Illustration: Mick Connolly
WHEN Graham Johncock slotted a goal with five-and-a-half minutes remaining in the preliminary final, Adelaide led the Hawks by a point. Had the unfancied Crows hung on and then defeated Sydney seven days later, Kurt Tippett would be a premiership hero.
Consider how the Tippett fiasco would be viewed in the sliding-door event of Adelaide winning the 2012 premiership. Tippett, who did not have a great 2012, was the most influential player afield in the preliminary final, when he grabbed seven contested marks and booted four goals, albeit he did this on lightweight defender Ryan Schoenmakers, not Brian Lake.
Imagine, too, that the Crows have won the flag, Tippett has still walked - as planned - and then the draft tampering/salary cap scandal erupted as negotiations with Sydney stalled. We would take a very different view of Adelaide's crimes, since the club's decision to keep him, by whatever means necessary, would have helped deliver a premiership.
Doubtless, there would have been calls for the Crows to be stripped of the premiership, in the manner of the Melbourne Storm. Their misdemeanour was minor compared to the systematic Storm or Carlton's rorts from a decade ago, but the question of a tainted flag would be raised nonetheless. While that punishment wouldn't fit the crime, a couple of years draft penalties (when high on the ladder) and a $300,000 fine would be farcical when a club has cheated and prospered in that way. This brings us to the inappropriate, outdated penalties for the Tippett rorts. The Crows were willing to break the rules to keep Tippett, it seems, because they thought they would struggle to win a flag without him. There was a logic to their ill-fated decision, no matter how desperate and stupid it looks today.
They were taking short-term measures, in apparent desperation, with eyes on a premiership. But the AFL's draft punishment is a slow burner - and it won't burn them much over the next three years. They have lost pick No. 20 and will lose another double-figure draft pick next year; in an 18-team competition, late second round choices are what used to be third rounders, they're like New Zealand dollars.
As rival clubs quietly pointed out, the Crows can still use free agency to improve their list in the short-term. Tippett walking, indeed, will open up room to acquire a free agent or two. There's no reason why they can't contend for the flag over the next three years. The penalties won't really bite in that time frame.
Losing a (very late) first-round pick doesn't hurt a team in premiership mode in the same way that it does one in the cellar. Carlton was decimated by the loss of draft picks in 2002-03, but Essendon, belatedly convicted for cheating the cap from 1992-1996, was barely dented by the loss of first and second rounders in 1999; the following year, it won the premiership and played off again in 2001, continuing to play finals until 2004. Melbourne, too, played in a grand final, in the same year, after it was stripped off picks for salary cap rorts. There was virtually no short-term pain on the field for the Dees and especially Dons.
The AFL cannot police the competition properly by relying almost entirely on removing draft picks (plus fines), which do not hurt the contending teams enough where it counts - on the field. Other tools can be used to punish teams in Adelaide's position, which are capable of winning a flag relatively soon. It's conceivable that if the AFL doesn't find an immediate whip to crack, some desperate, unscrupulous club may still risk a shonky third-party deal or two, in the hope of jagging a flag.
One potentially effective way to punish strong teams in the premiership window is to reduce their total player payments by a certain amount. Adelaide, for instance, could have been limited to a maximum of 95 per cent of the salary cap - which, interestingly, would put it on the same impecunious footing as the likes of Port, North and the Dogs.
One experienced football official from a Victorian club thought the threat of a reduced salary cap would be an enormously potent weapon for the league, since it would bite instantly, though he envisaged possible legal and logistical hurdles, given most players have contracts, and there mightn't be much time to cut or trade players.
The NRL uses premiership points as a punishment for cheats. This measure has its supporters, but this column struggles philosophically with the concept of reversing or voiding results. Pure team sports aren't like the 100-metres final or Lance Armstrong's Tour de Drugs, when the winner can be airbrushed from history.
Influential commentator Gerard Healy suggested that rather than simply stripping teams of wins, the AFL could devise a season-long penalty whereby the guilty club might be playing for slightly fewer premiership points each week, say 3 or 3.5 points instead of the standard 4. This would prevent the strange Storm scenario of games played in the twilight zone, won on the scoreboard but not the ladder and without meaning.
The removal of draft picks is a blunt instrument. It does not differentiate between good and bad, young and old teams, and the fact that the loss of picks can be fatal for one club and a flea bite for another.
The AFL has, rightly, overhauled its judicial system for on-field offences by moving to the match review system. But when it comes to policing payments and the draft, it remains curiously old-fashioned.
It's time for a new stick.