Acting for high free kicks has become an unfortunate staple of the modern game. The likes of Joel Selwood and Luke Shuey have developed dropping the knees and shrugging the shoulders into a real art form.
But it was neither of these players who were criticised for ‘ducking’ on the weekend. Instead, it was the series of high free kicks awarded to North’s Lindsay Thomas during the loss to Sydney that had people crying foul.
Former Hawthorn premiership player and commentator Dermott Brereton led the charge, visibly fuming during Fox Footy’s half-time coverage.
“This is a blight on the game and I would call on the league’s rule makers to cut this crap out,” Brereton said. “I hate it.”
And on SEN the next day, Brereton took particular offence to Thomas’ second high contact free, saying the small forward’s actions were “not in the spirit of the game”.
“Lindsay was in a pack, surrounded by two other bodies, and he had an exit passage straight ahead of him,” Brereton said. “But he thought, ‘No, I am going to seek out the tackler’. He actually went into reverse, got lower in reverse, and drove up into the tackle from behind under the armpit.”
“He actually thought, ‘Where is the tackler? I want the tackler, because I can milk a free out of this’. That is not the spirit of our game.”
But while Thomas is notorious for ‘ducking’, and is often used as a poster boy for undesirable acting, he hasn’t been the umpires’ favourite in 2016. In fact, Thomas has only received four high frees this season – that’s including the two he received on Friday night.
In actuality, Lion Allen Christensen and Bulldog Toby Mclean have received the most high free kicks – a staggering 17 frees at this point in the season.
The stats don’t lie. If individual players are receiving such a large number of high frees, then they’re obviously altering their attack on the ball to draw in the high contact.
But are these players solely to blame? Do we have the right to label them as ‘duckers’ and not playing in the ‘spirit of the game’?
While we’re all rightly frustrated, ultimately these acts are well within the rules.
And high free kicks were introduced as a way to prevent serious injury to the neck and head. There will always be that duty of care to the player going in for the ball- whether they act or not.
So do we need to alter the rules then? Or do we need to change the way the umpires are interpreting them?
One popular solution is to have the umps look for the start and end point of a tackle, to see whether or not a player is initiating the high contact. But former umpire Steve McBurney believes this change would only lead to more errors.
“Unless he has a good perspective of that and has uninterrupted vision, he is going to struggle in any occasion to get that full context to make that informed decision,” McBurney said. “We can sit back and watch it in slow-mo replay and maybe make the decision on the third angle, the umpire doesn’t have that luxury.”
So if the umpires can’t change at this point in time- and ultimately they’re only adjudicating with the rules they’ve been given- then we need to put some onus back on the tacklers themselves.
They need to manipulate their own game, in a sense, to win frees. Lower the arms and tackle around the lower torso rather than higher up.
Good tackles will always be rewarded. And if it is a really strong, legal tackle, then it will also be more difficult for players to stage for frees.
Now, this is all very easy to say from the sidelines, especially because it undoubtedly becomes more complicated, the more you look at it.
But until players are penalised for their actions, then it’s extremely naïve for us to think players will stop dropping for frees.
So despite how angry and frustrated we’re feeling- let’s not attack any player smart enough to bend the rules to their advantage.
(First published on The Roar on June 1st 2016)