The worst rule in football and how it should be paid, or not


But the next paragraph mandates that a player with prior opportunity is penalised if they do not correctly dispose of the ball “immediately when they are legally tackled”.

The word “immediately” introduces a spoke into the wheel. It creates the expectation of an adjudicated outcome the instant a tackle is laid. The mere act of laying it is enough. Interpreted this way, it privileges the tackler.

Often it is misinterpreted to allow a player to fight through a tackle, or several. This bugs fans. The way the law is written, they are right to be bugged. This seems to be at the heart of the present widespread disgruntlement.

Only three of St Kilda’s 87 tackles were rewarded with holding the ball on Friday night.Credit:Getty Images

But I’d come at it another way. Tackling is a skill, but it is not – or should not be – the game’s foremost. Surely we should protect and encourage the ball-getter in the first instance. Otherwise, what do we mean when we hallow those who “take the game on”?

Seen this way, the act of dispossessing the ball-carrier should be reward enough for most tackles in most instances, whether or not they had prior opportunity – which is such an ethereal concept anyway.

Exceptions should be made only if the ball-carrier illegally disposes of the ball – dropping it when run down from behind, for instance – or with prior opportunity is literally caught in possession – that is, he still has it.

The mere act of laying a tackle should not automatically bring a reward. If a tackled player is good enough to dispose of the ball legally, even if after a period of time – while being slung through 360 degrees, for instance – then it should be play on.

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If tackling is a skill, then so is the ability to break or ride with a tackle to constructive effect.

Next week: throwing.

MICHAEL GLEESON SAYS:

A player is running down the wing. He takes two bounces and from nowhere an opponent runs him down from behind, just as he is trying to kick the ball.

The player is brought down and the ball spills to ground.

Does the umpire correctly: a) call play on as the ball has spilt free in the tackle; b) call play on because the player swung his leg at the ball, so made a genuine attempt to dispose of the ball; c) blow his whistle and give a free kick for holding the ball; or d) curl into the foetal position and wish he was home playing with his train set?

The answer is: e) all of the above.

These options prove the farce of the holding the ball rule. The most famous, storied, screamed, loved and loathed rule in football, the one that gives rise to its own crowd chorus, is the worst rule in football.

The most famous, storied, screamed, loved and loathed rule in football, the one that gives rise to its own crowd chorus, is the worst rule in football.

It is utterly misapplied because it is so appallingly written it cannot be consistently applied.

Three different umpires on the ground will look at that same incident and correctly under the rules of the game come up with three completely different interpretations. And they could all be right.

How can the rules be written so no one is ever wrong but never right?

The most trite complaint in football about umpiring is the cry for consistency but you cannot have consistency with a rule that is so open to inconsistent interpretation. It is not the umpires’ fault.

Brett Ratten was right to be frustrated on Friday to have so few tackles rewarded for it was remarkable in that game, and across the weekend, how the tackler became an irrelevance.

Yes, the guiding philosophy of the rules should be that the player with the ball – the playmaker – be given every chance to get rid of the ball. But the player with the ball is also not the guardian of all virtue in the game.

Being given the chance to get rid of the ball does not, or should not, include the right to canvas the seating position of fans in every stand in the ground, before selecting at his leisure where to send the ball.

Football is a game about playmakers but it is also a game at its core about the contest and about winning the ball. The tackler is trying to win the ball back for his team and should be justly treated.

The rules ask the player with the ball to get rid of it immediately upon being tackled if they have already had a chance to get rid of it (the ill-defined prior opportunity). There is no subtlety in the word immediately, no wriggle room. If you are tackled you don’t get to then do a 360-degree turn and sum up your options.

Furthermore, the rules do not define a tackle. They do not ask that it be a good tackle, a strong tackle, only that it not be a dangerous tackle. They do not ask that the tackle be sufficient to retard the opponents’ arms, simply that the opponent be tackled. That is, that the player be grabbed. That is all. So, if you are grabbed and have had your prior opportunity you should be penalised.

For a player, doing nothing in this instance is not an option. But if you are an umpire, doing nothing is an option.

Postscript: the rules also do not include – we’ve checked and it’s not there – a rule saying that if you are in the top salary bracket you get more time to get rid of the ball than rookies.

RULE 18.6 Holding the ball

18.6.1 Spirit and Intention. The Player who has Possession of the Football will be provided an opportunity to dispose of the football before rewarding an opponent for a Legal Tackle.

18.6.2 Free Kicks – Holding the Ball: Prior Opportunity. Where a Player in Possession of the Football has had Prior Opportunity, a field Umpire shall award a Free Kick if that Player does not Correctly Dispose of the football immediately when they are Legally Tackled.

18.6.3 Free Kicks – Holding the Ball: Incorrect Disposal. Where a Player in Possession of the Football has not had Prior Opportunity, a field Umpire shall award a Free Kick if that Player elects to Incorrectly Dispose of the football when Legally Tackled. For the avoidance of doubt, a Player does not elect to Incorrectly Dispose of the football when: (a) the Player genuinely attempts to Correctly Dispose of the football; (b) the Legal Tackle causes the football to be dislodged from the Player’s possession.

18.6.4 Free Kicks – Holding the Ball: No Genuine Attempt. Where a Player in Possession of the Football has not had Prior Opportunity, a field Umpire shall award a Free Kick if the Player is able to, but does not make a genuine attempt to Correctly Dispose of the football within a reasonable time when Legally Tackled.

18.6.5 Free Kicks – Holding the Ball: Diving on Top of the Football. A field Umpire shall award a Free Kick against a Player who dives on top of or drags the football underneath their body and fails to immediately knock clear or Correctly Dispose of the football when Legally Tackled. 

Source: The Laws of the Game, 2021

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