Pride before the fall with holding the ball

The policy objective of the holding the ball free kick is to penalise players that slow ball movement.

The AFL likes fast ball movement, which is likely to generate more scoring opportunities, which in turn is likely to generate goals. More goals means more dollars for the broadcasters, the Wizards of Oz of Australian Football. Keeping the broadcasters happy is a key priority for the AFL, creating certainty in the rules and avoiding confusion, less so.

A greater problem for the AFL is that they might be good at manipulating the news cycle and keeping broadcasters happy (while extracting greater amounts of cash from them), but they’re not that great at running the game in this country. I’ve written previously about why the AFL is bad for Australian football, but today I want to focus on the current holding the ball controversy.

That said, manufactured controversy is a good thing for the AFL, it creates discussion and clicks for its in-house media empire. To understand the AFL and the decisions it makes, think of it more as a media organisation producing football content, and less as an organisation running a football competition. But I digress.

After Round 5, as is fashionable these days, Alastair Clarkson bemoaned the state of the game. His team laid 69 tackles and didn’t receive one holding the ball free kick. In classic AFL knee-jerk fashion, the league announced an immediate stricter interpretation of the holding the ball rules.

In the round following those comments, the Hawthorn lost to GWS and received one holding the ball free kick while the Giants received ten. Clarko said at the time, “in essence if holding the ball is being rewarded a little more for good tackling, I think that’s a good thing for the game and it’ll open up the game.”

What is good tackling? What is bad tackling? Presumably, for Clarko, Hawthorn does the good tackling and other teams do the bad tackling. Unfortunately, the current holding the ball rules don’t set qualitative standards of tackling. There’s no gymnastics-like scoring of tackling in the AFL, yet, though there are prohibitions against bad tackling, push in the back, high, etc.

The current drafting of the holding the ball laws (yes plural) contains four free kicks. Each of which seeks to penalise behaviours the AFL wants to reduce (slow ball movement), in favour of behaviours the AFL wants to increase (fast ball movement).

The current holding the ball rules contains four free kicks:

1) Holding the ball
2) Incorrect disposal
3) No genuine attempt
4) Diving on the ball

The problem the AFL has made for itself, is that the holding the ball laws provide a perverse incentive for players to prioritise tackling over taking possession, particularly with respect to no genuine attempt free kicks. A coach will take the certainty of a free kick over the uncertainty of a rushed, contested possession any day of the week.

A specific problem the AFL has created is blurring the concept of prior opportunity. “Where’s his prior?” is the inevitable retort to an opposing plea for “balllllllllll!” But prior opportunity only applies to holding the ball free kicks. It doesn’t apply to no genuine attempt free kicks. A player can take possession, be tackled instantaneously by a skilful tackler and an umpire with a strict threshold for what is genuine can give a free kick for no genuine attempt.

Where’s the incentive to take possession of the ball? We’ve seen a series of these free kicks paid in the last few rounds, including against Brayden Sier, Sam Petrevski-Seton and Andrew McGrath.

Umpire Ray Chamberlain gestures during the round 18 AFL match between the Western Bulldogs and the St Kilda Saints at Etihad Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.

Holding the ball has bee applied more strictly recently. (Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

This concept of a genuine attempt is possibly the single most nonsensical part of the holding the ball controversy. How are umpires to determine a consistent, objective standard of genuine?

Another problem the AFL has with genuine attempt is that often the tackled player disposes of the ball incorrectly in making a genuine attempt. “How did he get rid of it?” the aggrieved supporter cries, to no avail. But the too-clever-by-half AFL has invented Schrödinger’s tackle: a tackled player can simultaneously break a rule (incorrect disposal) to obviate breaking a different rule (no genuine attempt).

On diving on the ball, it’s simply a form of taking possession. By penalising taking possession, the AFL has created an incentive for players to not take possession, stand off from the ball, wait for an opposing player to either dive on the ball, or take possession in some other way, and tackle. In this situation, two free kicks come into play – diving on the football and no genuine attempt, where the tackler is able to restrict arm movement. That’s a free kick bonanza for a defensive-minded coach.

The AFL can make a couple of relatively quick and simple changes to the holding the ball laws which would give greater clarity, objectivity and possibly increased ball movement. The changes I suggest are to remove the no genuine attempt and diving on the ball free kicks, as those behaviours are already regulated by holding the ball.

Holding the ball and prior opportunity are well-known concepts in Australian football. If a player takes possession of the ball, has prior opportunity to dispose of the ball and is then tackled, it is a free kick. The temporal nature of the free kick – time in possession – gives holding the ball a level of objectivity.

Incorrect disposal exists outside the narrow scope of tackling – a player can’t throw the ball, for example – so if a player is tackled and does not kick or handball, it’s a free kick.

This proposal isn’t radical. The idea is that in removing incentives to tackle and disincentives to taking possession, it will potentially remove tacklers from the contest and open up play.

The AFL’s compulsive need to regulate and dominate Australian football is turning its premier competition into a laughing stock. In addition to a review of holding the ball, the AFL needs to review its position in the game, particularly with respect to its roles in drafting the rules of the game and administering the sport across the country.

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