Tackling: The Big Issue

There is a definite swing away from physicality in the AFL, and never has it been more apparent than the current war on tackling.

I was a battler, growing up. I played for ten years in different age brackets as well as some senior footy. I always loved executing a good, hard tackle; taking my opponent to ground. Hearing the air leave their body as I drove them into the turf always gave me a certain satisfaction of a job well done. If they were slow to get up – great. If they didn’t get up, even better. It was a warning of sorts – don’t take me on. It was a way of influencing a contest without having to have your hands on the ball. I copped a few of my own for good measure, too. It was a part of the game; accepted and celebrated.

Watching football now, anything resembling a hard tackle seems to warrant a whistle, and it usually isn’t to reward the tackler.

The spear tackle has always been taboo, and rightly so; picking up an opponent and deliberately dumping them on their head has always been frowned upon. However, over the last few years, and in the wake of what will no doubt be a costly venture into litigation territory for concussion-related injuries, sling tackles have come under the microscope. More to the point, any tackle that sees the player being tackled hitting his head on the turf is now penalised, and the tackler suspended. Not just sling tackles – any tackle deemed dangerous.

The way the AFL explains it is pretty simple. If you pin an opponent’s arms, take them to the ground, and they strike their head on the turf, you are culpable. You have a “duty of care”. But is it simple? Is anything ever really simple?

Anyone over 30 years old cringes when an aggressive, yet pure football act is penalised. We’re old enough to remember when players were allowed to run into each other without a whistle blowing because there was contact made, and we’re old enough to remember players who made it their business to make opponents pay when they did not take measures to protect themselves around the contest. Brereton, Worsfold, Pickett… they made opponents look over their shoulder when they were in the vicinity. They forced opponents to be aware of their presence. It’s the same currently with Cyril Rioli, but whereas Cyril does it with chase downs, the aforementioned did it with physical intimidation and hip and shoulder bumps. They were mostly legal, and the ones that weren’t were punished accordingly.

In 2017, both Brodie Grundy and Patrick Dangerfield were suspended late in the season for what were considered dangerous tackles. Grundy, in particular, executed a beautiful tackle. Ben Brown received the ball and cocked a handball. Grundy blindsided Brown (a lack of talk from Brown’s teammates and a complete lack of awareness from Brown as much to blame as anything) and pinned his arms to prevent the handball. As Brown stumbled forward in the tackle, he tried to dispose of the ball by dropping it onto his foot. This caused Brown to lose all ability to balance and retain his footing. Grundy aided the forward momentum and threw his weight behind the tackle, causing Brown to miss his attempt to kick. Brown crashed to the ground in the tackle, his head striking the turf. Grundy was awarded a free kick for a wonderful tackle… and later, a two week suspension.

Collingwood coach, Nathan Buckley described it as “the perfect tackle” and per the way that almost every footballer in the league was taught growing up, it was. Grundy prevented the ball from being disposed of correctly, took his man to ground and won a free kick for his team. The immediate reward was the free kick, but those afraid of potential lawsuits soon made sure that there was also a punishment; you can’t be seen to be promoting this sort of conduct. Conduct like aggression and power in a contact game.

When looking at the vision of Grundy’s tackle, you find yourself asking what else could he have done in that situation? Ben Brown is no small man. He was ready to dispose of the ball – an act Grundy obviously wanted to prevent. Once the handball was prevented, Brown could still drop the ball onto his boot and get a disposal. The only option Grundy had was to take Brown to ground to prevent disposal. He did so. The free kick was awarded, yet the resultant suspension had people scratching their heads.

Was Grundy’s preferred option to simply hold Brown upright and allow him to keep his feet and get a kick away? To do so is against everything you’re taught when you’re learning the game. There is no reward for being ‘nice’ in a tackle and allowing someone to get a kick. If anything, it’ll get you an ear-bashing from your coach. Brown is not a special-needs child who gets the Joe the Goose handball from his teammates to make him feel a part of the team. He is a professional athlete who earns his kicks like everyone else – the hard way.

It is interesting to see how a tackle like Grundy’s – a tackle which I found to be everything I want to see from a player, is viewed differently from a tackle this past weekend, from Nic Naitanui.

Now, this is not a shot at Nic Nat – I loved the aggression he demonstrated, and he looked very much like a hunter who smelled blood, running down his ‘deer in the headlights’ prey by the name of Brandon Parfitt. However, if you look at the vision closely, Naitanui drove the head of Parfitt into the ground. He didn’t pin the arms. But Nic Nat’s aggressive tackle was every bit as dangerous as Grundy’s. The fact  Parfitt got up meant that the conversation about this tackle didn’t occur. It was simply a good, hard tackle. But what if Parfitt stayed down?

Naitanui had a head of steam, took Parfitt off his feet and slammed him into the ground. Why was this not deemed a dangerous tackle? Parfitt was taken into the air and out of control, landing with his shoulder and head crashing into the ground. If the AFL are serious about protecting the head, isn’t this something that should be looked at?

I actually can’t believe I just wrote that, as I am not really arguing for more players to be pinged for these tackles. Quite the opposite, actually. Too many players are having free kicks awarded against them for pure football acts, and when the umpires start guessing at what is and isn’t a dangerous tackle, the game is in trouble. The question remains, however; why is one tackle that sends an opponent's head crashing into the turf okay, and another sort praised?

