Holding the Ball Rule 18.6.1 - Spirit and Intention: The Player who has Possession of the Football will be provided an opportunity to dispose of the football before rewarding an opponent for a Legal Tackle.
We all appreciate the fact football is back, but its current format -- specifically the holding the ball rule -- needs an overhaul.
With so many interpretations and rule changes in recent history, the game of Australian Rules at the highest level has diminished as a product. Monday night's Adelaide vs. St Kilda clash was a perfect case in point, with the AFL contacting both clubs in admitting several decisions were incorrect.
The holding the ball rule is one that needs serious attention. Having enjoyed both aspects of hunting the ball and the defensive pressure of football, here are a few thoughts on how we can make this aesthetically better and hopefully implement more consistency in decision making.
First and foremost, if the umpires are in any doubt or they need to err, it should be in favour of the ball-winner, not the tackler. There should be nothing wrong with a quick ball-up to recommence play.
To ensure any subtle change to HTB makes a difference, a change to the rule needs to be in parallel with the removal of the ruck nomination. It has already been shown as a farcical rule at the elite level, as it slows down restarts and allows time for more players to crowd around a stoppage.
Players and fans alike would prefer a 'less is more' approach when it comes to umpiring decisions, meaning each free kick for their team is in fact earned. I would rather umpires miss a free kick than to give away easy possessions in critical moments that could be deemed soft.
The knee-jerk reaction to Alastair Clarkson's press conference -- where he noted of the 69 tackles laid, not a single free kick was awarded to Hawthorn against North Melbourne in Round 4 -- has been immediate, and immense. According to Champion Data, in Round 1, 837 tackles were laid and 48 HTB frees were awarded (one free kick every 17.4 tackles) In Round 7, of the 853 tackles laid, this has produced a staggering 90 free kicks (one free kick every 9.5 tackles) - an incredible increase in holding the ball frees.
You could certainly argue that many awarded are not in line with the 'Spirit and Intention' outlined above.
Which leads to the essence of the rule and the clarity that is needed. Umpires must enforce 'prior opportunity' correctly. If a player has had ample time to dispose of the ball, then pay holding the ball if they are tackled with it. If a player disposes a ball incorrectly, then the player loses their 'prior opportunity'.
We need to remove any mention of 'genuine attempt' from the Laws of the Game. Players do so many quick hands and kicking-under-pressure drills at training, they are now adept in traffic to dispose of it correctly. This will ensure they utilise these skills and the ball stays in motion.
Of course, the tackler must make a legal tackle. Therefore, no high contact, no slinging motion or crashing into the ball carrier's back.
Play-on is called if the ball carrier chooses to dive on a ball, duck their head into a tackler or shrug to encourage a high-tackle but it should be viewed as their prior opportunity.
Many of interpretations and laws have come into existence as a result of playing styles of various football clubs. If you turn to the all-conquering Brisbane Lions between 2001-2003, they implemented a surge mentality and forward handball with their elite midfield to great effect.
The Sydney team that I was a part of reacted by taking a defensive mindset to nullify, and control their dominance. This resulted in midfielders 'taking the tackle' to avoid the ball being spilled out into waiting opposition players for a turnover goal.
I firmly believe if umpires paid more HTB decisions at this time, it would have changed our mindset. We were strong and co-ordinated at the resultant stoppages.
Fast forward to the Geelong dynasty of 2007, 2009 and 2011. The AFL, from my perspective, seemingly wanted to get the ball back in motion - they wanted fast movement and to avoid stoppages at all costs. This meant the tackler was rarely rewarded and players were allowed to drop the ball or dispose of it incorrectly.
During Hawthorn's reign at the top of the AFL tree, and Richmond since, we have seen many peripheral rules brought in each year that have not addressed some of the key issues in our game. It has either disenchanted our traditional supporter base or baffled new spectators of the game.
We all want to see the greatest game of all flourish, but we first must reduce the confusion and make it an easier game to umpire.