Chris Scott: "Someone has told them [the umpires] to do that. I think we should get to the bottom of who that is."

Chris Scott: "Someone has told them [the umpires] to do that. I think we should get to the bottom of who that is." Photo: Getty Images


THE AFL is fond of citing the ''flow-on'' effect in defending a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to criticism of umpires. This weekend might have seen a flow-on effect of a different kind.

A colleague umpiring an amateur game on Saturday noticed within minutes of the game starting that any time a kick went out of bounds, the bellowing of the crowd for ''deliberate'' was instantaneous. It continued unabated for the entire game.

And presuming most of those doing the yelling had watched Friday night's West Coast-Geelong clash, who could blame them?

Until Friday night, in 162 matches, we'd seen an average of 0.6 free kicks a game paid for deliberate out-of-bounds. In the Eagles-Cats game, there were nine.

That's a little more than a statistical correction.

That's a quantum leap. And given that more than 80 per cent of the season has already elapsed, a disturbing one.

Yet even by the following day, certainly in Saturday night's Sydney-Collingwood match, the interpretation seemed to have eased again.

So who now really knows what's going to happen this weekend?

Geelong coach Chris Scott didn't mince words after Friday's game. ''Someone has told them [the umpires] to do that. I think we should get to the bottom of who that is.'' An interesting question. Did he mean umpires' director Jeff Gieschen? AFL football operations manager Adrian Anderson? The answer depends, ironically, on your interpretation of what ''told them'' means.

Two weeks ago, according to former AFL umpire Derek Humphery-Smith, Anderson and game analysis manager Joel Bowden attended umpires training, a pre-arranged meeting of which there are several each season.

There, they spoke about several issues, including what constituted a genuine attempt to clear the ball from a pack. They also reinforced a goal of keeping the game moving and reducing stoppages, of which boundary throw-ins are among the most time-consuming.

This coincided with an umpires' review of round 17, which had unveiled what the umpiring department felt were eight instances of free kicks that should have been paid, but weren't, for deliberate out-of-bounds.

A case of two plus two equalling four. But 0.6 certainly doesn't equal nine, regardless of the referred pressure felt by the umpires from their direct bosses to tighten up, and however subtle the hints coming to them from their own employers at AFL headquarters.

There are more important questions that need to be asked beyond Scott's poser on Friday night. One goes to intent. When it comes to the deliberate ruling, umpires exercise no discretion for skill errors in their deliberations.

That might be OK in the case of a player trying to rush a behind but who instead hits the point post, a purely negative play.

But what about the player genuinely trying to move the ball forward, whose miskick slews off the side of his boot and slides out of bounds? That's what Collingwood's Heath Shaw was penalised for last week against St Kilda, and that, plainly, was unfair.

Humphery-Smith believes the bulk of Friday night's frees were justified. The usual AFL line in these cases is ''technically there''. But if that's the case, doesn't it also mean, technically, they've missed a bloody lot over 160-odd games thus far?

This latest crackdown (if it lasts) could have significant ramifications for teams' entire game plans, given how important the boundary has become in a defensive sense.

If the ruling is going to be as trigger-happy as Friday night, they might have to seriously rework how they bring the ball out of defence. Is that really fair a month from the most important four weeks of the year?

And that's perhaps the most fundamental issue here. Whatever the pre-season instructions and DVD guide intended on this ruling, it's one that clearly hasn't been followed.

But the softer ruling has hardly concerned anyone bar those who put together the video guide, nor had any discernible impact on the quality of football we've seen. Could they really not have held out until the end of the season to do some more tinkering?

A few years back, the AFL would circulate a memo to football media advising what focus areas were likely to be on a weekly basis. That was abandoned and the media, and by extension the fans, were back to a guessing game on whatever the latest crackdown may be.

The coaches have an open line to Gieschen. But Scott, his opposite number on Friday, John Worsfold, and surely all their peers, seemed as shocked as the rest of us by what went on any time the ball went near the boundary line at Subiaco.

Consistency is the constant plea from fans to umpires. But umpires are entitled to consistency in the direction they're given, and the umpiring department to consistency from above by those who frame the rules.

That means sticking with what happens in April and May once we've hit August and September. And not letting a visit to a training session and a few unsatisfactory rulings one week lead to the sort of previously unknown and frankly bizarre territory into which we were taken in Perth last Friday night.