The umpires’ failure to pay a free kick after the incident led to some confusion around the AFL’s crackdown on punching, given that Cunnington was subsequently fined by the match review officer for the incident on the basis that the contact was low impact.
The block of Carlton defender Liam Jones on Richmond’s Jack Riewoldt was considered worthy of a free kick to Riewoldt, although the Tigers had possession at the time of the incident, while a free kick was paid against Port Adelaide defender Tom Jonas’ for blocking Gawn off the ball.
Footage was not shown of the free kick being awarded against St Kilda’s Ben Long late in the game against the Gold Coast when he laid a punch to the stomach of an opponent, a correct decision that could have been costly to the Saints in a tight game.
Demons coach Simon Goodwin said on Wednesday the club went to the league following the loss to Port, seeking clarification on physical tactics against Gawn.
“He didn’t play a great game, but in saying that we also know that some of the things weren’t within the rules of the game,” Goodwin said.
“That’s been relayed to us, so it will work both ways there.
“We have some clarification about what’s legal and what’s not legal … it’s been a trend for a while.”
The AFL is of the view that awarding free kicks against players who make prohibited contact will change player behaviour more quickly than suspending them for contact graded as low impact.
The MRO’s decision to fine rather than suspend players who transgressed was in keeping with the guidelines around striking, which are unchanged from last year, although Geelong’s Patrick Dangerfield admitted on SEN radio on Wednesday that he had thought swinging punches would lead to suspension in 2019.
“When the vision comes out around what’s going to be enacted this season, I was led to believe that that was going to be a suspension,” said Dangerfield.
“We’ve seen it consistently off the ball this season where it hasn’t been [penalised].
Dangerfield didn’t want to comment on specific incidents but said decisions made by the AFL impacted on perceptions as to what was acceptable at lower levels.
“Take out the Ben Cunnington incident, there’s been far more than just that … but it continues to be allowed, so as it continues to be allowed then our younger viewers will continue to look at it and continue to do it at the lower levels.
“I think thats something that we need to look at.”
Dangerfield conceded he had sympathy for the match review officer trying to grade such incidents as there were many grey areas but he said he expected the public to react when a player is eventually suspended for striking to the stomach.
“If a player is suspended for it, there’ll be uproar – as there should be – because you’ll compare it to these past incidences during the same season where there hasn’t been a suspension,” Dangerfield said.
At this stage the tribunal guidelines in relation to striking remain the same.
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.