Review completed. Now let’s review the review rules

With a minute left in the end of the AFL’s round 22 Hawthorn – Geelong game, Paul Puopolo took a quick snap across the face of goal. Did it touch the behind post? Did it go straight through? Viewers were lucky enough to be subjected to the sight of an extended conference and then a review, to decide the, ahem, critical matter of whether Hawthorn won by 23 points, or 22.

Puopolo

No matter how many camera angles were provided, no one could work out why this review was worth waiting for.

I don’t consider myself particularly sensitive to the odd pause in the name of getting it right.

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But, before we create a delay for the thousands of people at the ground and watching on TV – should there not be some weighing of whether there are any real consequences to a decision?

Now, whether something “matters” may be a tough call for an umpire to make – their default position is (and, I think, should be) that from the first minute to the last, they want their decisions to be as accurate as they can be. It’s that understandable view which leads to reviews like Puopolo’s point / non-point.

The NFL has the same issue, with added prominence in that officials’ decisions – particularly on turnovers of possession – will change the result of a game far more frequently than a single goal in an AFL game.[1] They solve the problem by leaving open two avenues to a correct decision.

Firstly, they put the power (and responsibility) for deciding whether a decision is worth a review where it should be, with the competing teams. Secondly, they ensure that even if a team has exhausted their stock of reviews for a game, in the closing minutes of a game (where a wrong decision can be a PR disaster for the league, in the way that an identical decision in the first minute probably wouldn’t be) an off-the-field official can step in and have a decision reviewed.

The NFL, of course, has the luxury of episodic game, with frequent pauses. The entire structure of the game is built around plays lasting around 5 to 15 seconds, after which any infringements are assessed, and a challenge can be made. Also, aside from occasional hectic sequences close to the end of a half / game, there isn’t any problem with delaying a re-start to watch back on tape what’s just happened.

So, the AFL has a few problems to confront if they want to follow the NFL’s lead. However, they can start to avoid at least a few of those problems by reducing the need for action replays in the first place. Overwhelmingly, replays are requested for one of two things: did the ball hit the post, and was the ball touched / touched before the line?[2]

Let’s deal with the posts first. The difficulty with making a close “hit the post” call is simply that the ball can approach the post from any angle, and there’s a millimetre – or some other arbitrarily small measurement – between a ball which hits the post and one which doesn’t. One way of dealing with this is to make it irrelevant: a ball which touches the goal or behind post but still goes through (before, say, being touched by another player or coming to rest) is a goal if it goes between the goal posts, a behind if it goes between goal post and point post. A ball which hits a goal post without going through is a point; a ball which hits a point post without going through is out of bounds.

All of this certainly represents a significant change to AFL tradition. However, as Sam Lane said during a Before the Game discussion on video reviews, what could be more contrary to AFL tradition than to constantly hold up the game for score reviews? The upsides of changing the scoring rules are:

  • It will produce more goals – one for every poster that goes through (around 1 per game?). And more behinds, too. Not that anyone will get too excited about that.
  • It will produce fewer controversial calls. Umpires have little problem assessing which side of a post a ball has passed, once touching the post is removed as an issue. A ball which bounces back in to play will need to be monitored until it’s touched, but this will be no more difficult than assessing any touched / not touched ball close to the goal line.

So, one problem can be solved by a simple rule change and some acclimitisation – but dealing with touched balls is more difficult. At least a ball touching the post can be guaranteed to happen somewhere near the goal umpire; a player laying a finger on a shot for call can happen, in theory, anywhere on the ground – but in practice, at a minimum anywhere inside the fifty-metre arc. Hard-to-discern touches usually happen during a smother attempt somewhere near the kick, or close to the goal line (where a review might be called on for both whether a touch happened, or whether it happened on the correct side of the goal line).

Trying to make the touched-ball rule irrelevant is a tough problem. Fans might grumble a little, but eventually accept that a ball going through off the post is a legitimate score. But when a long bomb lands in the goal square, posts don’t deliberately knock the ball through the goals. Defenders – since 1859 – have relied on it. Removing the touched-ball rule altogether would be a change to football and its tactics that most football fans couldn’t stomach (and besides, Josh Gibson might find out it was my suggestion).

Options for reducing the number of times the rule is used are limited, possibly create as many problems as they solve, and create an equal amount of fan nausea.

