Rules are on a slippery slide
ALL this serious discussion over the slide rule has an amusing side. The image of football administrators in white dust coats and safety glasses, studying their slide rules as they plan the game's next big rule change, doesn't feel far from reality.
For those too young to be familiar with the instrument, a slide rule was an old-fashioned calculator or, as Wikipedia describes it, a mechanical analogue computer.
Into the laboratory late last week, dropping his toolbox on the floor for maximum sound effect, stomped a grizzled old plumber. He'd done his apprenticeship in the days before electronic calculators rendered the slide rule obsolete. Noted over the years for his interest in experiments, he was now offering a bit of basic, homespun advice.
"Sit down, get it right, and don't make rules on the run," was the offering of Kevin Sheedy on the matter of football's slide-rule debate.
When the spirit inspires Sheedy to break from the caricature he long ago created, he can still be a compelling force. He once acknowledged that, at some point, Sheedy became ''Sheeds''. He softened. Some would say he lost his edge; others jokingly suggest it was his marbles.
On Thursday night the oldest coach of the youngest team assumed the tone and status of tribal elder. His no-nonsense advice was the best of Sheedy; the philosophy of one who has been in the thick of it and seen it all through 4½ decades. He cut through the crap. It's good to have a plumber available at times like this.
Sheedy would know from practical and observational experience that sliding is not new.
Games were once played on mud-heaps and players spent a lot of time off their feet. Even today, this provides a problem for proponents of the idea that players shouldn't be allowed to take possession unless they're standing. It invites an increase in knock-down tackles.
As for the slide's history, I recall observing Carlton players using it to great effect in the 1979 grand final on a wet MCG. It struck me that day as a game-changing ploy by the Blues as they came from five goals behind in the second quarter. No calculator is required to realise this was more than 30 years ago.
Clearly, modern football has become more congested and now has a 360-degree sphere of activity that makes it less readable and predictable than was once the case.
But players have always sought to be first to the ball. Those last five words - be first to the ball - have been a part of almost every pep-talk ever delivered to any football team.
To somehow legislate in a way that imposes limits on how this can be done goes dangerously close to compromising the very fundamentals. That's precisely why time and thought on a rule change, or application of the current rules are required to address this issue.
The accusation that tinkering with the game's rules has been a compulsion in recent years is, of course, strenuously rejected by those responsible for such things at the AFL. Rules committee member and broadcaster Kevin Bartlett has also been known to enter the fray and repudiate such claims. Yet material evidence exists to the contrary.
Beginning on page 1040 of the AFL Record Season Guide 2012 is the history of rule changes from the code's foundation in 1858 to the present day. The chronology fills 3½ pages. The first 2½ of these span the period 1858 to 1996; a deft slide of the mechanical analogue computer establishes that this translates to a page every 55 years.
The entire last page of the section is consumed by the rule changes made over the past 15 years. Unless the publisher was using larger print on the first couple of pages, change has recently been occurring at almost four-times the historic rate.
The week just gone also contained a haunting reminder of the AFL's preparedness to do as it pleases in its handling of the game's laws. A time-keeping error last Saturday was within a whisker of affecting the result of the game between Gold Coast and Fremantle. Had it done so, the AFL commission could have been expected to act as it did in 2006 when it overturned an outcome achieved on the field in a match between St Kilda and Fremantle because the full-time siren had not been heard on the field (pictured below). I believe that 2006 decision was the worst, and most dangerous, I've observed in more than 30 years covering this sporting competition.
I'm encouraged in that view by the assessment of former world cricket supremo Malcolm Speed of a similar action taken in recent years by the International Cricket Council. This was the decision by the ICC board to overturn the result of a contentious Test match between England and Pakistan played at the Oval, also in 2006.
In his book Sticky Wicket, Speed wrote: "It was a terrible decision because it set a dreadful precedent: matches could now be decided in the board room rather than on the field or by the standing umpires." As a slide-rule bearing mathematician might conclude: QED.
Provided due consideration is given and due process followed, rules can be changed. Match results achieved according to a game's laws, though, should be inviolable.