Sport AFL Memo to umpires: These whistles are made for blowing
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Memo to umpires: These whistles are made for blowing

Umpires
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I think it’s time AFL umpires supremo Wayne Campbell issued a recall on all the whistles in his department, took them down the corridor to Repairs and Requisitions and got each of them re-fitted with a pea.

Because in the first two rounds of the new season, we’ve heard barely a warble or a trill out of the men in fluoro. Campbell has decreed that they penalise only the really obvious infringements i.e. when the ball-carrier’s head is separated from his shoulders, or when a tackler has applied a Tiger Singh Sleeper Hold or delivered a Mario Milano Atomic Drop.

For every other infringement, the umpys have waved play on with both arms like they’re doing star jumps, their pea-less whistles remaining resolutely unblown.

Campbell is new in the job and obviously keen to put his stamp on the role.

And while he’s won lots of support from the commentariat – we’ve heard ad nauseam how great it is the umpires have “let the play go” – no-one has stated the bleeding obvious: which is that the Campbell command is making the game an eyesore, and increasingly dangerous for the players.

It offers no protection for the bloke doing the toughest job of all and that’s putting his head among the mad flurry of boots, bodies and elbows to actually win the ball.

Fewer free kicks means more stoppages, scrimmages, rolling mauls and stacks on the mill – the scourges of the modern game – which means more ugliness.

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Charles Happell wants to see more of this… Photo: Getty

In round one, there was an average of 32 free kicks paid across the eight games; in round two, that figure increased marginally to 34.

But they are the lowest figures since 2004 when 28.8 frees were paid per game, and way down on 2010’s average of 40 frees and the 2013 average of 36.2.

Campbell and umpires coach Hayden Kennedy have publicly said the obvious free kicks will be paid but incidental contact mostly ignored.

Yet, to see Patrick Dangerfield, one of the game’s most exhilarating players, get manhandled and mauled during the round-one game against Geelong showed what a folly this new decree was. At one stage, while stationary with his hands on his knees, the Adelaide champion was brazenly bowled over by Joel Selwood right under the umpire’s nose yet still couldn’t win a free.

Do people seriously want to see the modestly talented Taylor Hunt, and other taggers for that matter, doing their thing, or do they want the likes of Dangerfield given a chance to thrill?

In the Essendon-Hawthorn match on Friday night, which attracted just 27 frees, the Bombers’ midfield quartet of Jobe Watson, Brent Stanton, Paul Chapman and David Zaharakis won a total of precisely zero free kicks between them for the entire contest. So in eight man hours of football, they were deemed not to have been infringed upon once.

Hawthorn fared even worse, winning just 11 decisions as a team across the four quarters.

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… and less of this. Photo: Getty

The same with the North Melbourne-Bulldogs match on Sunday when a pitiful 24 frees were paid and noted ball-winners such as Jack Ziebell were belted from pillar to post and deemed undeserving of a free kick throughout the 110 minutes. Ziebell finished the game clutching his shoulder, arm, head and neck – often all at once – and was last seen heading for the ice bath.

There’s a voluminous book of rules relating to the indigenous game, yet the umpires are penalising players who break them only in the most egregious cases. The rules are now applied selectively, so an 80 per cent infringement might attract a penalty but a 60 per cent one might be called play on.

Over 10 years until 2008, the average number of field bounces in season deciders was 27; in the past four years, it has risen to 47. In 2012, there were 51. It’s ugly and, with fewer free kicks being paid, it’s only getting uglier.

Tim Lane wrote a piece in the Sunday Age after the 2012 Grand Final between Sydney and Hawthorn which ought to be required reading for Campbell, Kennedy and the umpiring fraternity.

Do people seriously want to see the modestly talented Taylor Hunt, and other taggers for that matter, doing their thing, or do they want the likes of Dangerfield given a chance to thrill?

“In the 1970 Grand Final, (sole field umpire) Don Jolley paid 90 free kicks (which may include frees for out of bounds on the full). In the (2012) grand final, 31 free kicks (not including “out on the full”) were awarded in a game with indubitably more tackling than was the case 42 years ago. In the 1996 grand final, 19 free kicks – about one every six minutes – were awarded. Does anyone seriously believe the same standard of player protection was brought to that game as to the classic of 26 years earlier?” Lane wrote.

“Apologists for today’s relentless defensive, stoppage-oriented football argue that, in the past, too many inconsequential free kicks were paid. But Jolley and his peers did not just protect the ball player, they protected – and preserved – a particular form of the game.

“Yet still the AFL football brains trust refuses to acknowledge liberal umpiring as a reason for the escalating problem of pack formation.”

So with that, we rest our case. Doubtless we’ll get drowned out by the mindless chorus of “just let the game go”, but unless something is done to rein in this dire trend then expect chaos, and ugliness, to ensue.

Bring back the pea, we say, and bring it back now.