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The fabric of the game was neither endangered nor undermined by the potential suspension of Jacob van Rooyen for a clumsy spoiling attempt.
Simon Goodwin’s assertion that there was a core principle of Australian rules football at stake in this case – the very essence of what makes the code special – is not supported by history. We do not go to the footy for the thrill of seeing a spoil.
One of these is part of the fabric of the game: Jacob van Rooyen spoils Gold Coast’s Charlie Ballard, and takes a hanger against Richmond in the Anzac Day eve clash.Credit: AFL Photos, Getty Images
Spoiling – and the right to spoil in a marking contest – is part of the game, but is clearly secondary to high marking, just as tackling and bumping are less sacred than the act of winning the ground ball first.
Spooked by concussion and by a recognition that head injuries threaten the game’s grassroots ecosystem, the AFL has gradually made it harder for players to make contact above the shoulders; anything that isn’t accidental can bring consequences in this more safety-conscious culture.
The concept that the league deploys to make the game safer for players – and thus less vulnerable to soccer or basketball mums and dads – is that of “duty of care”.
In practice, this means that a player approaching a contest has to make split-second calls on how he or she tackles, contests and spoils, to protect the other player. This is difficult, but the modern AFL player is remarkable for his/her ability to adjust to shifts in umpiring or rules.
Jacob van Rooyen was initially suspended for two matches before successfully appealing.Credit: Fairfax
To show duty of care means to temper your actions – you don’t forcibly dump the opponent to the ground in a tackle when they’re vulnerable, don’t spoil with a fist two feet from the football and connect the opponent’s head; don’t approach a contest late and then collide with brutal force, as Patrick Cripps did to Callum Ah Chee at the Gabba last year.
Bumping is the easiest to police under the new culture, as the AFL seeks to re-stitch the fabric into one that is safer to play and more appealing to a public that is less tolerant of sports that involve physical risks to one’s children.
The bumping bottom line is clear: You choose to bump and connect high, you’re liable.
Cripps should have been suspended for his action, which showed scant care for Ah Chee, even if it was not a pure bump. He evaded suspension – and won the Brownlow – because the head of the appeals board, Murray Kellam, took the view that Cripps wasn’t delivering a bump and that Cripps had been denied procedural fairness in the first tribunal hearing.
The AFL was filthy with the overturning of Cripps’ suspension and changed the rules for tribunal decision-making as a result. They cannot have been pleased with the van Rooyen appeal verdict, which delighted those of red and blue hue, but which has done nothing to clarify what kind of spoiling action is permissible. In fact, the verdict might well cause confusion.
Goodwin’s suggestion that the fabric is threatened because his player was initially suspended for a clumsy spoiling attempt is hyperbolic nonsense. Spoiling has long been hazardous and carried potential for serious injury – and for suspension. Ask North’s Jason McCartney or Collingwood’s Jason Cloke, who missed grand finals (1999, 2002) after errant spoils that saw opponents whacked. Or Bulldog great Chris Grant, whose reckless spoil on Nick Holland cost Grant the 1997 Brownlow Medal.
Brayden Maynard, as aggressive a player as exists in these more sanitised times, was suspended last year for a spoil in which he contacted Giant Sam Lloyd’s head almost at the same time as he fisted the ball. Lloyd was concussed and that meant Maynard – rightly – copped two matches.
Spoiling has always been fraught with consequence.
That said, van Rooyen did not flat out clobber Gold Coast’s Charlie Ballard and his swinging arm wasn’t a mile from the ball. It wasn’t as egregious as the past spoiling suspensions mentioned. But his eyes weren’t on the ball – which he admitted – and he could have exercised more care for Ballard.
It was the neck injury to Ballard that caused the initial two-match ban (albeit Ballard did play six days later). If Ballard bounces straight up, there is no suspension. One can argue that the AFL places too much store on injury to the victim, rather than the action itself. But what would we say if injury wasn’t vital?
So, there are really two major factors in play when a debatable incident is judged: One, did the bumper/tackler/spoiler show duty of care; and two, did the other person get hurt?
If you weren’t dutiful and the opponent was knocked out, you’re gone. Conversely, if you showed care, and they were still hurt, you should get off.
The sky wouldn’t have fallen in had van Rooyen been suspended, any more than the dangerous tackles of Zach Merrett and Taylor Adams – which removed them from Anzac Day – represented a crossing of the Rubicon for tackling. Out of 1100 tackles per round, only a few are deemed dangerous. Players ARE adapting.
If there is a fabric to be preserved, then it consists of the high mark, the brilliant goal and the exhibition of handling, evasion, courage, and disposal skills by the player who wins and uses the ball.
Those who make the play, the ones who get to the contest first, are entitled to more protection than those who arrive second and who are consigned to the lesser acts of tackling and spoiling. The storied marking competition of 1978 between Hawk Peter Knights and Essendon’s Paul Vander Haar would not have eventuated had Knights been intent on spoiling.
Van Rooyen’s arrival as a player to watch was signified not by what happened in that botched spoil on the Gold Coast. It was in the final quarter of Anzac Day eve, when he launched high above a pack and clunked a match-turning speccy en route to sinking the Tigers.
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