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A week may have passed since the AFL Appeals Board overruled the decision to suspend Melbourne forward Jacob van Rooyen but the implications of the incident and the decisions surrounding it require close examination.
By adhering to the literal interpretation of rule 18.5.3 that “incidental contact in a marking contest will be permitted if the player’s sole objective is to contest or spoil a mark”, the AFL Appeals Board chair has created, or highlighted, depending on your perspective, a problem the game will eventually need to address.
Jacob van Rooyen and Charlie Ballard during round eight.Credit: AFL Photos
That rule relied upon cannot possibly be applied literally in the future in every similar circumstance that arises in a game that now recognises how important it is for the head to be protected.
If that was the case then Collingwood’s Brayden Maynard would not have been suspended for striking the Giants’ Daniel Lloyd in a pre-season practice match in 2022.
You can argue Maynard’s action was more of a round arm than van Rooyen’s, but it’s hard to claim the Magpie broke rule 18.5.3. His sole objective was to spoil. He hit the ball. He made incidental contact with his opponent. He copped the suspension of two matches without appeal, and we accepted Maynard should be more careful in future if faced with the same situation.
A literal application of the rule would also have made it impossible for the AFL to admit, as they did a week before the van Rooyen decision, that a free kick should have been paid to Collingwood’s Nathan Murphy when he copped Adelaide forward Darcy Fogarty’s forearm to the head.
Fogarty’s sole objective in that incident was to contest or spoil the mark and, unlike van Rooyen, he had his eyes on the ball, making any contact with another player incidental.
Under rule 18.5.3, literally interpreted, the umpire made the correct call of play-on even when the relevant reasons for a free kick are considered.
Under rule 18.5.2 (d), a field umpire shall award a free kick in a marking contest against a player where the player: makes contact to an opposition player from front-on and whose sole objective is not to contest or spoil a mark.
Fogarty’s only objective was to contest the mark by spoiling. Yet any reasonable football watcher thought that a free kick should have been paid to Murphy, who left the ground with a bloodied nose.
Under rule 18.5.2 (e), a field umpire shall award a free kick in a marking contest against a player where the player: makes an unrealistic attempt to contest or spoil a mark which interferes with an opposition player.
Adelaide’s Darcy Fogarty’s objective was to contest or spoil the mark.Credit: Getty
Fogarty was not being unrealistic when he interfered with Murphy. But umpires are expected to interpret the rule book as any reasonable person would and pay a free kick so players are deterred from doing what Fogarty did.
Fogarty was lucky. Most reasonable footballers could expect that if they courageously go back with the flight with eyes only for the ball they may inflict more damage than they would like on their opponent.
That’s why in many similar instances modern players exercise a duty of care and either turn their body in an attempt to mark or wave their arms as they leap in the hope of spoiling the ball while mitigating risk. No one criticises them for that and it should be encouraged.
Fogarty was fortunate that Murphy, somewhat miraculously, escaped concussion.
It’s also fortunate Gold Coast’s Charlie Ballard wasn’t more seriously injured when van Rooyen went back with the flight with his sole objective being to spoil the mark, as it undoubtedly was. The brave Suns defender heard a crack and the doctor was concerned enough about his neck to ask him to lie still while they waited for a stretcher. Thankfully, he was able to play the next week.
Some argue that every marking contest carries risk. That is true and we are all willing to accept the risk of injury that is due to a player flying for a high mark, a skill that remains part of the fabric of the game. Everyone wants that feature to be protected by the laws of the game.
But we also have to accept that a player arriving at a contest without their eyes on the ball with a fist has a duty of care to their opponent. That is reasonable.
The umpires do. The Match Review Officer did. The tribunal backed him. But the Appeals Board did not think they were in a position to do so because of the way the law is written.
Unfortunately, the logical flow-on then from the ruling in the van Rooyen appeal, one most people seemed to support, is that under rule 18.5 it is not unreasonable to do what the Demon did.
The appeal chair even admitted that the tribunal’s concern about an extreme characterisation of incidental contact had validity but effectively decided it would be an overreach for them to support their position and upheld the appeal.
That’s their right as a body making rulings independent of the AFL.
But someone at the AFL now has to update rule 18.5 on marking contests because as it stands, according to the lawyers taking over the tribunal, without the ability to put a “what is reasonable” lens on the rule, almost anything could be justified as long as the sole objective is to contest or spoil a mark.
No one wants that. The rule must be carefully considered and updated.
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