In recent weeks, the standard of umpiring has become an increasing source of frustration for fans who are rightly confused by the sometimes-inconsistent application of the rules. But is it really the umpire’s fault or more a symptom of micro-management?
Coaching great David Parkin says there’s no more difficult game to officiate than Australian Rules Football. Being an umpire is a thankless occupation conducted in a long-established environment of ridicule and derision.
The ‘umps’ make split-second decisions often under physical fatigue and with their view obscured by the modern game’s mass congestion.
Players are also master manipulators, who take advantage when umpires are blindsided and use subtle techniques to coerce them into paying unwarranted free kicks.
In conventional seasons, heaving crowds also create a combustible atmosphere that whistle-blowers must find overwhelming.
But perhaps the greatest challenge for umpires is that football, the fast-paced 360-degree game, has more grey than a London summer and also comes with varying degrees of interpretation.
What might appear a blatant holding the ball in the eyes of a Collingwood supporter could also spark a Carlton fan’s screams for a push in the back, while the umpire might determine it’s simply a ball up — one incident, three different opinions, three people convinced of their interpretation.
Clarkson memo a catalyst for fan frustration
To my eye, the fans’ frustration with umpiring has coincided with the Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson’s calls for a stricter interpretation of holding the ball.
The AFL responded by issuing a memo to the umpires requesting a tighter application of the rule relating to players making a genuine attempt to dispose of the footy.
Ever since, the umpires have looked clouded in uncertainty when it comes to holding the ball, leading to an increase in decisions that perplex.
The league felt compelled to put out a statement after Monday night’s clash between Adelaide and St. Kilda acknowledging umpiring errors and that more work was needed to ensure more consistency in decision making, particularly with regards to holding the ball decisions.
What the AFL failed to acknowledge was the role it had played in creating umpire confusion by demanding changes to how they interpret holding the ball.
The ‘Clarkson memo’ only created another shade of grey, leading to greater uncertainty and increased pressure on umpires.
AFL players have long held the view that the league too often attempts to influence the way the game is officiated.
Geelong premiership captain Cameron Ling often speaks of the ‘rule of the week’ while Fellow ABC Grandstand expert and 300-game player Brendon Goddard has also expressed his frustration with constant shifts in interpretation.
Goddard believes umpire mistakes are just a feature of football and has bemoaned the weekly umpire reviews that lead to reactive measures.
“I’ve never understood the focus area [of the rules] week to week,’ he said.
“The umpires are only human, so it’s front of their mind going into next week.
Greene the key for erratic Giants
If you were watching Friday night football this week you were lucky enough to witness one of the AFL’s most damaging players, Toby Greene, at his match-winning best.
With three wins and four losses heading into the clash against last year’s grand final opponent Richmond, Greater Western Sydney’s season was on a knife’s edge.
In his return from injury, Greene kicked five goals including the only major in a tense final term to inspire the Giants to a crucial 12-point win. Greene is a hard-nosed old-school footballer with superb aerial ability, a great footy brain, beautiful poise and balance.
He’s also a reliable shot at goal, which is an increasingly rare quality. Had Greene not played on Friday night the Giants would never have won and a season that started with great optimism would have just about lay in ruin.
I’m battling to think of a player more important to the success or failure of his team than Greater Western Sydney’s star number four.
Speaking of the four, that’s where West Coast finds itself after an 11-goal thrashing of competition heavyweight Collingwood.
In keeping with the trend of their season, the Magpies started strongly and led by 14 points at quarter-time. From there, it was all West Coast with Tim Kelly producing his best performance for his new club and veteran forward Josh Kennedy winding back the clock with a seven-goal haul.
There’s no place like home and with the challenges of Queensland hub-life seemingly a distant memory, the Eagles are emerging as the premiership threat most expected them to be.
Saints on the rise with Ratten
This round also further emphasised the emergence of St Kilda as a side to be reckoned with.
In 2016 the unheralded Western Bulldogs based their exhilarating finals assault around the motto: ‘Why not us?’. The Saints have every right to borrow from the ‘Bullies’ as they too chase a prized second premiership.
The sight of coach Brett Ratten sitting contented on the bench near the end of Saturday night’s win over top-of-the-table Port Adelaide was a truly lovely moment.
A premiership winning midfielder with Carlton, Ratten has endured immense periods of hardship post his decorated playing career. He’s been unceremoniously sacked as coach of the club he represented with great distinction and lived through every parent’s worst nightmare, the tragic loss of a child in a car crash.
Ratten’s infectious personality, caring nature and sharp football intellect has made an immense impact at St Kilda and the side has developed more than a hint of the committed and direct approach that defined their coach as a player.
Much like that trademark Ratten grin, the Saints of 2020 are one of footy’s great sights.