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Accidents do happen, and are often unavoidable

THE match review panel has developed such a mania for finding not just cause, but also culpability in every heart-in-mouth happening on the football ground, it is a wonder it did not submit a charge of rough conduct against Melbourne's Mitch Clark this week.

Playing the Bulldogs, Clark hurled himself with reckless abandon into an aerial contest, precipitating what might easily have been grave injury, to the head, no less. His own.

Clark, fortunately, suffered no worse consequence from his headlong landing than a stiff neck. He will be playing again long before Sydney's Gary Rohan is even off crutches. But by any measure, Clark's pack-busting leap was far more dangerous to life and limb than Kangaroo Lindsay Thomas' dive at the feet of the unfortunate Rohan.

The least risk that Clark ran was of giving away a free kick. Thomas was PAID a free kick. Perversely, he was also given three matches.

Doubtlessly, the MRP acts only with good intentions. But there is a point at which vigilance becomes vigilantism. In two recent instances - the Whitecross case and the Thomas case - it appeared to refuse to accept that in a chaotic contact sport, played with a random-bouncing ball and at breakneck speed by players who are, by and large, too brave for their own good, not everything can be made to fit perfectly into a matrix of circumstance and responsibility. Accidents do happen.

The MRP's case was based on Adrian Anderson's memo to clubs last November, expressing concern at the emerging problem of players sliding in to take out opponents' legs.


An example was included in the AFL's preseason laws DVD, compulsory viewing for all players. In it, a North Melbourne player launches himself feet-first and at speed at a Port Adelaide player who has the ball but is stationary on the boundary.

''There is a distinct difference,'' the umpire on the spot, Andrew Mitchell, on Sunday told the tribunal.

Sliding conjures up images from soccer: the studs-first tackle, the knees-first goal celebration at the corner flag. Thomas, by his own description, was trying to trap a bobbling ball on a wet ground. He did not so much dive as skid into a turn.

What ensued was a tangle, ''one of those freak acts'', said Thomas. The footage verified it. ''Accidents are going to happen,'' said Thomas' advocate, Tony Burns. ''It's the sad reality of the game.''

Jeff Gleeson, for the AFL, reminded the tribunal an accident still could constitute an offence. Knowing this, the tribunal has been loath to overturn MRP decisions. It has been hardline.

The last thing anyone wants is for accident to become a catch-all alibi. But last night, for the second time in a fortnight, the tribunal did overrule.

A conundrum now applies: what is a player to lead with? His head? Protected by the rules but dangerous. His body? But woe betide if his opponent's head is down. His legs? Last night's verdict notwithstanding, warning has been served.

Thomas did little wrong. Rohan did nothing but emerged momentarily crippled. Perhaps that is the point of this case. The MRP and tribunal are independent but not oblivious of the AFL's imperatives. The sum of their work in this case is to demonstrate that accidents are unavoidable.

It was a kind of reverse show trial.


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