A major part of the issue here that isn’t being discussed is that during the tackle, the player with the ball is either a) still fighting to break the tackle, or b) trying to get rid of the ball. The tackler is trying to prevent either from happening.

It becomes a test of strength, and one that is usually won by the tackler, particularly when the player being tackled swings a leg at the ball. What this does is creates momentum, and changes the centre of gravity and balance for both players, making him easier to take to ground. If they’re both already turning, the result is never good. With the player’s focus on getting boot to ball, he is not thinking about protecting himself upon his impact on the turf. The result is that his head often hits the ground. It’s unfortunate, but in trying desperately to get a kick away whilst being tackled, he is actively contributing heavily to his own potential to be injured.

This is something that needs to be taken into account when assessing what is a dangerous tackle and what isn’t. How much is the player with the ball willingly sacrificing his own welfare in order to get a handball or kick away? If he is contributing to the end result, how can you place sole blame on the opponent who is simply attempting to apply one of the basic skills; a tackle to prevent disposal?

Matthew Scharenberg laid a tackle against Carlton last Friday night. He had a free kick awarded against him as the umpire deemed it dangerous. Seriously, I’ve tackled my kids harder in the race to get the last piece of Snack chocolate. Had this been a tight game, a decision like this may have decided the game.

I expect we’ll be seeing more incidents like this in the near future, with umpires convinced that they are responsible for the welfare of players in tackles. They’re not. They’re there to pay holding the ball, holding the man, or call play on if there is a legal disposal. To have them make split-second decisions on whether something was dangerous or not is an added pressure in an already high-pressure job. And guess what – it is rife for exploitation.

At one point in time, when tackled you had a couple of options to prevent being pinged for holding the ball. You got rid of it, or you held it in and hoped that the umpire judged that you had no prior opportunity. Now, there’s a third option.

If you feel the momentum of a tackle swinging one way or another, you can roll with it. You can enhance the momentum and yes, you’ll get crunched to the ground, but you may also earn a free kick if the tackle is deemed dangerous. It’s a silly thing to do, but then again, so is running with the flight of the ball, or throwing your body across the boot of a player as he kicks the ball – players will do silly things; things that place themselves in danger, to retain possession and give their team an advantage. It’s what players and clubs pride themselves on – courage, selflessness and sacrifice.

Two weeks ago, in an act of extreme dumb-courage, Tim Broomhead threw his leg at a ball that he clearly had no chance of kicking as it crossed the goal line. His leg impacted the post. It was horrible, but in that instance, it was risk v reward, and Broomhead chose to risk it. He paid the price. Players will risk injury for an immediate gain. It happens all the time.

With Michael Christian speaking to local footy umpires about not paying enough sling-tackle free kicks, and the AFL absolutely terrified about the future potential of concussion-related lawsuits, I doubt we’re going to see a reduction in the amount of free kicks and suspensions for hard tackling.

More concerning was former player, coach and current broadcaster, Danny Frawley hitting the airwaves on SEN yesterday, chiming in about awarding free kicks to anyone who is thrown to the ground in a tackle at local level (I kid you not). Frawley stated that people new to the game were not ready to be tackled to the ground, and would likely walk away from the game if tackled that way. With his daughters playing the game, Frawley said the last thing he wanted to see was young girls leave the game due to injury.

I really don’t know what to say about this, but I am sure it is far removed from how he felt about tackling as coach of Richmond. Hmmm… maybe not. How long do you protect players before they have to come to terms with the fact that tackling is, and will be a part of the game? Kick to kick is for bruise-free footy. Under 10s is bruise free footy. Actual games involving anyone who is going to continue playing after Under 10s should involve tackling – it is part of the game. And when you get caught with the ball and fight to get a disposal away, or try to stand up in a tackle, you’re going to get dragged to ground. It’s a lesson that needs to be learned early.

Sadly, the tackle is in danger or being relegated to the same sphere as the bump. They’re great when done well, but the risks will soon greatly outweigh the rewards. Players like Joel Selwood and Paul Puopolo already exploit regular tackling techniques every week. Soon, tackling will be punished more often than it’s rewarded.

So how about this, footy fans? It is the tackler’s responsibility to tackle between the knees and shoulders. It is the player with the ball’s responsibility to get rid of the ball or… get this, have some awareness and avoid the tackle all together. It is the umpire’s responsibility to pay a free kick, call play on, or call for a bounce, and it’s the AFL’s responsibility to realise that we play a contact sport where physical contact is imminent.

What scares me is where we head next with rules to protect players from themselves.

There is also a lot of contact to the head in marking contests. What’s next? Stopping players using their knees in marking contests in case they hit someone in the head? Don’t snicker… I’m sure there are those who thought that you’d never seen suspensions for tackles we’re seeing now. It could easily happen if there is a major injury as a result of an aerial contest. Perhaps no more running with the flight of the ball will be implemented? Need I remind you of what can happen to players who engage in this activity?

If the AFL are serious about concussions, and all reports and actions suggest they are, then our game as we know it is under serious threat. In ten years it may resemble more AFLX than AFL, and that’s a scary thought. Less players + less contests + less contact = less head injuries.

Don’t think it hasn’t been discussed. First they came for the bump. I did nothing. Then they came for the tackle…

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