Footballers make mistakes. As much as we as a public may dislike this, it is a fact of our game, that the individuals charged with winning matches of football are mere humans, and human error will occur from the footballers. Even as we sigh in disbelief as a kick misses the target, we remind ourselves of the perfect imperfection in our sport.
Umpires also make mistakes. When watching a match, the public find themselves declaring their allegiance to either of the two teams on the field, yet few if any declare an allegiance to the umpires. Therefore, when umpires make mistakes, these are viewed with disdain by a public which expects perfection from an imperfect source. However, most onlookers understand when an umpire makes an apparently incorrect decision, as our game is played at a frenetic pace; upholding the rules to a perfect standard is an unachievable goal.
Virtually nobody likes it when one mistake changes the course of the game. Even less people enjoy it when the mistake comes from neither of these two sources. The interchange rule is viewed with widespread scepticism, and the decision to not only award a free kick, but a 50 metre penalty against the side that committed the interchange infraction is a poor one.
In one of the most highly anticipated matches of the year, Hawthorn and Geelong played out a thrilling match, decided by only ten points, with Hawthorn falling victim yet again to the ‘Kennett Curse’. However, had Hawthorn claimed victory, it would have been one tainted with an undeserved goal, caused not by the errors of either the players or the umpires, but the error of an official with a flag.
Despite trailing by 33 points early in the last quarter, Hawthorn had kicked two goals in a row and had plenty of momentum with a little under half a quarter left in this tense battle between the two heavyweights of the competition. And then, with three Geelong players running to the bench, only two players ran back on as Josh Hunt stalled, presumably gaining more information from the coaches. Unfortunately, this was when Tom Lonergan jogged towards the bench, mistakenly assuming he was being rested. This may have been mismanaged by Geelong, with four players coming off the field at once, however it was not illegal. It was certainly not enough to warrant gifting Hawthorn a free kick and a 50 metre penalty, which ultimately led to a David Hale goal.
There have been 16 matches this year decided by six points or under. A lot of players involved in those matches will reflect on clangers that may have led to the loss. Perhaps the umpires will lose sleep over some poor decisions made in vital times during those matches. But for a match to potentially be decided by a mistake from someone who spends as much time sitting down during the match as most spectators; this should not be an option.
While knee-jerk reactions should normally be frowned upon in the AFL, a reaction to this decision must be made. Granted, teams should be punished should they accidentally have more than the allotted 18 players on the field, but what is essentially a free goal should not be the option. Even if Geelong had made an interchange infringement, it was during a stoppage in play and would have had little to no impact on the match itself. To punish them so severely is detrimental to the notion of the ‘better team on the day’. When push comes to shove, a free six points can make all the difference. Both Chris Scott and Alastair Clarkson reflected on the decision after the match, with Clarkson saying that he would “prefer (the penalty) wasn’t so harsh” even claiming that while he would have loved to have won, he “would have hated to have won it based on a mistake.”
That’s all the decision was on Saturday night – a mistake. Players, umpires, officials and even those in charge of creating the rules of the game all make them. With the competition reaching the latter end of the season and with finals looming, this mistake can still be corrected before it threatens to alter the result of a final. As Clarkson has claimed, “it’s a harsh penalty for what is a pretty honest mistake.” It is not one which should continue for much longer.