If you watched two games for the 2023 AFL season, one being a regular home and away game, and the other being the Preliminary Final between the Pies and Giants, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching two completely different sports.
How does a sport go from being one that pays weak free kicks for players pushing each other in the chest, making the slightest touch in someone’s back, or being dragged fifty metres down the ground for pointing at the scoreboard to this knock-down, drag-out affair where the umpires appear hesitant to blow the whistle and the players throw absolutely everything at one another?
The AFL will tell you that the game is umpired the same throughout the entire season, including finals. Same rules, same interpretations same game.
However, I am a big believer that talk is cheap.
The AFL may say that – they may even believe that, but if you watched the Preliminary Final, the only conclusion you could come to is that this contest was adjudicated under a very different set of rules. The eye test does not lie.
I should specify – this is not going to be an article that claims GWS were robbed, or that there was “Vicbias” on display. I’ll leave that to the more imaginative and hyperbolic amongst us, but what I will do is highlight just how bloody great it was to see two sides allowed to leave it all out there in the last quarter of a cutthroat final without the umpires deciding they needed to control the game at all costs.
Sure, there were some instances where a free kick or three were warranted, but in letting one go, the umps made the choice they were gonna let the boys play. And play, they did.
If every game were umpired this way, the sport would be better off for it. If there were any actions that were borderline in terms of free kicks, they were ignored. If there was any doubt as to whether the tackled player added to high contact, there was no whistle, and whilst I am sure many would lament the free kicks that could have been, the result was a spectacle worthy of the Colosseum. This was a clash with modern-day gladiators throwing everything at each other in pursuit of a grand final berth.
In short, it was glorious.
Imagine if every game was umpired this way?
Growing up playing footy, you were always taught that you have to get lower and go harder than the opposition. In this contest, it was as though every player (maybe excusing a couple that would like select moments over again) reverted back to what they were taught and cracked in as though their lives depended on it.
It reminded me of the old quote – “Football is not a matter of life or death… it is much more important than that!”
That is the spirit that the last quarter was played in, and the officials did their best to stay the hell out of the way.
Now, I know the free kick ledger skewed in favour of the Pies in the last quarter, and it may have seemed that every 50/50 decision went in their favour. Truth be told, there were dozens of possible free kicks, but the glaringly obvious ones favoured the Pies… like the horrible non-free kick below.
Geez, I hate when holding he ball isn’t paid. It’s my pet hate in footy. Anyway…
Team bias aside, as a neutral watching this game, I found it to be an enthralling spectacle. It was the type of contest that simply dragged me in as a spectator and gripped me like a vice. The stadium lived and breathed, roared and groaned. It was wild, it was free-flowing, it was desperate, and we didn’t have the umpires coaching the players and overstepping their jurisdiction. It was footy the way it was supposed to be played, with the tougher team getting the points in the end.
If every game was umpired this way, and the ticky-touch free kicks removed from the game, I don’t think there would be a long-term supporter that would not welcome the change. It allows the best to shine – de Goey, Pendlebury, Crisp, Green, Kelly, Cogs, Mitchell, Idun, Hogan, Callaghan. The cream rose to the top under the heaviest pressure late in the game.
Yes, the ledger needs to be squared a little to ensure the decisions don’t favour one team over another – and let’s be honest, it did favour the Pies – but if the AFL umpires are assessing every game like they did this one, there is not a sport in the world that can touch it.
This game reminded me why I love footy so much.
Now, If we can just get the AFL to see what a difference it made to the product, maybe we can get another cracking Prelim with the Blues and Lions squaring off, and an epic, hard-hitting Grand Final.
Footy like it ought to be.
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