I have faith in the game, but not in its keepers

In the year the AFL lost faith in the sport it is entrusted to manage, Gillon McLachlan and Stephen Hocking this week lodged their strongest vote of no-confidence yet in Australian Rules Football.

It’s Coburg on a Saturday afternoon in the one state league the AFL House asserts their largest influence over - the VFL. It is trailing all sorts of new rules on two unfortunate teams. Such nonsense includes zones dubbed “6-6-6 starting positions” by the AFL propaganda machine. These will be adopted at AFL level, however, there is mixed messaging as to whether this will be next season or the year after.

These zones will be implemented at all centre bounces rather than at all stoppages, which was also publicly floated by the AFL. This is an old tactic – hit them with an extreme change and then pull it back, leaving a smaller change, but change nonetheless. It leaves the plebs thinking they were heard, but you can only truly be heard by someone who actually wants to listen.

Put simply, the new rule means six players must be located in each fifty at centre bounces, in a bid to reduce congestion and make the sport more attractive to fans, and more importantly, more attractive to broadcasters. The rule is significant, not because it provides a huge change to the sport, but because it speaks volumes on the AFL’s attitude and frankly, disrespect towards the game.

As if to spite those who would change their creation, the football gods played their trump card. Round 20 was one of the greatest rounds in AFL history, with the majority of the games decided by less than four points. Classic after classic, at the MCG, in Brisbane, in Sydney, in Adelaide, yet this has not slowed the AFL in its maniacal drive to change – rather than improve – the sport we all love.

However, the truth is football is no better now than it was on Friday afternoon. Surely, the AFL understand that there will always be a few flat rounds or games of footy now and again? Round 20 only reminded us that the best footy now is better than it has ever been. The only thing stopping this trend from continuing into the future is an administration that does not barrack for the game itself.

Instead of writing a new rule book, the AFL should instead focus on how to better manage the rules it currently botches week in and week out. They need to stop trying to bring a whiteboard of dreams to a second-tier game at Coburg, and start focusing on what is happening at the top tier now.

It’s Adelaide Oval on a Saturday twilight, and the ledger of the of the league’s most fierce rivalry is square. The decider is about to get underway. The game set to have massive ramifications for the finals, dependent on the result. The contest between the Crows and Power puts forward a strong case for consideration as game of the round, in the round of lifetime. It’s up there with Friday night’s blockbuster in which the Cats almost stormed home to topple Goliath at the home of football. If only Gary Ablett Jr, the Little Master who has perhaps mastered the sport – as it currently stands – more than anyone before him, nailed a late snap.

Could Showdown 45 topple the Hawthorn-Essendon contest just finishing up at the MCG? The two Victorian clubs that despise each other more than anyone else added another page to their decades-long rivalry when Hawthorn downed the Bombers by four points, 107-103. Or does Brisbane-North Melbourne have the nod? A classic at the Gabba ended in heartbreak for the young Lions as North Melbourne kept their finals chances alive and kicking. The Showdown could have even better the Sydney-Collingwood game to take place that night when the Swans won the closest game of the round by two points and Buddy Franklin showed everyone that the full-forward ain’t dead yet. The Showdown was a fantastic contest in its own right, however it loses its status as a classic when, with two minutes to go, Adelaide Crow Josh Jenkins nails a goal that looks like a winner to put the Crows in front.

This is the moment.

This the moment that the AFL sold the score review policy to the football world six years ago in the aftermath of a Grand Final howler. This moment was the reason we have reviews. They were brought into being for this specific purpose. Much maligned for terrible outcomes, terrible, grainy video, and terrible wait times, the video review system had been battered from pillar to post, and justifiably so. But now, in Round 20 2018, its reason for being had finally arrived.

We cannot let this happen again, was the rationale we were fed in 2012. The moment when a game-deciding goal is clearly shown to be incorrect, ala a Tom Hawkins style post deflection, cannot happen in 2018. Yet it did.

The moment arrived and it only took 23 seconds for the AFL’s six-year project to become a laughing stock. And it was not just because the goal umpire made the wrong call. It was not because of the subpar technology (which certainly did not help). It was not only because less footage was available than in other games because of the venue, timeslot and secondary host broadcast, and it was not purely because of a poor score viewer. It was because of the AFL’s appalling and farcical management of the entire score review process, highlighted by the AFL’s clear directive to score reviewers that reviews need to be conducted and resolved quickly in order to appease broadcasters.

So, we are left with 23 seconds to decide the fate of two clubs. How were they ever going to get it right?

Inevitably, post game it becomes clear that a classic has been soured as the ball did in fact hit the post, confirming the game was arguably decided on an easily avoidable error. This was acknowledged by a Josh Jenkins’ "fibs-free" interview that would have pleased his grandma as much as it would have annoyed the AFL, which operates on an entirely different basis. Honesty, you see, is only the best policy sometimes.

Therefore, after receiving both barrels from an outraged Ken Hinkley – and rightfully so, the AFL release a statement that would have reduced Josh Jenkins’ grandma to tears and points to the credibility of the code’s keepers. The AFL, of course, confirmed the score reviewer’s spilt 23 second decision and stated beyond any doubt that it was a goal.

Just as they would have done if he reversed the goal.

The laughable statement released on Saturday night was not only grammatically incorrect but was completely wrong. It read in part, “It is the AFL’s decision of the reviewer to confirm the goal umpire’s decision of a goal, with no clear evidence beyond reasonable doubt to make an over-rule.” This justification is incorrect, and unless you read it three times, very difficult to understand.

The score reviewer’s decision to award a “GOAL” has to be on the basis that he can confirm beyond reasonable doubt that it is in fact a goal. There clearly was not. Therefore, the score reviewer, if he wrongly believed there was not enough evidence to overrule the goal, should have concluded with “Umpire’s Call” or as the AFL grammatically incorrectly states on it’s scoreboards “Umpires Call”.

Ideally, the score reviewer could have seen the obvious deflection of the football and made the correct decision to overturn the goal to a “Behind”. Perhaps, he would have if he was not under pressure from the AFL to compromise the score review’s integrity to hurry things along.

If you want things done in a slap-dash manner to make sure you don’t hold the game up and cause a few thousand people with short attention spans to focus on their phones or change the channel, do not have the review process at all, because at the moment we are getting the worst of both worlds.

If the AFL cannot admit its error, and instead misleads the public, or is so blatantly incompetent to understand the error, it won't be getting fixed anytime soon.

So, in the wash up, the game is robbed of a great game not because of its rules, but its management of them. Ken Hinkley says he is accountable for wins and losses, so why isn’t the AFL accountable for… well – anything? 

How many times can this happen be allowed to occur before the AFL accept some responsibility? The answer appears to be, how long is a piece of string? Maybe it’s time for the AFL to ask themselves some tough questions about what they currently do instead of asking themselves how they can save a game that does not need saving.

But that won’t happen. They’d much prefer to muse over questions such as “how long is a goal square?”

 

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