OPINION

Umpiring tweaks have improved AFL spectacle

Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson speaks to his team during last Sunday's match against Melbourne at Giants Stadium, Sydney. Clarkson's spray about umpiring earlier this season appears to have had an effect. Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson speaks to his team during last Sunday's match against Melbourne at Giants Stadium, Sydney. Clarkson's spray about umpiring earlier this season appears to have had an effect. Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Does the end justify the means?

You can pose that question about so many topics, but right now it's probably pretty pertinent to AFL in particular.

Even more so when there's an argument we're not even completely sure what the end is, what the means are, and whether there is even actually a conscious connection between the two.

If that all sounds a little nebulous, we're talking about the sudden change in recent weeks of the interpretation of the holding the ball rule, the latest example of what has become almost a constant mixing of the test tubes holding the formula to football purity.

There's been three rounds played since Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson made a very public plea to umpires to start awarding more free kicks for holding the ball after his team failed to win a single free kick of that type against North Melbourne despite laying 69 tackles.

Coming from the game's most respected coach, the subsequent speculation as to the impact those remarks might have was predictable.

And so, some would say, was the aftermath.

Over the first four rounds of the season, the total number of holding the ball frees paid had been 48, 62, 68 and 62.

In the three rounds since Clarkson's plea, those numbers have been 91, 84 and 90.

In terms of tackle numbers, the average amount laid per holding the ball decision had been 17.4, 14.7, 11.8 and 15.4.

Since Clarkson spoke out, it's been 15.4, 9.8 and 9.5. They are pretty stark contrasts.

In a news conference on Tuesday to address widespread confusion surrounding the obvious dramatic change in interpretation, AFL football operations manager Steve Hocking went to some pains to stress the alteration had nothing to do with Clarkson's outburst and was the result of the AFL having tracked trends for several years.

Call it a remarkable coincidence then, even more so considering the decision to tighten up the interpretation has come midway through a season.

That sort of reactiveness, and it would hardly be the first time we've seen it in recent years, should be cause for concern.

In normal circumstances, it probably would be.

That's quite apart from any legitimate anxiety that the new normal risks encouraging players to hold back from winning possession and instead concentrate on tackling opponents who do, a complete about-face from a basic tenet of the game.

The free kicks are helping clear the clutter, open the game up, and in turn getting the scoreboards ticking over more freely.

But here's the thing. After widespread dismay, at times bordering on panic about the quality of some of the football we've watched this season, recent weeks have seen a distinct improvement in much of it.

The Port Adelaide-Carlton thriller last weekend was in my view easily the most watchable and exciting game of the season to date, beyond simply the drama of Robbie Gray's amazing post-siren kick to win the game for the Power.

Brisbane's win over Greater Western Sydney had plenty of flow and openness about it, too, and in round six the week previous, Geelong and St Kilda had both turned on seven-goal quarters, the highest-scoring terms of the season.

Maybe, after months of drastically compromised training and now weeks and weeks of living, working and playing in changed circumstances, players are finally finding their feet in terms of both skills and playing a brand of football their coaches have tried to implement.

Just maybe. But I think far more likely is that what Clarkson was calling for, and what those free kick numbers prove is now being delivered, is actually working.

The free kicks are helping clear the clutter, open the game up, and in turn getting the scoreboards ticking over more freely.

And if that's the case, it's a good example of how even a minor adjustment of umpiring interpretation can have a significant impact, in this case seemingly way beyond such legislated rule changes as the 6-6-6 centre bounce rule or extra space around the player kicking in from a behind have managed to produce.

There's plenty more potential shifts where that came from, too.

Like a hobby horse I've been riding for years now, about umpires calling for ball-ups more quickly, refusing to allow groups of six, seven or eight players to cluster around a disputed ball.

Until the last 15-20 years, umpires never let that happen.

Watch any old footage and you won't see any more than three or four players fighting for possession until you hear the whistle blow, see the umpire ball the thing up and watch as the immediate area is cleared.

That plus the fall-out from Clarkson's recent call would, I'm confident, have an even more obvious "cleansing" effect on the rubbish around the ball that can consume so much game time these days.

Now that we've been apparently prepared to change course on a particular umpiring philosophy mid-season, and in this already highly unorthodox season especially, why not go a bit further with the pulling of some umpiring levers and see if that can have the sort of impact clamping down on holding the ball seems to have?

Yes, we might be left with cause to debate both the timing and manner of that intervention.

But I'm tipping if the standard of football continues to improve at the rate it has the past few weeks, any such hand-wringing will be drowned out by the waves of relief that perhaps the game isn't so terminally sick.

That has to be the bottom line. And the ultimate justification for the means of getting there.

This story How Clarko's plea has paid off for footy fans first appeared on The Canberra Times.