punishment that is the rough equivalent of being flogged by a soggy celery stick.

The Swans were fined the relatively paltry sum of $50,000 – of which $25,000 was suspended – when the evidence suggests they could, or should, have been docked the two premiership points they received for drawing the match.

Due to some miscommunication on the Sydney bench in that final minute (which is odd in itself given that coach Paul Roos has taken to sitting on the sidelines), first-gamer Jesse White ran on to the field, thinking that his fellow-ruckman Darren Jolly was going to run off it. (Rotations in the game show Jolly regularly left the ground when White came on.) This time, though, Jolly stayed on the field and was soon involved in setting up the crucial piece of play that resulted in his team securing a draw.

Now, if White and Jolly, the two players at the centre of this controversy, happened to be watching the final, frenetic passage from the other side of the field, or other end of the ground, it is doubtful that anyone would have been unduly concerned. Yes, there was an innocent mix-up but no, the mix-up had no obvious affect on the outcome of the match.

But Jolly grabbed a loose ball at the 27.20-minute mark of the term and handballed it to Jarred Moore, who handballed to Luke Ablett, who kicked long to the right forward pocket. There, Adam Goodes gathered the ball after failing to mark it, and handballed to Brett Kirk, whose snap at goal was touched on the line by Kangaroos’ defender Michael Firrito.

Jolly was a central figure in this passage of play. Without him, Sydney may never have got the ball anywhere near the forward line. He was the lead character in this drama’s final act, not some bit player in the wings.

Yet, in a confusing ruling last night that raised as many questions as it answered, the league’s football operations manager Adrian Anderson handed down a fine for Sydney, saying it had all been an honest mistake and because White had not been near the ball, having 19 players on the field was really no big deal.

Anderson ruled: “White did not go near where the play was taking place and involve himself in a contest for the ball.”

But Jolly did. And he didn’t just involve himself in a contest for the ball, he won it and helped Sydney propel it forward.

Sydney chief executive Myles Baron-Hay said he felt the fine was severe, and said it was the result of an “honest mistake by a young player having his first game.”

Well, thanks for that, Myles.

The Swans’ coach was sitting nearby, and the Sydney interchange steward, whose job it is to monitor these comings and goings, was also there but it is somehow the fault of a first-gamer that this happened.

It was just one of many unsatisfactory explanations for a totally unsatisfactory end to an AFL match, contests that since 1899 have involved precisely 36 players on the ground at any one time.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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