Feature Article

Shrugged high? Play on.

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This week has seen journalists, players, coaches and every opinionated twitter account voice their personal views on the issue of high contact tackles. Their ideas have ranged from the impossible nature of tacking Joel Selwood, through to the assertion that the awarding of free kicks results in an increased likelihood of concussion.

But before you join the cacophony of “Joel Duckwood”, “Luke Shruggy” and “Toby McLeaning” cries, stop for one minute and think about what you are actually saying. Because the commentary this week has missed the point.

All of these actions – ducking, shrugging the shoulders and dropping at the knees – are manipulations of the human body. Manipulations designed not to bend the rules but instead to increase the degree of difficulty faced by the tackler. Designed to keep the tackler accountable whilst at the same time breaking the game open.

These actions are no different in aim to the shimmy of the hips or the raising of the arms over the tackle. They are a contortion of the body to make the ball carrier harder to nail in a tackle. To make them more likely to ‘slip the tackle’ or effectively dispose of the ball while under pressure. The simple purpose of these actions is to grant the ball carrier more time so as to dispose of the Sherrin in an advantageous manner.

Let’s be clear though. The suggestion here is not that a shrugging player should receive a free kick if the ‘shrug’ causes the tackle to slide high. It is simply that the act itself is not manipulating the rules, cheating, or against the spirit of the game.

When we cry foul, we are actually blaming players who are simply trying to break the game open. Would we rather them take the tackle, lock the ball in and have a rolling maul of stoppages or red hot holding the ball decisions?

Selwood and Shuey are guns of the competition. Genuine guns. McLean is a young but promising player. What they all have in common is that they are relatively small by modern inside midfielder standards. Without the sheer mass to overwhelm larger opponents inside the cauldron that is an AFL stoppage, they have had to find alternative ways to create time and space. For these three, and countless others in their position, it is through changing the position of their body in real time, causing tackles to miss … or slide off. These players are in the market for time, not unwarranted free kicks.

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Where the issue actually lies is in the adjudication of head high contact. We need to be clear on what the fans, the AFL and the umpires department know to be correct. The game is dynamic. It is fast paced, explosive and there are thousands of moments every weekend that cause ‘incidental contact’. What we actually want, and what the game needs, is for players to be held directly accountable for the actions.

Examine the following:

North Melbourne tagger Ben Jacobs attempts to tackle Joel Selwood. The Geelong star braces for contact – naturally coiling his body and dropping his center of gravity – and then shrugs his shoulders in an attempt to slip the tackle. One of Jacobs’ tackling arms slides up Selwood’s, clipping the ball winner on the head.

As the high contact is a direct result of Selwood’s attempt to break the tackle, the call must be play on. We don’t blame Selwood for attempting to outpoint a direct opponent. We don’t blame Jacobs for being ‘shrugged’ by a superior player. We appreciate the contest and the game goes on. However, if the Jacobs tackle doesn’t start in a legal fashion, then he is at fault. In that instance, he must be held accountable by awarding Selwood the free kick.

We don’t hate Joel Selwood for receiving the free kicks he does. We love the way he and others like him play the game. That they take on the tackler. That they are hard and tough at all times. That they are fearless in the face of physical confrontation. So don’t blame Joel Selwood for an adjudication of the rules completely out of his control.

If Dustin Martin stiff arms an opponent in the chest en route to kicking a miraculous checkside goal, we should marvel at his brute strength and audacity. If he misses the chest and drives the palm of his hand into a would-be tackler’s face, we should demand that he be penalised. In this scenario there is one thing that is for certain – the game is better for Dustin Martin taking on the tackler.

In the exact same vein, if a tackler is sloppy and grabs an opponent by the head without the ball carrier causing the high contact, they should be penalised. But if the same player’s tackle starts in a legal fashion, and the ball carrier – in an attempt to break the tackle – causes the contact to become high, we should expect a play on call.

And the AFL, in conjunction with the umpires department, must demand the same. The game will be better off for it.


If you like what you’ve read, follow the author on Twitter at @Tommy_Wolfe7


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