Controversy reigns as AFL umpires turn blind eye to common sense

<span>Collingwood’s Billy Frampton reacts to the contentious free kick awarded to Docker Sean Darcy in their draw.<br></span><span>Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images</span>
Collingwood’s Billy Frampton reacts to the contentious free kick awarded to Docker Sean Darcy in their draw.
Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images

When the weather turns, the injuries mount and the big grind sets in, you can set your footballing calendar to three things. There’ll be a call for the return of State of Origin football. There’ll be a discussion about congestion and interchange caps. And there’ll be an industry-wide conversation about umpiring. The AFL will send out a memo, the umpires will crack down, and the AFL will tick it off.

Round 11 was supposed to be a celebration of Indigenous footballers, but at times it was overshadowed by the pettifogging and the bewildering. Before I go on, I’m wary of making this an umpire bashing column. Every time a coach, journalist, fan, parent or social media lurker lashes out, we have to factor in the wider umpiring ecosystem.

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The abuse of umpires at the suburban, country and junior level is often appalling. Umpiring Australian rules football at the D-grade amateur level, let alone in the AFL, is incredibly challenging. Rules are constantly changing. The sport has evolved, and been manipulated, to the point where it’s one of the hardest in the world to adjudicate.

But three games at the weekend illustrate where umpire criticism is warranted, where common sense needs to be prioritised, and where change is needed.

For a start, the 50-metre penalty against Laitham Vandermeer on Thursday night was a shocker. It was the full stop and the air sucker on what had been an entertaining, high standard and still-live contest. If he arrived a femtosecond late to the contest, the penalty was grossly disproportionate to the crime.

That goes for so many 50-metre penalties these days. It was brought in to deter blatant time wasting and scragging. When Kevin Sheedy’s Essendon sides of the mid 1980s made a complete mockery of the 15-metre rule, the extended penalty addressed the issue. But in modern football, where territory in precious, you pay an enormous price for stepping two millimetres off your line.

The time-wasting decision in Perth 24-hours later was even more controversial. There’s definitely a need to clamp down on teams’ tactics in those circumstances. Collingwood are the masters of managing tight finishes, at forcing repeat stoppages, at milking the clock and yes, at wasting time. To the letter of the law, the free kick was there. But so is booking someone for jaywalking. And with time-off already blown, it was the wrong time, and the wrong incident, to suddenly play hardball.

Besides, if you’re going to enforce a rule that hasn’t been consistently adhered to all year, fans are going to be up in arms. A week earlier, the scientists in the Fox Footy lab ascertained that Izak Rankine had overstepped his quota. Fair play to the umpire for being such a quick and accurate counter. But the frustration relates to the hundreds of times similar incidents weren’t called out, and the sudden crackdown in the final seconds of a crucial game.

The arguments arising from Saturday’s game were completely different, and highlighted the confusion around the holding the ball rule, and striking the right balance between rewarding the ball winner and the tackler. Right now, that balance is completely out of whack.

Suns coach Damian Hardwick said there were 131 effective tackles in the clash between Carlton and Gold Coast, with only four holding-the-ball free kicks paid. Both he and Blues boss Michael Voss lamented the number of times their players were about to have their heads ripped off, yet the umpires swallowed their whistles. The same umpires then issued 50 metre penalties for the most piddling of infractions.

In local junior footy, and at the professional level, a massive problem is fans who think they know the rules, but are completely ignorant of them. It’s a problem in commentary boxes, press boxes and grandstands. It’s exacerbated by the likes of coach-turned-pundit Grant Thomas on social media, by passive-aggressive coaches (invariably on the losing side), and by having mic’d-up umpires barking and squawking on the broadcast.

There are some social media accounts doing a good job at explaining the more contentious rules. AFL Executive General Manager Laura Kane has also been far more open and transparent than her predecessors. And veteran umpire Ray Chamberlain does a fortnightly segment on SEN that’s very good at explaining the laws, and at humanising the umpires. Every time he speaks, I learn something.

But I’m left frustrated too. Ray is very literal. An umpire’s job, he says, is to apply the rules of the game. But many of us want our umpires (and those who instruct them and implement laws) to have a better feel for the game, for moments, and for shades of grey. Consistency, common sense and clarity. That’s all we ask for.