Strangling The Golden Goose – The Holding The Ball Rule

You don’t have to listen too intently to hear the drums beating when it comes to the state of the game. Even if you have a passing interest in footy, you’ll be aware that people are not happy.

It’s not a new thing, either – every year there seems to be something that has people up in arms about where the game is headed and how it is losing too much of what it once was, in order to cater for what could well become.

However, when there are people complaining, you usually get a good helping of others who see sense in what the league is doing and how they are managing the game. It balances things out.

This is not the case, this time.

Not at all.

At the moment, there is as close to a consensus as you’re going to find amongst the players, coaches, media, and supporters that the game is on the verge of a crisis. And that crisis revolves around what constitutes holding-the-ball.

Now, I know there will be some who scoff at that notion. Crisis? A bit melodramatic, HB, right?

Perhaps – I do have a tendency to get a bit caught up – but what we’re seeing over the past few seasons is a radical change in the way the rule is being interpreted, and it is having a profound impact on how individual players are playing the game, how coaches are planning, and how supporters are viewing the spectacle.

And it all seems to revolve around frustration.

The frustration of seeing good tackles go unrewarded.

The frustration at good tackles actually being punished.

And the frustration that there seems to be a push more towards careful and “soft” tackling than the aggression that made the sport so bloody great to begin with. People are standing in tackles and being afforded the opportunity to dispose of the ball because the tackler doesn’t know if he can really take the ball-carrier to ground without facing suspension.

It’s a lottery. And like all lotteries, you lose way more often than you win.

This past weekend, Chad Warner laid a good, hard tackle on Laith Vandermeer, who saw him coming at the last second, braced, got nailed, and somehow ended up with the free kick. From what I saw, the umpire paid the free kick against Warner for too high, but it really looked as though he was penalised for tackling too aggressively.


Umps are jumpy about concussions. Anything that even remotely looks high or dangerous is bring punished. So much so, that they are penalising tackles that don’t actually impact the head.

We move onto the Carlton v Gold Coast game, where there were a combined 131 tackles laid by both teams. In anyone’s language, that’s a shitload. Of those tackles, just four resulted in a free kick awarded for holding-the-ball or incorrect disposal. The umpires seemed more interested in giving the player with the footy every chance to spin around, check out his options, smile about it, do a little dance, make a little love, and either hold the footy in or eventually get a disposal away. Or worse, simply allow the footy to ‘spill out’.

There are some players in the league who are not exactly Rhodes Scholars (Mike Fitzpatrick retired a long time ago) but they’re not silly. They know how to manipulate the rules and how best to work around whatever interpretations the umpires are instructed to use. As a result, we have a game where tackling has been relegated to being as important as affordable food prices at the venue. It’s like a professional cuddling club, and damn it, if I want to watch that, there are sites that cater for it.

Or so I’ve heard.

Watching the decline in rewarding tackles is like watching a part of the game die.

Or be killed, more to the point.

The league has in its possession a Golden Goose. It’s a privileged position. They’ve been afforded a gift like no other.

The product that has been so good over the life of the AFL’s custody of it that they have been given numerous passes by supporters on so many aspects of the game they’ve tinkered with.

The highlights, the close results, the great teams, and the amazing players… they continue to draw people to the sport. But so does the physicality of the game, and as that continues to be the target of the league, are we nearing the point where the AFL’s mismanagement of this aspect of the game could see people switching off?

Could they be strangling the Golden Goose as they attempt to care for it? Are they fixing the sport until it’s broken?

The numbers indicate that’s not the case at the moment, with several rounds posting record attendances early in the season, but there is a growing sense of resentment toward the game’s administration, currently, and I reckon the league is lucky to have such a loyal and committed supporter-base. People are almost bred into the game, with teams allocated at birth, just as regularly as middle names. That might be the AFL’s only saving grace – having a team is almost part of the Aussie lifestyle.

But things change, and there is a generation of people who see the game slipping away from the sport they loved into something that may end up resembling Gaelic Football.

And I don’t know about you, but I am not at all interested in watching Gaelic Football.

A couple of years ago, I made the decision to analyse a good sample size of games for the purpose of seeing how many holding-the-ball free kicks were paid. From Round 5-23 in 2022, I watched every single game of footy. Suffice to say, a commitment of that magnitude ate up a lot of time and was not well-received in the Mongrel household, so the experiment ended after the 2022 season, but I have retained the data for moments such as this.

The results were alarming, even back then.

In Round Five, 2022, a total of three holding-the-ball free kicks were paid in a game pitting St Kilda against Gold Coast in which 99 tackles were laid.

In Round Eight the same year, the Collingwood v Richmond game saw another three paid. This time it was from 87 combined tackles. That’s 3.44% of tackles that were rewarded. The Saints v Suns game had 3.03% rewarded. And this weekend’s Carlton v Gold Coast game saw 3.05% of tackles rewarded.

Pretty poor, huh?

Why bother tackling?

I also used the data to discover which players were actually effective at laying tackles that were rewarded with free kicks. The most effective turned out to be Liam Ryan at West Coast. Over a period of 18 weeks, Ryan was successful in 27.8% of his tackling attempts.

The biggest loser was Matt Rowell, who had a 1.5% success rate at that point. My guess is he is more effective now.

But that is just an interesting aside.

So, where do we go from here?

How do we get a balance between rewarding good tackles that get an opponent cold or cause an incorrect disposal, without the umpire yelling “he tried” like he is adjudicating an Auskick session?

What are the answers?

To that, I throw it open to you – you are the people who keep this league alive. You are ones who feed the Golden Goose, even as the league, its rule-makers, its officials, and its potential litigants wrap their hands around its throat and squeeze ever tighter.

How do we fix it?

I am eager to hear your takes. You’re the ones who pay to watch. In the end, the game without you… well, how do you like your goose cooked?


Like this content? You could buy me a coffee – I do like coffee, but there is no guarantee I won’t use it to buy a doughnut… I like them more. And I am not brought to you by Sportsbet or Ladbrokes… or Bet365, or any of them.