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Gary Ablett lucky to get his right whack

Canberra Times logo Canberra Times 26/05/2014 Greg Baum

Gary Ablett is lucky, and at the same time vindicated, and above all, free still to win the third Brownlow Medal that every week seems more likely to be his.

He is lucky because plainly enough, he lashed out at Liam Picken. It was not an attempt to release Picken's hold on him, because Picken already had released it. It was not an effort to get at the ball because it had gone. Most likely it was a reaction to another day of close-checking, another season of it. As such, it was understandable, and wrong, and that makes him lucky.

But it is unclear from the only available footage where Ablett's back-flung forearm struck Picken, and unfair to proceed on the basis of a guess, and certain that Picken, if he was asked, would have mumbled something about feeling nothing, even if his jaw was being held together by surgical tape, which it wasn't. 

So the match review panel decided that the evidence was too skimpy to bother even with plugging the pieces into the matrix. Even if it it had, it would have arrived at a sum of activation points that would have been enough to rule Ablett out of Brownlow contention, but not enough even to rule him out of one match, and that would have been wrong, and would have made him unlucky.

Here, incidentally, is a flaw in the system, exposed. The difference between one match and none would have been the statutory discount for a long record of good behaviour, which is crucial, since we are considering behaviour worthy of a Brownlow medallist, and that should not be about a fleeting moment, but a pattern over time. It is incongruous that Ablett's good record might have added up to less than a match, but more than a Brownlow.

No matter how much the match review panel system is refined, some part of its judgment always will be empirical rather than analytical, and so it is in this case. The fact is that not every incident on a football ground can be made to fit exactly into a matrix, but because no two cases are exactly the same, precedent is imperfect and we have to have a matrix in the first instance. And even with a matrix, sometimes it is impossible to align punishment and crime.

In summary this time, as the panel would say, Ablett's action (if that is the word) was silly in that it was directed in the general direction of Picken's head, that no-go zone, and might have done Picken damage and if so would almost certain have disqualified Ablett from Brownlow contention, but since it did no apparent damage it was too slight of itself to be worth such a sanction.

Now that it is all over for Ablett – nor rather not all over for him – there is a lesson to go on with. Taggers are pests, and Ablett must sometimes feel that he is playing in a swarm of locusts, in a season of them. But a tagger is doing a job for his team, and even if his tactics are sometimes called into question, his role is not illegal, and it is ill-advised for any player, no matter how frustrated, to take the law into his own hands, not to mention elbows.

Because Picken came away unscathed, so did Ablett. He was vindicated. But he was lucky.

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