If you want to keep all legitimate touches close to goal – or eliminate the hard-to-spot touches off the boot downfield – you could create a zone close to the goal where the touch has to happen (say, a 15- or 20- metre arc, just like the standard 50-metre one). Only a kick which is touched inside the arc is a behind, otherwise it’s a goal. But 15 metres from goal is still a long way for a goal umpire to spot a fingertip touch (which may appear unclear even on slow-mo video), and the goalie may be the closest official. There may also be clear touches which occur close to the arc, needing an adjudication on whether or not they’re legitimate. Worse, a bomb to the “hot spot” which lands outside the arc, if fisted through the goal by a defender, would count as a goal.

Even removing the post rule and keeping the touched ball rule, in each game there may still be a number of unclear goal umpiring decisions which need review. Returning again to the NFL, and their onus on the competing teams deciding which decisions need review:

“The coaches… throw a red flag onto the field, indicating the challenge to the referees… The referee has 60 seconds to watch the instant replay of the play and decide if the original call was correct. The referee must see “incontrovertible visual evidence” for a call to be overturned. If the challenge fails, the original ruling stands and the challenging team is charged with a timeout.”

If the AFL was to mirror this, they’d have two problems to overcome: how to quickly communicate a challenge to officials, and the consequences if a challenge fails.

Firstly, communication. If the defending team thinks a goal should be a behind, there is a clear half-minute to tell officials. However, if the attacking team wants to challenge a behind that they think is a goal, there may only be a few seconds until play restarts (defenders will likely restart as soon as possible if they think a challenge is imminent). Once a signal has been chosen – drawing a square TV screen, as in cricket, for example – the only sticking point is how long the attackers have to decide. Options might be until the ball is delivered back in to play, until the ball lands / is touched by another player – draw your own line. At a certain point of leniency, nebulous challenges might be worthwhile simply to stop a defending team breaking quickly with the ball, so the challenge has to be fast, and any player on the team will have to be able to make it to any official. This part of any reviewing system would need a good workout in practice games.

If a challenge is successful, the game can simply continue with the freshly-accurate ruling – but what if the challenge fails? Some consequence is in order as a disincentive against challenges designed to halt the game. The simplest include:

  • For a failed “that should be a goal!”: the defending team can restart play with a free kick from the defensive 50-metre arc, or maybe the centre circle.
  • For a failed “that wasn’t a goal!”: the goal is awarded, and instead of a centre bounce, once again it’s a free kick from the centre circle, or maybe the “centre” bounce happens inside in the 50-metre line of the challenging team.
  • For a failed “that was a behind, not out of bounds!”: that’s a pretty obscure claim. If it would otherwise be a throw-in, the throw-in stands. If it was an out-on-the-full free kick, an additional 50-metre penalty applies.

On top of this, the NFL limits each team to two challenges per game, plus one further challenge if the first two are successful; an interesting contrast is tennis, where three incorrect challenges are available per set, plus as many correct challenges as a player can achieve. The NFL also leaves open multiple circumstances where officials themselves can call for a replay.

The PR disaster that the AFL should look to avoid is a close call, late in an important game, where whatever rules have been set up don’t provide for a review. A couple of potential options are:

  • No limit to reviews; the penalty for getting them wrong is disincentive enough
  • A limit to the number of unsuccessful reviews; however one more is provided at the start of the last quarter, and another with ten minutes remaining – again, with a stiff enough disincentive for being unsuccessful

Carefully thought through and tested, there is potential for a set of review procedures which will satisfy the needs of the sport – a reduction in the number of unclear scoring situations, along with an ever-present opportunity for teams to make wrong decisions right, but a disincentive for frivolous appeals, and one thing fewer for umpires to do.

But – writing just for a moment as a Saints supporter – no matter what set of rules are put in place, the lamentable fact is that this particular off-the-post goal has already happened – and changing the rules later is not going to make it feel any better…

Tom Hawkins demonstrates the future-rules off-the-post goal rule in the 2009 grand final.

[1] I have no data on this; I feel as though the NFL’s decisions are second only to red card / penalty / offside decisions in soccer for their potential to change a game.

[2] Once again, no data on this; happy to be contradicted. So far I haven’t seen an instance of review for whether a ball passed on one side of the post or another, although it must have happened.

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