Football fans are a canny bunch. It isn’t often you will find them with the wool pulled over their eyes.
When crowds are able to flock to see their teams play, you will find them collectively irate about numerous umpiring decisions on a weekly basis.
Even if they are 15 rows back in the nosebleed section and on their third beverage for the first half, fans perennially feel they are better arbitrators than those chosen to officiate the contest.
This shared expertise from those beyond the boundary exists despite a lack of any credible miles clocked with the shoe on the other foot.
If you were to suggest that the majority of fans residing inside the ‘Barassi Line’ have near no umpiring experience, you would be comfortably closer to the trunk than limbs end.
We all enjoy offering our two cents when it comes to officiating, but the umpires have an unenviable task. Quite simply, it isn’t as easy as it looks.
The laws of our game are without a doubt some of the most ambiguous in the sporting world. None more so than the holding the ball rule due to its ability to be interpreted a myriad of different ways.
Even with this in mind, the umpiring collective cannot be let off the hook entirely.
In the past fortnight’s ‘footy frenzy’, we have seen some howlers from the folks in lime green when it comes to judging what actually constitutes holding the ball.
It is for this reason that we here at Zero Hanger have set about trying to help you wade through the grey area surrounding the rule by way of an old fashioned trial by video.
To conduct this hearing correctly, we must first actually examine the rule.
According to the 2020 document the ‘Laws of Australian Football’, the league states that a player can be penalised for holding the ball if:
(a) They do not correctly dispose of the ball and have had prior opportunity before being legally tackled.
(b) They elect to incorrectly dispose of the ball.
(c) They make no genuine attempt to dispose of the ball granted they have had an opportunity to.
(d) They make no genuine attempt to clear the ball even without any prior opportunity.
(e) They dive on top of the ball or drag it in under themselves.
All of this seems pretty cut and dry. However, the AFL also stipulates that a player cannot be deemed to be holding the ball if:
(a) They genuinely attempt to correctly dispose of the ball
(b) A legal tackle causes the ball to be dislodged from their possession.
Due to far too much emphasis being placed upon how umpires perceive a player’s actions and incations, it is no surprise the waters are muddied.
With these seemingly contradictory laws, umpires would need to be fluent telepaths to come to the correct decision on every occasion.
Confused yet? Well you are not on your own.
When asked recently about the rule, 2016 premiership coach Luke Beveridge was also left scratching his head.
“It’s a shame. We can’t address it, because we don’t know what the interpretation is going to be and we’re not sure what the rule is.”
“We’ll just play and our players will just do their best to make sure we clear the ball when we get tackled, and maybe take the opportunity to really clamp down when the opposition get the footy.”
Now that we have your heads spinning like tops, let’s roll the tapes of the decisions that have had you hurling both abuse and your remotes recently.
— Jordan Freeman (@jordanRfreeman) August 12, 2020
Despite the poor resolution, we can see Jack Bowes of the Gold Coast has cleanly taken possession of the ball and has had ample time to dispose of it before being legally tackled.
The tackle has dislodged the ball from his grasp, but he looks to have incorrectly disposed of it.
This passage highlights the contradiction of the law, as both the decision to penalise the Suns’ defender and call play on are technically correct.
The umpire was in prime position to decide, so perhaps they saw Bowes’ fist graze the Sherrin on the way down.
— footyanalyser (@footyanalyser1) August 9, 2020
Here we see Sam Petrevski-Seton immediately wrapped up by Jack Darling after gaining possession. The Carlton number five had absolutely no prior opportunity, but was punished for making no genuine attempt to clear the ball.
Again, technically this decision is correct, although the paradoxical nature of the law is highlighted again.
Rule 18.6.1 states that any player with possession of the ball is to be provided with an opportunity to dispose of the ball before their opponent is rewarded.
SPS quite clearly was not afforded this luxury.
— Buddy (@mjthegoat2345) August 12, 2020
Again we see here not only another Essendon tackler go unrewarded, but the inconsistency of the rule.
Hugh Greenwood had possession and prior opportunity, but incorrectly disposed of the ball. Naturally, fans would expect to see Dylan Shiel given a free kick, but as Greenwood swung a leg at the ball, it was called play on.
The fact that Greenwood was deemed to make a genuine attempt to kick the ball somehow overrides the fact he actually didn’t.
Like Petrevski-Seton before, Shiel is incredibly stiff here.
— Adam (@adamvcarroll) August 10, 2020
By the letter of the law, this is a glaring mistake by the official.
Geelong’s Mark O’Connor not only had possession and prior opportunity, but he was tackled legally and made no attempt to dispose of the ball.
This ticks almost every box to be awarded a St. Kilda free kick.
— 7AFL (@7AFL) July 31, 2020
This is another howler with a ball up being the only logical outcome.
— CHARDY (@Chardy53102203) July 5, 2020
This looks similar to the Bowes decision, but with one slight difference.
Dustin Martin had prior opportunity and incorrectly disposed of the ball. He may have made a genuine attempt to clear the ball from the contest, but a throw is illegal.
Some one-eyed Tigers may suggest that Jack Viney’s tackle forced the ball free, but a polygraph test probably wouldn’t support their contention.
It is often suggested that the best footballers play on instinct. It is clear from these rules that our weekend adjudicators are expected to uphold that they too must rely upon intuition.
Football is also said to reflect Australian society on a microcosmic level, with the ability for everyone to partake and the spirit of a fair go at the heart of the contest.
However, with the same level of ambiguity attached to both on and off field laws, it is easy to understand Australian’s tendency to distrust figures of authority.
As previously stated, the role of an umpire is an undesirable one. Their rulings can make or break matches and often land them squarely in supporter’s firing lines.
Having broken down the contradictory nature of only one of the laws they are expected to consistently understand and uphold, you couldn’t pay me enough to be an umpire.