Intense AFL umpire scrunity continues but can we do much about it?

Rohan Connolly
June 19 2024 - 2:00pm
Western Bulldogs midfielder Tom Liberatore in action against the Hawks at UTAS Stadium earlier this year in pre-season. Picture by Craig George
Western Bulldogs midfielder Tom Liberatore in action against the Hawks at UTAS Stadium earlier this year in pre-season. Picture by Craig George

Another round of AFL football, another close game, another umpiring controversy.

It's becoming a weekly occurrence. And the really bad news? I don't think much is going to change.

This time, the bone of contention was the dramatic finish to last Sunday's North Melbourne-Collingwood match at Marvel Stadium, and whether the Roos' Bailey Scott should have received a 50-metre penalty after Magpies Steele Sidebottom and Beau McCreery had charged over the mark.

Though nothing is certain, a 50 would have put Scott within 25 metres of goal, from where he would most likely have put North back in front with barely any time left on the clock.

The AFL's subsequent explanation only served to elevate umpiring angst, which has now taken in a few "worse than it's ever been" hot takes and a compilation of 10 games this season alone allegedly decided by controversial umpiring calls.

In the most recent, AFL football operations manager Laura Kane said the umpire had erred by not calling play-on once Scott stepped off his line after marking, or "stand" if he didn't believe Scott didn't deviate sufficiently.

You can argue that the Collingwood players, not hearing any direction, were justified in continuing to move.

On that basis, Kane is effectively arguing a commonsense approach.

But wouldn't commonsense on the part of the Pie pair actually have been to assume a mark and stop?

Should an umpire's mistake mitigate another by the players?

And hasn't that largesse in this case arguably cost North Melbourne the game?

Different interpretations. In a football code which relies upon interpretation of the laws of the game more so than any other.

And in a game with far more subjective judgements made than a sport such as tennis, for example.

That's one reason umpiring has always been a hot topic of discussion in Australian football.

But there are now plenty of other factors helping magnify that focus to suffocating levels.

Perhaps the most significant is the introduction of the fourth field umpire in 2023.

The rationale for doing so was sound enough, theoretically enabling at least one whistle-blower the best possible vantage point for any moment requiring adjudication.

But like a lot of people, I'm not sure it's working that smoothly.

There's plenty of instances where confusion following an out-of-zone call by an umpire has reigned, and another set of eyes arguably merely increases the potential for inconsistent calls from umpire to different umpire now even within the same game.

Another factor is technology, both embedded now in the game via things such as video score reviews, and on the part of the media covering the game, far more sophisticated camera coverage and audio revealing errors and various controversies to which we all may have remained blissfully ignorant several decades ago.

Another is the breadth of coverage, not just in terms of television but online and print.

It seems almost impossible to believe these days that as recently as the 1990s, there were still several games per week which weren't covered live on TV or even captured for replay.

Throw in also the shifting nature of that coverage, where increasingly much of the space given to the game often isn't about the game as a whole, but selected incidents or "talking points" from them which can fire up either the talkback calls on radio or comments on social media, and provide endless debate for the cavalcade of post-weekend TV panel shows.

I've certainly noticed an upshot of comments on the various social media platforms in response to my own posts about games, very few of which ever mention umpiring per se.

One pet theory of mine as to why is that ordinary analysis of the actual football played has been captured by the army of former players turned pundits armed with the most detailed statistics.

The average punter can feel a little intimidated offering an opinion on this or that team's game style without the numbers to back it up, let alone 200 games AFL experience.

Umpiring, however, with a decent knowledge of the rule book, is a topic which most people still feel they can weigh in upon with a vocal (if often highly emotional) opinion.

None of these factors are going to change much.

Indeed, if anything, they're only going to intensify further as soon as next year when we inevitably move to Thursday night football on a weekly basis for an entire season, not just 15 rounds, meaning there's more focus on all nine games across a round of AFL football.

As someone who watches the game for a living, it does wear you down when it seems virtually every close game ends up being discussed through the prism of a single decision by an umpire, not an act of brilliance from a player.

But can we expect people who follow their teams with a tribal passion and with the metaphorical blinkers on to suddenly be more forgiving in how they view umpires' role in the game and cut them some slack about the occasional blunder? Not in this lifetime.

Not all issues in the game can be solved. And I'd suggest the age-old chestnut about umpiring standards is top of that list.

Rohan Connolly

Rohan Connolly is one of the most experienced and respected sporting journalists in the country, particularly passionate about football, and with a 40-year track record of observing it at close quarters in print, online, and on radio and TV.