THE controversy over the free kick not paid to Hawthorn's Cyril Rioli in the dying seconds of last Friday night's Hawthorn-Geelong thriller continues to be the subject of vigorous debate, with the AFL denying the interpretation of the holding-the-ball rule has changed.
Hawthorn supporters are still livid that Rioli's tackle on Geelong's Mitch Duncan was not rewarded with a free kick, despite the Cat having taken several steps after receiving the ball and failing to get foot to ball as it spilled free.
With the Hawks leading by three points and just over a minute left, Rioli would have kicked for goal from only 30 metres out, directly in front, had the free been paid.
The Cats stole victory with Tom Hawkins' goal on the siren.
AFL umpires' director Jeff Gieschen last night defended the decision, claiming that Duncan had been blindsided by Rioli and hadn't been given prior opportunity.
"He's taken the ball, prepared, balanced, gone to kick, tried to do it quickly," Gieschen said. "He wasn't trying to take Rioli on, he was trying to get rid of the ball legitimately, so we're happy for the play-on call based around it being not a prior opportunity."
Collingwood captain Nick Maxwell weighed into the debate on Sunday when he claimed on Channel Seven's Game Day that similar scenarios this year suggested the interpretation of prior opportunity had changed.
"What I've noticed is it doesn't get paid as often this year," he said. "If someone is going into a kicking motion and it gets knocked out, that used to be dropping the ball if you didn't make contact with the foot, but I don't think it's umpired that way any more."
But Gieschen dismissed that suggestion. "Nothing has changed,'' he told The Age last night. ''Prior opportunity is interpretative. It's not just about how many steps they take, it's about whether he had any chance to dispose of the ball in a natural state, and in this case he hadn't.
"We think that prior opportunity, we've been really consistent with. I'd put it the other way and say that that is one area of holding-the-ball that we feel players understand really well. If they've had it [prior opportunity], unless they're blindsided, more often than not they get their kick or handball away."
Gieschen pointed out that umpires' coaches Rowan Sawers, Bryan Sheehan and Hayden Kennedy had also agreed with the call of play-on.
Gieschen, though, who did concede another critical free kick from last weekend, that paid to Collingwood's Harry O'Brien for alleged interference by St Kilda's Stephen Milne, was an error, was still explaining the Rioli decision to disgruntled Hawk fans on SEN yesterday.
"We can understand people thinking that way … but we've got to look at it totally objectively and unbiasedly," he said. "Duncan … was blindsided by Rioli when he took that ball, he turned one step, he took one more step to prepare to kick and then was tackled in the act of kicking. Did he try to take Rioli on? No, he didn't. Had he had the ball for a long time? No, he hadn't.
''Rioli effected a fantastic tackle, the ball was knocked free, and we were really comfortable it was a play-on call under those circumstances."