Umpire Ray Chamberlain pays a free kick against Geelong. (Photo: AFL)

The AFL is making a change to its holding the ball rule, but will this improve the quality of the game?

The cacophony of an AFL crowd screaming ‘ball’ is one of the most iconic sounds of our great game. When it rings around the rafters of an 80,000 strong MCG as one player is caught holding the ball, you feel it.

But for too long there’s been confusion among spectators, players, and umpires alike on how the holding the ball rule is being adjudicated on match day.

As the years have gone by, new interpretations and clauses have steadily made their way into a once simple rule. At its most basic, it is designed to be a reward for players who can execute clean and fair tackles, while punishing players who hold onto the ball for too long.

The AFL announced on Monday that in 2022, there would be new changes applied to the rule, with one of the more contentious elements brought back en vogue.

“In 2022, Umpires will be less lenient towards Players who have had Prior Opportunity and do not immediately and Correctly Dispose of the Football when they are Legally Tackled under existing Law 18.6.2,” the statement read.

Law 18.6.2 relates to prior opportunity, stating that “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”.

The new interpretation means that a player can no longer wrestle their arms free out of the tackle and dispose of the football either by hand or foot to avoid a free kick against them if they have been tackled with prior opportunity.

Similarly, players won’t be able to spun around in a tackle and still correctly dispose of the football if they are legally able. If they have prior opportunity, they must dispose of the ball immediately, no matter what.

This will match the rule that is applied when a player attempts to fend off or evade an opponent when in possession and is tackled, stripping them of their prior opportunity.

It comes as a welcome change, when considering the AFL’s definition of holding the ball in 2021’s edition of the Laws of the Game currently includes five different sub-clauses, which you can read in full here.

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Umpires are currently expected to keep track of an increasing number of factors when one player tackles another.

Did they have prior opportunity? Did they make a genuine attempt to dispose of the football? Was the ball dragged in? All this alongside judging the legality of the tackle, having to also watch to see if the player in possession intentionally draws high contact.

The last point has also been addressed.

“A player who ducks their head prior to being legally tackled” will also play a factor in the new interpretation. Any player who intentionally draws high contact can now have a holding the ball free kick paid against them.”

While this still leaves the rule somewhat too complicated for such a fast-paced sport with the number of tackles taking place, it is a step in the right direction.

A stricter holding the ball interpretation should also, in theory, work towards the AFL’s aim to increase scoring.

Reducing the amount of repeat ball ups and stoppages will give zone defences less time to set up, working to the advantage of forwards.

The other part of the new rule changes has been a crack down on players wasting time. Any action considering to be time wasting, such as not giving the ball straight back to the opposition in the result of a free kick will now immediately be a 50 metre penalty, with no warning given.

These, in conjunction with the stand rule, should finally have the desired effect the AFL is hoping for.

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1 thought on “AFL’s holding the ball changes a long time coming

  1. I’m looking forward to the changes, especially calling incorrect disposal. The problem is that umpires need to be consistent. Can’t call a holding the ball decision 2 minutes into the game and then not call it 1 minute before the end of the game in a tight clash.

    Pay the free kicks for the game, not the spectacle.

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