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The holding the ball rule is not footy

The Roar logo The Roar 1/08/2020 Liam Bretag

A young boy stands in any other year than this one.

He’s barely nine, and he’s cold. It’s a crisp Sunday morning, and the sun’s peaking over the horizon just. He pulls up his socks, because his coach always tells them it’s important to look the part. He just hopes he gets out onto the ground this time. It gets cold on the bench.

This game, he has his chance. The big man in a dark coat before him turns to him, his beard bristling in the cold morning as his breath frosts. “I want you to go in there, and to get the ball,” he says.

The boy goes out there, but young boys are forgetful. He got distracted. First he was running, then he was looking at the play, ball watching. He barely had the opportunity to even think about getting the ball before it was whisked away.

At the end of the quarter, an assistant coach pulls him to one side. He tells the boy: “No one’s going to get it for you, and no one’s going to give it to you unless you demand it. You’ve got to go find the ball yourself.”

So, next term, he goes back out there, and it goes much better. He actually remembers to find the ball, and he goes in and gets it himself. And he finds he’s pretty good at it. He’s able to get it, and it just feels instinctive from there.

(Photo by Michael Dodge/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The boy spends the next nine years of his life getting the ball. He puts on height, and muscle, and he learns how to kick and hand pass. He’s taught complex clearance arrangements, and when to block for a teammate. He gets involved with coaching a bit, he helps his little sister. His first bit of advice for her is exactly the same as that assistant coach: no-one’s going to give you the ball. You’ve got to get it yourself.

The boy is very good, and very lucky. He gets drafted, in the strangest of seasons. For the first time in history, no AFL games are taking place in Melbourne. They’re all interstate. And the boy gets another debut, this time for his AFL team. He remembers the mantra he’s lived by, and that he’s internalised to this point.

And he gets done multiple times in a game for holding the ball with no prior opportunity, without an umpire awarding a push in the back, a high tackle, or a trip, or a holding before he took possession free kick.

This is unjust.

So, to the point of this little story. We teach kids from the youngest age to go and get the ball. It’s the first thing we do, because if you go and get the ball you are less likely to get hurt. Kids are taught how to go in and to do it, on the ground and on their feet, and they’re taught how to defend themselves from unwanted contact. And the rules as such were designed to protect them: you had the disposal frees for the tackler, but the ball carrier was enshrined.

The current change to the holding the ball rule is unconscionable. It rewards the person second to the ball, and it murders the person who was better and got there first. It is an un-footy rule.

I beg the AFL establishment to recognise the irreparable damage they are doing to the code of Australian rules with this specific rule change. They have tinkered at the margins, and they have altered interpretations before, such is the way of things for the sport. But those changes fit within a paradigm. They didn’t change the essence of the game.

This is a sport for swashbucklers, a game of innovators, of daring in attack and defence. Not for us the nil-all draw of football or the brute-like smashing of bodies through defensive lines of the rugby codes. For us is the relentless runner, the skilled winger, the mercurial forward and the honesty of an in-and-under midfielder who simply wanted it more.

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

This rule causes the AFL to cease to be Australian rules, becoming something else. This might be something that head office wants. They’ve done their utmost to make themselves a byword for the sport they play. When people ask what code I follow, I say Aussie rules. They ask questioningly, do I mean AFL?

The sport was there first, and it’ll be there after, and there will be in other years plenty of other games we can immerse ourselves in. There will always be local footy, and our community comps. But the AFL is influential.

This isn’t right. The AFL needs note this: if they persist with this rule interpretation, they will lose fans. Maybe not as many as they gain, maybe there’s enough tribal feeling in the sport to ensure its survival, but they will lose long time supporters of clubs and the code. God knows they’ve almost lost me over this.

Fix it. Go back to what you were doing before. Go back to whatever rule set you care to mention from a previous iteration of the sport. But the sport at the moment is not Australian rules.

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