The AFL loves a rule change. Absolutely lives for them.
So much so that a few weeks ago, league influencer (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) Eddie McGuire suggested it should “break the game” with rule changes in order to then fix it and make it ostensibly better — one presumes that’s what he had in mind when he this week put Sherrin on notice because its footballs are apparently too slippery.
According to many, everything in the game is tweakable and improvable. According to many others, giving the game time to breathe without the constant tinkering would eventually cure what ails it — the full forward is returning to the goalsquare, nature is healing.
But if there’s one area where reform is met with near-universal approval, it’s in the prevention of head injuries and punishment of dangerous actions that make them more likely.
In that sense, the AFL’s move to swiftly update the fine print used to guide match review officer (MRO) Michael Christian’s decision-making is a welcome one. But, like every back-end adjustment the AFL makes, how the change plays out in real terms remains difficult to predict.
If you missed the hubbub this weekend, it basically went like this — Shaun Burgoyne absolutely nailed Patrick Dangerfield in an objectively dangerous sling tackle, but because Dangerfield’s head is presumably made of granite like the rest of him, he suffered no real ill effects.
Because Dangerfield wasn’t concussed, Christian could only grade the tackle as careless, high contact and low impact, meaning Burgoyne wasn’t suspended. Everyone basically agreed that was insufficient, and the AFL agreed, changing its guidelines going forward, but not Burgoyne’s punishment.
What that now means is that Christian has the authority and responsibility to grade every tackle under the metric of “potential to cause serious injury”. Gone are the days of judging a tackle on its results, now each action will need to pass the MRO sniff test.
In theory, this is a good thing. The word from the AFL is that under this new arrangement, Christian would have taken the Burgoyne tackle on its merits and handed him a one-match suspension. Few would argue in that case that the system wasn’t working.
But with the framework removed, where Christian draws his lines will be intriguing to watch, and will inevitably lead to either more suspensions, significant criticism or both.
Previously, the system may have been deeply flawed, but it was at least predictable — if you did a somewhat naughty tackle and the player got injured, you would be suspended. If they didn’t get injured, you would receive a fine.
Now? Who knows. The Burgoyne tackle was relatively cut and dry, but think of how many free kicks are given over a weekend for a dangerous tackle, after which the receiver gets up and plays on — are they all now potentially grounds for suspension?
Is history on Michael Christian’s side?
While there’s no doubt his is an unenviable and extremely difficult job, Christian has not exactly been a model of consistency during his two-and-a-bit years in the role, and his rationale is going to be heavily scrutinised on a case-by-case basis.
The best guide into his thought process around dangerous tackles came in 2018, when West Coast’s Nic Naitanui was suspended for a week for a tackle on Port Adelaide’s Karl Amon. Some considered that a contentious case, but in laying out his thought process at the time, Christian said the decision was “easy”.
“Tackling is the most challenging part of this role, because it’s obviously something you’re allowed to do,” Christian said.
“But this one, for me, was the easiest that I’ve had to adjudicate on, because the rules around tackling are pretty simple in a sense — if a tackle is unreasonable in the circumstances.”
Now, this example highlights both sides of the argument. In Christian’s favour, he clearly lays out that the number one metric he uses to adjudicate tackles is if it is “unreasonable in the circumstances”. If he takes his newly enhanced power and applies that metric consistently, nobody will have any complaints.
But this particular case was famous for other reasons. Eagles coach Adam Simpson was critical of Christian at the time for incorrectly telling media that both of Amon’s arms were pinned in the tackle and that the Port player immediately left the field concussed and didn’t return.
In the final wash-up of that case, the tribunal also ruled it was up to Naitanui to take into account the height and weight of his opponent when choosing how strongly to tackle them, a bizarre direction that hasn’t been seen in the AFL before or since.
It’s semantics now, but this one historic case alone highlights just how many obstacles will stand in Christian’s way whenever he is called upon to make a decision, now armed with little more than ‘the vibe’. There are a million factors at play in every tackle and just as many people lining up to tell the MRO where he went wrong.
So for all of us, everyone involved in football in any way, perhaps the first step is acknowledging this won’t be a perfect process, but recognising a greater good is being sought.
Expect mistakes. Expect disagreements. Expect inconsistencies. All of these can be forgiven so long as evidence emerges that, as Gillon McLachlan said in Monday’s statement, this is all part of the league getting serious about head injuries, for real this time.
“We want to be clear; protection of the head is our highest priority and we want all players at all levels and age groups to better understand that these tackles shouldn’t be part of our game,” the league boss said.
“Dangerous tackles have the potential to cause head injuries, and it is essential that this is taken into account when assessing an incident under the AFL tribunal guidelines.”
The cards are on the table now — the AFL wants it known that this stuff is more important than whether your team’s star player is available to play next week or not.
The league’s priority is ensuring that what happened to Paddy McCartin, what nearly happened to Andrew Brayshaw, and what is currently happening to Dan Venables doesn’t happen again. It has passed that responsibility on to Christian, whose mission just became more important and more difficult in one fell swoop.
No pressure, Michael.