The Wonderful World of AFL Rule Changes


I quite enjoy this time of the year relative to the AFL calendar. A ball hasn’t been kicked in anger yet and teams, players, pundits and supporters alike are full of optimism. Whether it’s that amazing off-season recruit, a much-hyped positional change, or just the natural growth of younger players who have come back “in really good nick” and are “tearing up the track”.

This optimism also leads to statements, some bold, some bragging, some outlandish and some ridiculous. Such as:

“Carlton deserve to be premiership favorites” – Sam McClure. Served with a healthy dose of “if you don’t think I’m right then you know nothing about football” (outlandish).

“We aim to win a premiership by 2026” – Gold Coast. Breaking new ground here. It’s so simple I can’t believe the 17 other clubs haven’t thought of this. (bold)

“Brodie Grundy will finish top 10 in the Brownlow as Sydney make it to the Grand Final” – Me. (bold)

“I spent a few weeks in The Maldives over Christmas” – a bloke at my work. (not so humble-brag).

As we all dream of the potential success of our team, the AFL waits patiently in the wings before swinging in like Miley Cyrus with yet another host of rule changes. And this is where we reach the ridiculous.

Just about every rule change the AFL implements can be linked back to one particular incident, often an incident that has occurred only once in over 120 years of VFL/AFL football. The rules can basically be named after the players involved, they are so reactionary.

The clearest example of this knee-jerk, reactionary trend from the AFL has to be “The Gary Rohan rule”. In Round Four 2012, Lindsay Thomas and Gary Rohan approach a ground ball from different directions. Lindsay Thomas gets low, going for the ball, with one leg extended, almost like a slide tackle in soccer. Unfortunately, his boot connects right above Rohan’s planted ankle, basically snapping his leg in half.

It was a gruesome injury and not something that anyone enjoyed seeing. As a result, the AFL introduced the “slide rule” as it was dubbed at the time.

Over the subsequent years the rule has been adapted to the point where if two players are going for the same ball and one gets low and makes contact with the other player’s legs and a whistle goes (but not from either bench) then it is a coin toss as to who gets the free kick.

Is it head high contact? Or is it contact below the knees? No-one (including the umpires) is really sure how this rule works anymore, but thank goodness we have it because how many similar leg breaks have occurred since the rule was introduced? One less than we had before, I guess.

So onto the new rules changes:


The Maynard Rule:

Basically, as of this season, if a player jumps to smother the ball, that act will be deemed as “careless”.

So if they collide with someone while they are off the ground, any contact can no longer be considered accidental. This is another knee-jerk reaction to one incident. This one was taken more seriously, as the AFL didn’t get the outcome they wanted at the tribunal. It was the outcome that showed they were serious about concussions and head high contact (more on that later).

Without debating whether Maynard meant to pole-axe Brayshaw or not, how many times has this happened in a game of football before? I can’t think of one – better make a rule.


The Butler Rule:

This is not so much a new rule as a re-interpretation (the AFL loves these) of what constitutes rough conduct and/or a dangerous tackle.

In this incident, Blakey had stepped through one tackle already when Butler snuck up on him from behind at speed, like a cheetah launching at an unsuspecting gazelle, and got him cold. At first glance, I thought it was a great chase down and tackle, and Butler was deservedly being awarded a holding the ball free kick.

Alas, as Butler’s momentum carried Blakey forward, resulting in Blakey’s head hitting the ground. The whistle was for a Sydney free kick for a dangerous tackle. This again relates back to the AFL’s stance on concussions.

As part of this new interpretation, they have also stressed that they are not pushing to take the run-down tackle out of the game. That sounds like a president saying a coach’s job is safe, a week before they sack him.


The Ballard rule:

Round Two last year, Ballard and Guelfi are scuffling off the ball as Langdon lines up for a shot at goal. There is a bit of pushing and shoving, and Ballard ends up throwing an elbow that Jon Jones would be proud of. He gets reported and gets a week, which Gold Coast appeal.

Gold Coast’s lawyers then successfully argue at the tribunal that Ballard was just trying to fend off Guelfi, resulting in the classification being downgraded from intentional to careless (seriously, are we still talking about AFL here, or an episode of Boston Legal?). As the contact was made to Guelfi’s head, it’s another look the AFL doesn’t want – better make a rule.


There were a couple of other rule changes around subs and, rather bizarrely, whistling from the bench, but the above three are the main ones that change the way AFL players play and all link to the AFL wanting to be seen to be doing as much as possible in regard to concussions and head high hits.

But in their zeal, the AFL is sanitising the game in a reactionary manner, to the point where it will soon be unrecognisable.

I understand why they are fervently trying to protect the head and prevent concussion, but in a contact sport, it is simply not possible to mitigate for every potential incident.

Imagine if us mere mortals lived our lives this way? A few years ago I ate ribs for probably the 100th time in my life and that evening was violently ill – I’ll make a rule never to eat ribs again.

Why stop there?

As I was crossing the road last week, a driver not paying attention almost ran through the intersection hitting me, the first time this has happened in probably millions of times crossing the road. I now have a rule to never cross the road. I’m basically confined to the block I live on as a result, but it’s the only way to mitigate the risk of being hit by a car. I’m sure soon I will be stung by a bee or something, and make a rule to never go outside again. At least that will give me plenty of time to write this same article, this time next year when the AFL changes even more rules.

I fear that the game we love is slowly leaning more and more towards a non-contact sport, where the only way to not risk suspension as a player, is to stand still with your arms by your side when the other team has the ball, a bit like Netball. I watched a game of Netball once, and swiftly made a rule to never watch it again to mitigate boredom.

The constant rule changes and new interpretations only serve to confuse fans, players and umpires, and much like life, there is literally no way to account for every possible outcome.

Sometimes, shit happens, no matter how many rules you make. Now I’m off for my daily walk around the block.