For what seems like the hundredth time this season, which is not yet halfway completed, the Match Review Panel has released a staggeringly inconsistent finding into the weekend’s matches.
Hawthorn captain Luke Hodge was cleared for contact which left Marc Murphy on a surgeon’s table with a broken cheekbone, and received a reprimand for leaving the ground to connect with Lachie Henderson’s face. Though he will be contesting it, he is currently free to play in Hawthorn’s next game.
Meanwhile, Jack Ziebell’s clumsy smother attempt, which dazed Jarrad Lyons of Adelaide for mere milliseconds, earnt him a four-week holiday. His previous bad record, which includes a dubious suspension for concussing Carlton’s Aaron Joseph, contributed to the severity of the suspension.
Elsewhere, James Kelly challenged a two-week suspension and lost – even after the man he ever so slightly grazed with his shoulder, Brendon Goddard, testified on his behalf, stating that no injury was sustained and he did not think Kelly should be suspended.
Jared Petrenko ensured Shane Mumford would eat through a straw for four weeks. No suspension. Eddie Betts broke Nathan Wright’s jaw behind the play. Three weeks’ suspension. Lindsay Thomas put Ben Reid into next week, running past the ball and laying a bump. No suspension. Darren Jolly was reported for letting Mathew Stokes run into him. Reported, then cleared at the tribunal.
Players have got to be confused. The line between what is acceptable and what is not is blurred, and getting harder and harder to see every week.
Is it okay to bump within two metres of the ball? Or is it five? Wait, should players leave the ground to bump or keep their feet planted? If they accidentally make contact with the head, that’s fine, right? How does the MRP distinguish accidental head-high contact from deliberate contact? Should players attempt to smother or leave themselves unprotected?
It appears that after every round, a relatively minor incident, and one that would have been met with rapturous applause in the 1980s or the 1990s, is dragged before an archaic panel of ex-players and lawyers to be pulled apart and examined with a fine-tooth comb.
Whether it’s two players going hard at the footy, like the Hodge/Murphy clash, or a player trying to smother, like the Ziebell/Lyons hit, or a player attempting to lay a shepherd (Betts/Wright, Thomas/Reid), the incidents are examples of what makes the game great – physical, hard contact between players desperate for the footy.
How Byron Pickett would weep if he were to don an AFL jumper, only to discover that his most lethal weapon – his physicality – was basically outlawed. Can one even imagine how many weeks Pickett would spend on the sidelines in 2013’s AFL?
Geelong hard nut Joel Selwood has taken to social media platform Twitter to lament the “death” of the bump, while Crow Taylor Walker recently tweeted “Can’t bump, slide or tackle anymore – When will the tags be coming out to play??”
After Jolly was cleared for his bump on Stokes, Kelly tweeted his confusion at the similarities of the incidents, but the differences in the penalties.
The rule is not only confusing to players. Chris Scott and John Longmire, two of the competition’s most successful coaches, have labelled the MRP’s decision making as “a waste of time”, “confusing” and “frustrating”. Longmire has encouraged his Swans to avoid bumping other players. Nathan Buckley has followed suit at Collingwood.
AFL Football Operations Manager Mark Evans, who has held the role for just several months, has hinted at a light at the end of the tunnel, stating that the MRP system will come under review at the conclusion of the current season.
Regardless of Evans’ best intentions, AFL umpiring boss Jeff Gieschen and rules committee chairman Kevin Bartlett defend the panel’s decisions, however baffling they may be, with a high-octane stream of legalese and “by-the-letter-of-the-law” nonsense.
It can be put as simply as this. In their overzealous crusade to ‘baby-proof’ the game, the MRP has turned the sport into a spectacle where players have no confidence in the rules and no confidence in making physical contact with other players. They second-guess contests for fear of invoking the metaphorical wheel of fortune that the MRP wield.
For the sake of the game, for the sanity of the fans, and for the confidence of the players, the Match Review Panel needs to set concrete rules. Players should not have to be confused about whether or not to bump, smother, tackle or shepherd.
For many players, like Ziebell or Selwood, the game is played on instinct. The MRP are attempting to remove instinct from the game. Lay down a clear set of rules, set precedents for suspension and actually stick to them, or banish the system forever.
The archaic, outdated dinosaurs creating grey areas and defending the decisions must be replaced, and the game must be allowed to return to the hard-at-it, ferocious contested spectacle that made it so excellent to watch in the 70s, 80s and 90s.