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The New Sheriff in Town. Michael Christian Takes on Footy's Toughest Job

There was talk recently around some possible changes to the AFL Match Review Panel for the 2018 season, just as there seems to be every year. However, no one expected it'd change so dramatically. In a shock move, former Collingwood player, Michael Christian was appointed as the only man making decisions pertaining to player suspensions in place of the failed MRP.

He will liaise with the AFL's new head of football operations, Stephen Hocking, on some issues, but ultimately, 'Chrisso' will be the decision maker. What does this mean for the competition? In simple terms, it looks as though the AFL is trying to iron out the inconsistencies. They've tried this before and over-complicated things, but it seems the less-is-more approach could be just what is required. Let's look at what we know.

No more early guilty pleas is one of the areas that has been cleaned up. If you're guilty, you're guilty in the eyes of this revamped system. You don't get credit for owning up to it and deciding not to appeal it.

No additional suspensions for challenging a ruling. From now on, if your club wants to put up ten grand to add a little more to the AFL's catering budget, that's all you'll lose if you believe you're innocent, challenge!

Then there the abolition of the  three fines = suspension rule. This is the rule that would've seen Trent Cotchin suspended following the Preliminary Final last season, even if he just copped a fine. This is a great call. Incidents will be based on their own merit and severity; not on previous minor infractions.

The final change is around timeframes. No longer will we see incidents occurring on a Friday and players waiting until Monday to learn their fate. Christian doesn't have to coordinate a team of people to work with. The new Sheriff doesn't need to round up a posse. He can sit there, all by himself if he so chooses, and hand down a decision within 24 hours.

These are all really positive steps, and on face value, Hocking appears to have done his homework. He's started ironing out the wrinkles in what was a painfully flawed system, but what else could be adjusted to give true clarity and consistency? And how can he ensure the game doesn't suffer too greatly in the name of safety?

For too long, the AFL and its MRP have punished the result of an action rather than its intent.

Our game is a contact sport. It is one of the only sports in the world where pressure, and attacks on the ball and body come from all angles. In rugby, your opposition line up in front of you – you know where the hit is coming from and can make the necessary preparations. In American Football, opposition players cannot cross the line of scrimmage until your team snap the ball, and in soccer, defensive sets are so well-drilled that you’re often faced with a wall of defenders in front of you, and none behind.

Aussie Rules is very different beast, and, like it or not, there will always be heavy collisions. The AFL may say the head is sacrosanct (I love how every man and his dog are now aware what sacrosanct means) but when there are 36 testosterone-filled men running around a finite area, all contending for one ball, there is bound to be some collisions, and at times, someone will get hit in the head.

A great case study is the situation with Trent Cotchin and Dylan Shiel in last year’s preliminary final. If we use intent as the determining factor as to whether or not he should have been charged, fined and subsequently suspended, the answer is simply no. What Cotchin did was make a contest. The ball was loose, and the bounce did not continue on the trajectory it was headed when Shiel went to collect it. Cotchin was out of the contest then suddenly, with an odd bounce, he was back in it. He made a play to prevent Shiel taking possession of the ball and, in doing so, there was a clash of bodies. Initially, it looked as though Shiel had injured his shoulder in the collision as he recoiled clutching at it, but replays showed that he suffered a blow to the head. Did Cotchin intentionally hit him in the head? I don’t think he did. Did he tuck his arm in to protect himself at the last possible moment? Yeah, sue he did. Was Cotchin’s intent to contest the ball? I can confidently say it was.

A fundamental component of the game is tackling, yet it has been the cause of much confusion in recent years. Part of the art of tackling is pinning the arms to prevent disposal, and taking a player to the ground. Both Brodie Grundy and Patrick Dangerfield were suspended for what were termed dangerous tackles in 2017. Had either of the players they tackled bounced to their feet, there would have been no suspensions. Neither tackle would have been looked at as an act worthy of suspension. In Grundy’s case, his tackle was so good that he won the free kick for it. However, Ben Brown was later found to have a concussion. Grundy was suspended. Again, the AFL punished the result of an incident rather than the intent.

When we start suspending players for contesting the footy, we have utterly betrayed the spirit of the game. Part of the problem here is that supporters are now so manipulated into thinking that any contact should result in a suspension that there was an outcry against Cotchin. Many wanted him suspended for aggressively attacking the contest. He played football that day the way it should be played. He went hard and low at the ball, and he won it. It didn’t stop people like Mark Robinson of the Herald Sun calling for a suspension. Seriously, Robbo is so against any sort of contact that he’d wear a full body condom even when sleeping alone in his single bed.

Michael Christian will have to draw his line in the sand somewhere. Does he want to put a halt to the type of contest Cotchin and Shiel engaged in? If the answer is yes, then I fear for the game. Why? Because the contact was incidental, not intentional. Much like in a marking contest. It may seem like a bit of a stretch right now, but what if someone is seriously hurt in a  as a result of someone flying into a pack with his knee raised? Think about it – all it takes is an ill-timed knee to the temple and we could see a very serious head injury. At that point, will raising the knee in a marking contest then be questioned?

The AFL are known to make knee-jerk decisions. They did so when Gary Rohan had his leg broken after Lindsay Thomas semi-slid into him in a loose-ball contest in 2012. Next thing you know, contact below the knees was ruled out. So, why not knees up in a marking contest? After all, the head is sacrosanct, remember? Gotta love that word.

If the AFL are trying to protect the head, in five or ten years we could be talking about suspensions for raising your knee in a marking contest. I don't like thinking about it, and hate writing it, but don’t dismiss it – if you’d told supporters twenty years ago that players were being suspended for tackling someone to the ground, or getting down low and sliding to get a ball, they may have dismissed you the same way, yet here we are.

How about players running with the flight of the ball? If the AFL are serious about preventing injuries, this is a sure-fire way to ensure there are less mid-air collisions. No Nick Riewoldt or Jonathon Brown courageous marks running into a pack as a result. The game would be far worse off.

Having Christian as the sole operator in reviewing games is great for consistency. The old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth rang true with the now defunct Match Review Panel structure. There was simply too much room for inconsistency.

Before this appointment, a radio "personality" called for only people who hadn't played the game to be part of the MRP. I couldn't believe my ears. You could expect a former player like Christian to be somewhat sympathetic to the current players, being all too aware of the pressure that comes with a having to make a split second decision on the field, but he will be applying the same or a similar formula to his decisions those before him. He has walked a mile in the shoes of those now being accused of wrongdoing. Christian would have a good understanding of whether Dangerfield, Grundy or Cotchin were really trying to hurt their opposition, or simply win the ball. He's been in similar situations, himself. Former players are best positioned to make an assessment by way of their own experiences. They’re perfect to make the call because they’re looking at it now from the outside-in, but remember what it’s like from the inside-out.

The AFL finds themselves a bit of a quandary. On one side they have to protect the health of players, but at the same time they have to protect the game itself. Would you want to watch a game where Jeremy Howe gets a free kick awarded against him for taking a speccie? Keep those knees down, Jeremy! How about a game where Jonathon Brown had the ball taken off him for running back into a pack and taking a mark? Jon… we simply can’t have you putting yourself in danger like that.

If we continue down the path of sanitisation, that’s what we might be left with. By all means punish the snipers and dirty players, but Danger, Cotchin and Grundy were simply playing the game. It's all about intent. It's all about players acting in the spirit of the game. Michael Christian, your job is a huge one, but not impossible. You're now a custodian of this great sport - treat it well. Let them play.