Eagles drop in: (From left) Ashton Hams, Scott Selwood and Luke Shuey demonstrate how West Coast is winning a disproportionate number of
frees for high tackles.

Eagles drop in: (From left) Ashton Hams, Scott Selwood and Luke Shuey demonstrate how West Coast is winning a disproportionate number of frees for high tackles. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

RECOVERY SESSION

PLAYERS at a club due to confront West Coast recently were drilled by coaches about the Eagles' penchant for head-high free kicks.

They had a bet among themselves - a legal one - that whoever gave away the first free kick for head-high contact had to buy the other players coffee.

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It didn't last long. Within minutes, the whistle blew and a first-year player was out 21 coffees.

Weekly coaches are haranguing their players about the same thing. Weekly they are then wringing their hands in frustration at post-match media conferences.

Alastair Clarkson one week and Brad Scott a fortnight later both sourly ruminated on the tactics they found quasi-legal and Scott contended that his players would not be drawn to follow the dubious lead. ''Most of the free kicks are there for the high contact and we spoke at length about Ashton Hams and the way he draws free kicks,'' Scott said on Sunday after his side gave away eight high-contact frees and lost the free kick count to the Eagles by two to one (29-15).

Scott said there was a technique to use to get frees and one to use not to give them away. The Eagles succeeded at their tactic, North failed at theirs.

But the sting was this: ''We spoke about the [Eagles] technique and I would not like our players to get a reputation for doing that.''

What Scott was talking about was the Eagles players ''doing a Selwood'', that is, wriggling and weaving, dropping at the knees, lifting arms and encouraging the tackle to slip from bicep to neck.

Scott's and Clarkson's teeth-gnashing frustration is at the cynicism of players turning a rule on those it was designed to protect by offering their heads as bait.

Leigh Matthews offered his former player-turned-coach Scott little comfort. Get the ball first and you have no problem, he said, adding that the number of tackles laid in recent years had trebled so anything to protect the player hunting ball not man was worthy.

Kevin Bartlett, fellow game legend and governor of the rules, said the issue arose because tacklers no longer aimed a tackle low at the hips for they could not risk an opponent in such busy congestion having an arm free to flip out a short handpass.

Bartlett, a man who as a player cleverly worked a previous holding the man to draw free kicks while bouncing the ball, had little truck with changing emphasis to punish players with the ball trying to slip tackles.

The rationale was strong that being able to do a Selwood was skill enough and the ball players should be protected. Except, of course, it was the ball player himself who offered cavalier regard for his own head.

Doing a Selwood - as Hams, Luke Shuey and Scott Selwood at West Coast have become adept at - was less a concern for Bartlett than the player who acted as if shot from a canon when he got the ball looking for someone to hit his head.

Bartlett was troubled by the player who gathered the ball then ran like a heat-seeking missile searching out a body to hit to draw head-high contact. Cyril Rioli did it on Saturday night to Dean Polo and wrongly won the free kick, he said.

The laws find it hard to protect players' heads when players need to be protected from themselves.