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The AFL's War On Contact - What's Next?

There were further shots fired over the weekend of Round Two in the AFL’s war on physical contact.

Three incidents marred the Hawthorn v Western Bulldogs game on the weekend, and involved such little force, that supporters of both teams rolled their eyes as free kicks were paid as a result. Hawthorn supporters did more than roll their eyes as James Sicily was whistled for a free kick for “prohibited contact” as the scores sat level late in the last quarter, with the ball yet to be bounced to restart the game.

Let’s be honest - this incident wasn’t worthy of a free kick. As big an idiot as Sicily may be for costing his team so dearly, what happened between him and Josh Schache was barely even worth glancing at.

Sicily was trying to use some physicality to get to the Bulldogs forward. He dipped a shoulder/upper arm into Schache with about as much force as you might get from someone trying to squeeze onto a packed train. Actually, it was more like leaning into him - It barely moved Schache, but the whistle went, the free kick was paid, and the Dogs hit the front as Schache was gifted a goal.

They wouldn’t look back from that point.

Personally. I don't pay money to watch umpiring decisions have an impact on the game, particularly in a dead ball situation as the contest has tightened up. That decision was a disgrace, as was the reason it was made - the AFL deciding to crack down on any sort of contact off the ball.

The other two incidents were just as worrying. Jaeger O’Meara was whistled for a free kick, losing possession of the footy for his team, for an open hand push to the chest. And Jarman Impey was also penalised for making this dreaded “prohibited contact” despite his Bulldog opponent engaging in EXACTLY the same behaviour against him.

Quite frankly, it was a mess - an unnecessary, over-officiated mess, and if they're going to make this small part of the game a huge focus, what crazy adjustments will they choose to make next to turn players into robots?

When you have 44 players out there, with the game on the line, tempers will fray. They’re human, and emotions boil over. Whilst I am as disappointed in Sicily as the next bloke, the incident that drew the most focus was a complete joke. In a game where tackling and bumping are still technically legal (for now), an innocuous nudge or a push in the chest should not have a bearing on the result of the game.

But it did this weekend. And the bruise-free form of football the AFL desires came a little closer to fruition as a result.

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I fear for the game we love at times. It may turn out to be an irrational fear, but in a time of competitions doing all they can to prevent trauma to the head, and phrases like “duty of care” becoming part of the modern football supporter’s vernacular, I often find myself wondering where it will all end?

There are aspects of our game that will always be a part of it, or so you’d think. The high marks, the long running, bouncing goals, and the supreme foot skills that can seemingly make the ball talk. But there was a time when there were aspects of the game we loved just as much. Sadly, in some cases, they’re slowly being eradicated.

The abolition of the physical violence, and the behind the play incidents were long overdue. Incidents like Leigh Matthews’ hit on Neville Bruns, or Robbie Muir’s decking of Dennis Collins have been largely removed from the game, with the Hall-Staker and Gaff-Brayshaw incident the only acts of violence in recent memory. You will get no complaints from me about the removal of those kinds of incidents. They are not part of any respectable sport, sans ice hockey… where they’re great!

But the focus soon shifted away from violent striking offences to the two legal methods of rendering an opponent incapable of continuing – the first one was the bump.

Some of my favourite memories involve the more gladiatorial aspects of the game. Stan Magro collecting Alex Jesaulenko in 1979 is my first memory of a physical impact in a game that made the crowd hold its collective breath. Magro’s hip and shoulder left Jezza laying in a heap on the surface of Princes Park, and drew every eye in the ground to it. It was a stunning hit, and one that is etched into the memory of any who saw it

“Well, Magro got him a beauty," stated Lou Richards on commentary, as though these kinds of collisions were to be expected. And they were. There was no “duty of care” from the bumping player to protect their opposition. The onus remained on the player to protect himself.

Dermott Brereton running through Paul Vander Haar on the boundary at Waverley made me leap out of my seat. It happened right in front of where I sat, and I have never seen, or heard impact like that up close. The Bombers held sway at the time as the two sides waged war to obtain a place in the 1989 Grand Final. The act saw the ball spill forward to Darrin Pritchard, who ran, bounced, and slotted a goal. It changed the game in one perfectly brutal act, and prompted a headline on the back page of the Herald Sun calling it the “perfect hip and shoulder”.

Then there was Brereton getting his come-uppance in what remains the greatest grand final of my time. The drama, the retribution for Mark Yeats, the impact on the game, and the courage. Courage from Brereton – he got up, he refused to go off. He went forward, clunked a mark and kicked a goal, all the while bleeding internally.

