Sport AFL How everything is different, and the same, for AFL fans in 2020
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How everything is different, and the same, for AFL fans in 2020

Optus Stadium: The big – but not massive – crowds are back at the footy. Photo: AAP
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The AFL may be the only thing keeping Victorians sane at the moment, as the spiritual home of the game endures a strict lockdown while maskless fans in other states twirl scarves in the stands.

After a stuttering Round 1 in empty stadiums, the competition shut down for 11 long weeks and only now it seems is everyone is starting to come to terms with football’s brave new world.

And even without changes to fixtures, grounds and rules, the AFL has always sniffed out controversy and excitement.

The more rules change, the more umps stay the same

It would not be an AFL season without the umpires getting a shellacking every week.

But in 2020, where players are being given plenty of leeway in trying circumstances, it appears that once again the men in yellow are the focus for many fans.

To be fair, the viewers at home and bemused players under a mauling pack have a point.

The interpretation of the holding-the-ball rule has been a disaster, because the ruling appears to change from week to week.

Many blame Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson, who put the wind up AFL officials and ultimately the umpires with his criticism early in the year.

With Hawthorn performing poorly, Clarko was at it again on the weekend saying of Swans star Tom Papley: “He milks a free kick as good as anyone in the competition.”

And while the consistency of the interpretations appears to be the main issue, there’s a possible explanation in the mixed-up playing conditions that all participants have had to endure.

Home-ground advantage is considered ‘a thing’ for a reason and umpires have always reacted to the passion of the crowd.

At various times this year that “Ball!” cue card has been missing, although it’s not an altogether bad thing given how the game now seems to revolve around what the umpire is doing at any given moment.

The umpiring department would do well to reconsider week-to-week interpretations and stick with more passages of play like this at Saturday night’s Port Adelaide v St Kilda game at the Adelaide Oval.

The umps didn’t bother to blow the whistle – and, let’s be clear, someone should have – but it certainly made for some tough-looking footy.

It is, after all, the interpretation of the rules we all enjoy so much in the last 10 minutes of a tight grand final, put the whistle away and let them duke it out.

The game is better with fans, maybe even this bloke …

Putting aside the fans disputing umpire calls, what the early matches in front of empty stadiums proved is that elite sport is just like the proverbial park pub clash in the absence of a passionate and huge crowd – well, with better drop punts.

The canned crowd noises helped in the weeks before the hubs came into operation in Queensland, Adelaide, Sydney and Perth, but now we again can enjoy the antics of the real thing.

Despite the rituals of footy being lost to Victorians for now, fans at home at least have to time to sit back and reflect on whether they want to grow old as disgracefully as this bloke behind the goals in Perth.

Social media noted that this Eagles supporter – with vein-popping passion – left nothing on the park in bagging the Swans in 2006 and on the weekend he was back for more against Collingwood.

Older, greyer but seemingly none the wiser, it’s a reminder that the football provides an outlet for many people over the course of their lives and that the pandemic has probably cost us all a few extra wrinkles.

Grand opportunity for a non-Victorian ‘home’ grand final

With non-Victorian clubs getting a chance to stay home for much of the season, the rituals and bonds being forged at home through the pandemic could well deliver a surprise premiership this season.

Not only that, there’s an ever-increasing possibility that the league will be forced into considering a grand final away from the MCG.

It’s an opportunity that should drive in-form clubs like West Coast, Brisbane Lions and Port Adelaide into overdrive with Optus Stadium, The Gabba and Adelaide Oval potential venues.

Those clubs have all have banked early wins and could make a strong claim to hosting the grand final if they won through after finishing on top of the ladder at the end of the shortened home-and-away season.

Port Adelaide was on top throughout the season’s long break and now sits there still after Round 8 – its fans returning to the Adelaide Oval on the weekend to belt out the INXS standard Never Tear Us Apart that alludes to the Port Magpies.

The song has taken on added resonance in a nation divided into hard state lines by the pandemic, with football offering a unifying force for fans able to attend and those in lockdown at home.

While the AFL has long flirted with the idea of a night grand final and non-Victorian clubs with the notion of wresting away the big match from the MCG, the coronavirus crisis may have one last twist in the tale.

In a season that Melbourne has lost so much, it may ultimately be fitting if the game could be held at its traditional venue to put a full stop on a season where everything – and nothing – changed.