MORE THAN MOST years, season 2022 has been a year of intense scrutiny on players, coaches, and especially umpires. I feel for those who adjudicate our game, as rules are constantly changing, interpretations are being tweaked, and split-second decisions being analysed again and again in the media.
Earlier in the season, the umpire abuse rule was the one everyone came down hard on. I remember watching one of Melbourne's first games and noticing how harsh umpires were with the 'arms out' motion, and noting to myself this wasn't going to be allowed moving forward.
Then there was a trend of players showing 'dissent' but not being penalised, while others were copping it. Naturally, umpires were blamed, but speaking from experience, interpretations differ for umpires because 'dissent' is such a subjective thing.
As players, it was difficult to know how to approach this side of the game; obviously you get emotional when a free kick is paid against you - especially when you don't think there was something there, but I feel like the scaling back of that rule has helped the game as a whole. Broadly, I think it has stopped players from speaking harshly or acting demonstrably towards the men in green.
But now we have another 'issue'. The high contact rule has arguably proven to be a bigger problem, especially given we play a contact sport in which accidents can happen.
I've always gone into games thinking if someone ducks or buckles at the knees to get high contact then that is their prior opportunity and they should be penalised for that. Sometimes players are simply taken high and it doesn't need an explanation, it's a free kick.
But it's become a hard one to judge (and talk about), because the interpretations have been changed again, and now there are certain actions being employed to manipulate your opponent to take you high. Add in the fact that tackling in contests happens so quickly, and it's a perfect storm of confusion and, as we've seen, media and fan discussion - as we've seen most recently with the Patrick Cripps incident this week.
Let's be clear, I'm not blaming players here for their actions in a contest - after all, coaches try to manipulate rules all the time to come up with a winning edge.
But this shift in how some attack the footy has changed how I approach contests. If I see a player who I know likes to stay low, or potentially raise an arm in a contest, I do try to tackle them lower, but in doing so I'm planning in the moment to do something I haven't really been trained to do.
Tackling correctly with the proper technique is learned behaviour, because it has to be - the instructions coming from the AFL is we as the tackler have a duty of care to the player we're making contact with.
Having to then change the (for all intents and purposes) 'correct', taught technique is strange, and mentally tough too, as the players who might attack the footy differently aren't doing anything illegal.
In fact, I feel sorry for someone like Collingwood's Jack Ginnivan, who has spoken of the mental toll of the media circus. Cody Weightman at our club has faced similar attention, but playing for Collingwood, the scrutiny is turned up to 11, especially if you're a little different, or approach footy in a different way.
Of course, scrutiny is part of the AFL package. As players we know we're going to be analysed, but there are times it's warranted, and there are times where we could probably lay off him a bit and give it a rest - he's not the one paying or not paying the free kicks.
Getting back to the point at hand, if I'm going into a contest and I'm weighing all this up about all of this in a matter of milliseconds, what chance do umpires have to determine whether someone might be raising an arm deliberately, or going into a contest head-first on purpose?
They've got so much on their plate. It's such a hard a hard game to umpire at the best of times. Personally, I don't dwell on umpires' decision or potential mistakes, but I do have conversations with them to educate myself. And often, they're happy to explain what's going on so long as you're respectful about it.
And at times I think some umpires pay free kicks they might not necessarily agree with. After all, they are following the rules, but given the constant tweaks to interpretations, it must be taking its toll on what they think is a free kick, and what is either prior opportunity or a stoppage.
For me I strongly believe today's footy would be extremely hard to umpire, and as players and fans, we need to understand this.
Yes, it's their job, but everyone makes mistakes no matter what we do. Even I miss sodas in front of goal from time to time. My two cents about rules, interpretations and free kicks? For the most part I think we just need to keep everything as simple as we can and keep moving forward.