Be careful for what rule change you wish for

We think the umpires intervene too often and not often enough. We think too many free kicks are paid, and too few. What we really mean is too many are paid to them, and not enough to us.

We think the game is better when the umpires go unnoticed, but we know this is impossible. It is constructed so that umpires are forever required to interpret and sometimes to mind read, but when they do, we protest that they are second-guessing.

If umpires apply the letter of the law, we object that they are not observing the spirit. If they allow for the spirit, we moan that they are flouting the letter. If umpires don’t explain themselves, they are being precious. If they do, they are grandstanding.

We want clear, consistent guidelines for the game’s judiciary, while reserving the right to say that gut feel says they are wrong.

Generally, we want the rules left alone. But we each have a particular rule that needs amending or tightening. If other rules are changed, it’s needless tinkering. If ours is changed, it’s about time.

We fret about miserly scoring, but when Essendon and Melbourne kick 100 points against each other one night, we scorn them for their profligacy. It turns out that what we wished for wasn’t what we wanted, after all.

It’s not just us. We listen as coaches urge their teams to take game on – you heard Brad Scott this week – then watch as they put men behind the ball, just in case. We hear them tell their men to back themselves, but not to kick to a one-on-one. That is, back yourself, but not your teammate. It’s a contradiction, but if we win, who cares?

Competitive tension is inherent in the game. On day dot, there were just 10 rules, now inscribed dramatically on an inside wall at the MCG. But within months, two more were appended. They’ve been accumulating ever since, and so have the efforts to bend them. It casts the AFL in the role of the miller from Aesop’s fable, forever trying to gratify everyone, pleasing no one. But that’s their job.

Footy’s an eternal contest, between two teams at a time, between ideals, between philosophies, between what matters more: the spectacle or the four points. Some say apotheosis came in 1989, some say last year.

We say we liked it how it was, and we’ll like it when they change it to how it should be, but we’re off it right now. Then we turn up and tune in anyway. This week’s crisis is next week’s blip. At heart, we love the game. It’s just that we don’t love the result of some games.

We’re reasonable. We approve of equalisation, as long as it’s not our team being equalised. We think there should be a team in Tasmania, but not ours. We thought COLA for the northern teams was not fair, they thought abolishing it was unfair. We think academies are fair if we’ve got one, unfair if we haven’t.

Goal umpire in action.

All we really want is for the game to be left alone, but if it is ever left alone, we protest that nothing ever changes. All we want is a happy balance. But in an organic and dynamic pastime such as footy, there is no such thing. As soon as balance is reached, it begins to tilt again.

All these sentiments, all this sentimentalism, have been aired, and the season is only three-and-a-bit weeks old. Here, then, is the news: the game’s not going back, and it can’t skip a year. It is just that every year, we go through this early-season ritual of thinking that it can. That period just about over. So let’s sit back for a while and watch and enjoy as the season takes its course – with the 50-metre penalty rule sensibly applied, of course.

Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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