As we moved into the nineties, the bump was slowly taken from the game. Any contact to the head would see a suspension follow soon after. The bump was dealt a critical blow, and though it occasionally jitters and jumps around a little, indicating signs of life, we have passed the point where bumping is a legitimate weapon in the game.

And as the bump became a thing of the past, the attention turned to the second physical aspect of the game – the tackle.

The issue of sling tackling shot to the fore in 2017, with Brownlow hopeful, Patrick Dangerfield suspended for a dangerous tackle against Matthew Kreuzer. Brodie Grundy sat on the sidelines after his tackling effort (an effort that saw him rewarded with a holding the ball free kick) saw him injure Ben Brown late in the season.

The attention paid to dangerous tackles only increased in 2018, with Nic Naitanui suspended for a powerful tackle on Karl Amon. There was no sling involved with his effort – just power, and the AFL successfully argued that Nic Nat should’ve done a quick calculation to recognise the difference in size between him and the man he was tackling. They argued he did not demonstrate a ‘duty of care’ when tackling Amon, completely ignoring the duty of care he has to his team and teammates to tackle and dispossess his opponent. His suspension, and countless free kicks against aggressive tacklers over the course of the season have punished those bigger, stronger and more determined to win contests.

And while AFL players have toed the line in the name of protecting the head, and accepted the changes to their game/our game, the next step - outlawing forceful pushing - may be the tipping point for the players to push back in a legitimate way.

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The enforcement of a ban on “forceful contact” is something that has little bearing on player safety. We’re talking about pushing to the chest here - not high contact, not punching, just forceful pushing. AFL players are not kindergarten children - they don’t need teachers (or “educators” as they’re called now) monitoring their behaviour and punishing them when they push their opponent. As much as you’re led to believe differently, AFL is still a man’s game - the physicality in the women’s version puts the men to shame at some points!

The AFL have decided to crack down on pushing and “prohibited contact”, but just because someone makes a rule doesn’t mean I have to like it. I mean, it’s not like the AFL have been correct every time they’ve decided to implement a rule, right? How many people have fond memories of the sub-rule? How about hands in the back?

The reason this rule, and the way it’s interpreted, do not sit well with me is because I wonder how far they’ll take these rules, what their interpretations will be, and what rules will follow them. Is this just one step of many to come? Stick with me for a minute here – I swear I’m going somewhere with it.

The most significant, and sickening injury last season saw Jeremy Cameron knock Brisbane’s young defensive star, Harris Andrews into the next week in a marking contest. Andrews suffered bleeding on the brain, and spent weeks on the sidelines, perhaps costing him an All-Australian berth. Cameron received a five game suspension as a result, and though I thought the punishment was a bit excessive, it was a horrible incident.

What hasn’t really been spoken about as an issue is that Andrews was running with the flight of the ball, and whilst this demonstrates the utmost courage in our game, it also exposes the players to the most risk of a serious impact injury. The player running with the flight is largely unprotected as he keeps his eyes on the ball and launches at it. In the case of Andrews, he paid dearly for his courage.

Jonathon Brown is the other man to suffer for his courage, and late in his career, some in the media started questioning whether what Brown was doing in running with the flight was courageous, or “dumb courage”. It makes me start thinking about the AFL’s concerns to protect the head, and where it will all end? If they don’t like pushing in the chest, what will the AFL decide regarding other forms of contact? What else should be outlawed for fear of the way the game looks?

Will we see running with the flight of the ball outlawed? I mean, people may get hurt doing that, right? What’s next? Perhaps the AFL will outlaw using your knee in a marking contest? Knees are weapons – anyone who’s ever been struck by one can attest to that. They’ve already banned going low and hard at the ball in case you connect with your opponent’s legs - why not high and hard as well?.

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Don’t laugh – I am sure if you had access to a time machine (and had already gone back and placed a lot of bets on future sporting events) you could go back and tell footy players 20 years ago that tackling people to the ground would be netting them a suspension, and pushing someone in the chest would cost you a game of footy. How do you think they’d react to that? What was accepted 20 years ago is simply not accepted now. What’s to say what is accepted now will still be accepted in 20 years’ time?

Whenever I see the game inch further away from physical contact, and the sort of physical contact that was once as much part of it as high marks and big goals, I am a little saddened. Dermott Brereton has spoken about a certain sort of courage in putting your head over the ball, knowing what may be coming the other way. He was the first one to dish it out, and the first one to go himself, when his time came. It’s something that’s now missing from our game. The physicality of football has diminished, and almost any sort of contact results in a free kick at the moment - even if the head isn’t touched.

First they came for the bump, and I said nothing. Then they came for the tackle. Now they’re here for all types of physical contact.

What will they take from your game next? And will you let them?

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