‘Most people don’t know the rules’: Why AFL is so hard to umpire

A question to start. How many times have you been to a game of local football and heard the comment: “Gee, the umpiring is good in this competition?” I’d suggest the answer is never.

How can that be? How can every group of umpires in every league in Australia be hopeless? It defies logic.

When I was head of umpiring at the AFL, the league conducted a fan survey on all sorts of topics. One of the questions was: “How would you rate the standard of umpiring this season?” It called for a rating out of five and the result we got was 2.6. I was gutted. No one likes getting a D minus. Then it was explained to me that the previous year it was 1.9. I was ecstatic!

So if we accept that not all umpiring can be hopeless, let’s discuss a different question. What makes us think they are hopeless?

It dawned on me halfway through my time at the AFL that the very thing that people wanted from umpiring, consistency, was completely unattainable. At best, we could achieve an acceptable level of inconsistency in the eyes of the fans. I reached that position for three reasons.

Firstly, most people don’t understand the rules. And that included me for a long time. When I played football I didn’t understand the holding the ball rule. When I coached football I didn’t understand the holding the ball rule. That’s roughly 20 years of not knowing. It was only when I became employed in umpiring that I understood and that took some time and teaching from Hayden Kennedy, the umpires’ coach. But I reckon now I’ve got a handle on it. And I’m pretty strong in the opinion that I am in the minority.

By way of example, the Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti tackle on James Harmes in the round 15 Melbourne-Essendon game was not holding the ball.

Play on: Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti’s tackle on James Harmes was not holding the ball Credit:Fox Footy

You’ll have to trust me, it’s not. And yet, everyone I have heard express an opinion it thinks it is. What hope do umpires have when, even when proven correct, they are universally thought to be wrong?

When told of an example like this, the counter-argument is often, “well, it should be”. Which is fine – except umpiring is hard enough without have to adjudicate the rule the way it is written, as well as what it “should” be!

Secondly, supporters view every umpiring decision through a lens distorted by the colour of their scarf. It’s a cliche that football turns normal human beings into raving lunatics. That is a great thing, as it is a release from everyday life. But it also makes them less than rational when assessing a decision, with their scarf covering one eye.

The last reason consistency in umpiring is unattainable is that umpires make mistakes. The hard part for fans is they have no way of knowing they are mistakes, so they interpret this as inconsistency.

Of all the sports in the world ours is played on the largest field with the highest number of participants. We started with one umpire but the game became too quick and required too much running for the umpire so we added one and then in 1994 went to three. While the rule book is the same and the umpires are all coached in a consistent manner, it is natural that different umpires may view incidents in a slightly different way. Soccer feels more consistent because it only has the one referee.

As the game has changed over time it has become harder to officiate. In 1992, the great Allan Jeans coached us at Richmond. He had lots of sayings but one was that if we had 40 tackles we’d win the game. He was right; we rarely had 40 tackles and we rarely won. But that’s not the point. In round 13 this season, Hawthorn’s Jai Newcombe set a new record for tackles on debut – 14. In 1992 Craig Lambert laid the most tackles for the Tigers with 39 in 21 games! My good friend Matthew Richardson played 22 games in 1996 and laid just five tackles! (As an aside he kicked 91 goals.)

The point is, tackling has roughly doubled in the past 20 years. That’s twice as many opportunities for supporters who only have a vague idea of the rule anyway to think that the umpire has got it wrong.

Congestion around the ball has been an issue for football but it’s as big an issue for umpiring. It’s hard to call the free kick if you can’t see it, and getting an angle to see the ball and the tackle has become an art form that requires agility and experience.

How easy must umpiring have been when players spread themselves in 18 distinct positions over the vast expanses of the MCG and only tackled each other every few minutes?

Then there’s the subjectivity of the rules. “Insufficient intent to keep the ball in play” and “reasonable amount of time to dispose of the ball” are two that require a fair degree of interpretation.

Is there a solution to this problem? Probably not. It’s the hardest game in the world to umpire and probably always will be.

Wayne Campbell is a former AFL umpires boss, GWS head of football and Richmond assistant coach.

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