shrinking_menThere has been a lot of confusion and debate recently around the AFL’s decision to adjust the rules around players in possession ducking their heads mid-season. I am personally not at all confused and I think the football public and commentators in particular need to stop screaming that the sky is falling and everyone (including the umpiring fraternity) need to just pay attention to the evolution of the game where it relates to head trauma and head-high contact.

Since the official push for stricter interpretation (Round 10, 2015) of the “ducking rule” (introduced Round 01 2014), I personally think the umpires ARE paying attention and they ARE adjudicating the new rule correctly in many contentious situations. Are they making mistakes? Yes. But they have been told to suddenly start paying attention to a rule in the middle of a season which runs contrary to the protection-of-the-head rule changes which have been in force since 2007. It’s going to take some time for the umpires to adjust their natural response to head-contact. One can only imagine (unless one is Director of Umpiring Wayne Campbell) that it was the contradictory nature of the ducking rule which lead to it being largely ignored in season 2014.

So what is the history of head-contact rules and why is it so natural for umpires to pay the free kick for high contact?

Punching players in the head has always been banned, though probably the biggest deterrent to players actually hitting each other in the head has been television. Only since the introduction of multiple field umpires as video evidence at the tribunal have off-the-ball incidents been all but stamped out.

So what of in-play incidents? When were these rules introduced which wound up with players getting free kicks for head-butting opponents’ stomachs?

It was 2007 when the strict head-high contact rule was introduced. The rule stated that:

  • An automatic free kick be awarded to a player with their head over the ball if head contact was made to them or if any high contact was made in any way. This also became an automatic reportable offence.

The laws of the game document also includes graphics to highlight the areas of the body protected by this rule.

In 2011, the concussion rule was introduced forcing teams to conduct concussion tests on player who had been knocked out during play and preventing them from returning to the field if they failed the test. The contentious bumping rule was also introduced to the effect of:

  • Players electing to bump instead of tackle will be reported should their bump strike the head

In 2013, the concussion rule was amended to allow teams to temporarily substitute a player who was undergoing a concussion test (nicely done, Geelong).

duck_free_kickThe head was now (theoretically) comprehensively protected from a rules point of view. Of course AFL players are professional athletes and will do what they need to do – within the rules of the game – to gain an advantage, so the first thing they did was start to lead with their head. They figured they could draw a free-kick by using their head like a battering-ram on an opponent or throwing their head down as they were about to be tackled. Of course it worked and a huge number of head-high free kicks were awarded in 2013 as marked by the football public and media alike (though comparing 2013’s tackle-head-high frees against previous seasons is impossible because the stat was first isolated in 2013).

So the rule introduced to protect players’ heads was actually having the opposite effect with players putting their heads into dangerous positions more often in order to draw free kicks. This lead the AFL to introduce the High Contact for Players Leading with the Head rule prior to the 2014 season. The rule stipulates that:

  • A player who drives his head into a stationary or near stationary player shall be regarded as having had prior opportunity.  If legally tackled following this he will be required to legally dispose of the ball or he will be penalised
  • Where a player ducks into a tackle and is the cause of high contact the umpire will call play on.

This is the rule which seems to be causing the current confusion, but if you read it in its strictest sense, the rule is clear: if a player in control of the ball intentionally uses their head to make contact with another player, a head-high free kick will not be awarded to them. That’s it. All other rules related to players in possession of the ball are age-old and apply here as anywhere else.

For reasons known only to Wayne Campbell and the umpires, the umpiring fraternity chose to all but ignore this new rule for the 2014 season. Back in May, Campbell himself claimed the interpretation they had applied to the ducking rule was “loose”. So in response to the increasing number of players dabbling in the duck-arts, as of Round 10, umpires are required to actually pay attention to the ducking rule. I think this stricter interpretation comes not a minute too soon for those of us driven mad by free kicks for players who are all but head-butting their opponents.

This year the concussion rule was also strengthened making the interpretation of a knock-out incident more specific and forcing clubs (with the threat of fines) to keep players off the field following a knock-out incident.

To date there is still no official rule relating to “sling tackles”, though one suspects that this will change in the near future.

— I.E. Kenner


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