Free-kick spike after AFL’s holding-the-ball tweak

Shayne Hope |

There was a surge in the number of free kicks paid after the holding-the-ball rule tweak.
There was a surge in the number of free kicks paid after the holding-the-ball rule tweak.

AFL coaches are split on the tightening of the holding-the-ball rule after the number of free kicks paid rose more than 40 per cent in the round immediately following the change.

The league announced a significant shift in the interpretation last week, directing umpires to shorten the “reasonable time” component.

It came after weeks of backlash from coaches and fans, in particular around tackles lingering too long and putting players at risk of injury.

The change led to an average of 11.6 holding-the-ball free kicks being paid across the seven matches in round 12.

That figure was up on the average of 8.2 for all games played from the opening round to round 11.

A total of 17 holding-the-ball free kicks were awarded in the Hawthorn-Adelaide match, more than double the previous average, while 16 were paid in the Geelong-Richmond encounter.

Only six were paid in the West Coast-St Kilda fixture.

Richmond's Tom Brown tackles St Kilda's Dan Butler.
Interpretation of the tackle rule has been a highly contentious topic in the AFL this season. (Michael Errey/AAP PHOTOS)

Carlton coach Michael Voss and Gold Coast counterpart Damien Hardwick believed the controversial mid-season shift in interpretation was instantly justified.

“Over the course of the weekend – and there are going to be some they get wrong – but I thought they got the vast majority right,” Hardwick said after the Suns’ win over Essendon on Sunday.

“I thought it opened up the game and we saw a brilliant round of footy.

“The game on Friday night, the Collingwood-Bulldogs game, was great because of it.

“It certainly opened it up and if they’re consistent with it, I think the players will adjust a hell of a lot quicker and it will set the Sherrin free, which is something we want to do.”

Port Adelaide’s Ken Hinkley said he didn’t notice much difference to the way the game was played, while Collingwood’s Craig McRae felt umpires were far quicker to blow the whistle.

“It’s almost like – don’t fight the tackle, you’re gone,” McRae said after the Magpies’ loss to the Western Bulldogs.

“I’m not sure if I’m a fan of it, but I know we tackle a lot and we got a lot more holding-the-balls.

“We’re all learning on the job. Tonight (Friday) looked a bit different to last night, I thought.

“It was really hot. It looks like it’s going to be a bit more of tackle rewarded, which is what we got.”

Essendon coach Brad Scott believes umpires and players will grow better at working under the new interpretations as the season continues.

“This round, they had a really big challenge in that there were some changes and I think the umpires are in an incredibly difficult position,” Scott said.

“I think they’re doing a good job, and I think players adapt really quickly to it as well.

“That will get better and players will have a better understanding of how things like holding the ball and those decisions are, going forward.”

AFL football boss Laura Kane said the league was pleased with the way umpires handled the first round of matches under the new interpretation.

“We needed to blow our whistle a little bit quicker to make sure we maintained player health and safety,” Kane told the AFL website on Monday.

“We saw that and we expected to see a little uptick in holding the ball frees paid.

“I think if we didn’t, I might have questioned why we made the interpretation change, but we saw an increase of three on average per game.”