Which team is the most criticised in the AFL?
Collingwood? Great guess, but no.
Carlton? Potentially, but incorrect.
Gold Coast? C’mon, try again.
The most criticised, abused, analysed and critiqued team in the AFL is, in fact, the team of umpires. The AFL has made the move of going to a four field umpire system, and while this move has been met with vast ridicule from a majority of supporters, I believe it’s a great move – and also one that simply has to happen. For context, every fan is up in arms with every single missed call that an umpire makes (or does not make)- and we all expect perfection, yet Patrick Cripps, the 2022 Brownlow medallist, hit the target on less than 55% of his disposals by foot..
Every single move the AFL has made in recent years regarding rule changes has been in an effort to increase pace of play and bring a more “beautiful product” to the screens of viewers and those live at the grounds. However, the critical part never considered is that decisions by the umpires are having to be made quicker to maintain the pace of the game. Unfortunately, they have been expected to run the game without any additional help.
Before I dive in any further you might be wondering “what experience does Hodgey have on this subject”? Well, as a Level One field umpire, I have a legitimate accreditation, as well as following and playing the game since I was basically born.
First off, we need to get away from the narrative that the umpires should be able to see everything.. The fact is that the TV audience gets the best supply of vision and camera angle, bar none. I can guarantee you, comparing the vision from the field opposed to an elevated stationary position in the stands is head and shoulders above (no pun intended). Having an extra official means primarily that there is an extra set of eyes covering the contested ball, in particular. Even at a fast pace, it will be very interesting to see if this affects the very slick teams, especially by hand: think the Bulldogs and Melbourne..
Some people will say that an extra official provides an extra opportunity for mistakes, but more infringements will likely be picked up, especially with eyes at the front side and backside of contests. Where this is most beneficial is bringing key forwards into line. Not to throw stones, but guys like Tom Hawkins, Harry McKay and Charlie Dixon, in particular, have been very difficult to officiate in marking contests as they show very inconsistent strength fluctuations in physicality depending on whether they hold the front or rear position. Often with the three umpire system there is only one set of eyes in close proximity to the pack aerial battles, but with the extra coverage there will be a far fewer tricks used by forwards, blocking included. As a career defender, I was always of the belief that we should be able to poleaxe a forward throwing a block.
Sadly this isn’t the case..
Obviously, with the extra official on the ground, communication is critical and the AFL have done a good job having each umpire wired up to comms. These communication devices will help with positioning around developing clearance situations and also pointing out some off-ball points for an “out of zone” umpire to keep tabs on. With the 6-6-6 rule from restarts, having four officials will allow there to be two right in the middle of the the ground, with eyes on that crucial centre clearance. It is arguably the most important phase of the game. Having an extra umpire watching either 50m arc, they’ll be in perfect position for dealing with the lightning fast ball is the additional bonus.
The one negative is that staging could be worse, purely as a player has to “fool” one of four umpires, rather than one of three. A deterrent would be financial sanction, however, that is a battle for another day. I’m not sure how it’s discussed at AFL level, however, as an umpire and former player, I would be lying if I said I never picked up on players traits and tendencies regarding their moves. This was also proven with the officiating of smaller forwards like Cody Weightman and Jack Ginnivan in 2022, who often looked to create something from nothing – in more ways then one.
It will be very interesting to see what the extra umpire does for the game. A critical key is to stop rule changes, and just let the umpires do their damn job and officiate the game without any more things to worry about regarding new rules or “ways to interpret them”. I actually think having the extra number will make umpires a bit more relaxed, allowing the 50-50’s to play on, and calling the obvious infractions that halt clean play. There were a ton of inconsistencies with some umpires calling every 50-50 ball last season with some getting a great “rub of the green” while others seemingly couldn’t buy a free kick despite having the bank account of Elon Musk. The 50-50 ball has resulted in the massive outlier in free kick differential with teams like the Bulldogs and Tigers being on opposite ends of the kick ladder. Having the four umpires also allows the opportunity for umpires to cover the ground in pairs, meaning that they can build somewhat of a connection and figure out each other’s thought process with how they officiate the game. Let me tell you, it makes a massive difference knowing your umpiring partner’s mindset on the field…
Another advantage is quite obvious, in that the umpires will have fresher legs when the game is entering critical stages. When your body is fatiguing, so does your mind and mistakes like the infamous Jeremy Cameron “not 15” call simply do not happen when you’re better-rested.
Simply put, there will likely be a few teething problems, however, we just need to sit back and let the umpires once again try and figure out the best way to run this ever-changing game…
Like this free content? You could buy Hodgey a coffee if you do. Poor bloke needs a caffeine fix… he has kids, damn it!