AFL must waltz like the Matildas

| August 15, 2023

The Australian Matildas Soccer team narrowly defeated the France Women’s National Football Team (Féminin A) in the 2023 World Cup. The teams played the “beautiful game” beautifully. On the other hand, Aussie football (AFL) has become unruly and virtually unwatchable. AFL should take note and be prepared to experiment with intelligent codification of the game.

The rules of Australian football parallel the burden of over-regulation in Australia. The tangle of rules churned out by three levels of government resemble someone covered in band-aids, whereas a more wholistic approach would rid the patient of the underlying ailment. In AFL, umpires blow their whistles every few seconds to treat the symptoms, but not the disease. Excessive regulation stifles creativity in sport and in life generally.

AFL umpires are often required to guess a player’s intention. The idea of umpires playing the game is turning a once unique sport into a comedy of errors. Decisions applied arbitrarily, regardless of the situation or the severity of the offence are often game-changing, even decisive.

Umpires and Referees

By contrast, the referee in the Australia v France soccer match handled some difficult moments with the authority of clearly defined rules. Otherwise, she evidently felt no need to intervene.

Interchange in AFL would allow reduction of teams to 16 on the field to reduce congestion and injuries caused by fatigue.

AFL players running flat out have to instantly decide if they are in the right place and under the prescribed amount of ‘pressure’ to concede a minor score, thus preventing the opposition scoring a goal and also to gain possession of the ball for their team.

Player safety should be paramount. The ‘shirt-front’ was banned long ago and protective headwear to limit the severity of concussion seems inevitable.

AFL is an ‘invasion’ sport so unnecessary restriction of movement tends to increase the need for intervention by umpires. The rules should encourage and reward forward movement which might reduce injuries related to twisting motion.

Umpires cannot also be players. Like judges and police, they must remain impartial. Umpires ‘designating’ who will take part in a ball-up may as well contest it themselves. Constantly shouting “stand” unduly influences whether or not a player chooses to play on. It affects the flow of a game, sometimes at crucial moments.

Umpires are expected to read the minds of players as to where they intended to kick a ball that bounces randomly or whether they have made a ‘genuine’ attempt to do this or that. A doubtful ‘advantage’ call can dramatically change the momentum of a game and destroy the vital interplay between players and spectators.

Instead of constantly meddling with the rules, why not at least experiment with making rules intended to encourage the uniqueness of the game e.g., ball handling skills, high marking and long kicking? These features are being lost in the quest to win at all costs.

AFL has become just another commercial product.  Boundary throw-ins and other so-called ‘stoppages’ allow time to display advertisements on fences and other surfaces aligned with TV camera angles. But injuries result from stoppages involving numerous players. If only for commercial reasons, AFL must present the best version of itself to compete with soccer which is becoming more popular because it is visually attractive, easy to follow, inclusive, less violent and more appealing to younger and multicultural audiences.

Updating AFL

Here’s a few suggestions for experimenting with AFL:

Replace all boundary throw-ins with kicking or handballing back into play. This would reduce congestion and might prevent injuries at clearances.

Abandon the out of bounds on the full and ‘deliberate’ out-of-bounds rules. There would be no need to guess if the player meant to kick the ball out of bounds as doing so would give an advantage to the opposing side.

No score could result directly from a boundary handball or kick-in. Boundary umpires (line judges) would still be needed to decide which team would return the ball into play.

At least three players for each team to be in the forward half and three in the defensive half at all times, except when a player runs across the centre line in possession of the ball or to receive a handpass or attempt to mark. All players would be free to move across the centre line to comply with the ‘three forward and three back’ rule. 

Line judges would also rule on whether there were three players for each team behind and three forward of centre when the ball crossed the centre line, subject to the above exceptions. If not, a free kick would be awarded against the infringing team from the centre line approximately from where the ball crossed. The free kick would be taken by the player nearest to where the infringement occurred. 

Ban tackles that pin both arms. This is dangerous, especially if the tackled player is thrown to the ground and unable to break the fall with the arms.

A technical infringement can attract the same fifty-metre penalty as a serious, reportable offence. But umpires often do not award obvious 50 metre penalties at critical stages of a game, especially where a score might result. The punishment should fit the crime. In any case, a one-size-fits-all penalty distorts the contest: get rid of it.

The contests of strength and tactical ability used by ruck players of the past has been lost. Great players like Farmer, Nicholls, Morrow and many others would not get a game in 2023 because they were not exceptionally tall. Allowing two ruck players to manoeuvre as they wish inside the circle at centre bounces would reduce injuries caused by front-on collisions.

A slight movement on the mark can attract a severe penalty. It might be better to reward a mark or free kick by allowing players to play on until they bounce the ball after 5 or perhaps 10 metres, without being tackled. This would create tests of speed and agility while reducing congestion and, possibly, the incidence of injuries.

A goal would be scored if the ball goes between the goal posts off the boot of the attacking team and over a cross-bar above the reach of players. Below the bar and between the goal and behind posts would be a behind. No need for inconclusive and controversial reviews.

Tactical time-wasting close to the end of a match should be discouraged. Marks would not be awarded in the defensive side of centre when the ball is kicked back into defence. This would reduce time wasting, especially in the final minutes of a close game.

Reduce the number of umpires if the suggested changes result in less need for intervention in play.

It is only a matter of time before a major game or even a premiership is decided by a bureaucratic decision and not by the players. The AFL needs boot some of its rules out of bounds.