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Has the game gone soft?

Murray Middleton

Murray Middleton

Written on Tuesday, 24 July 2012 08:07

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During the ABC's coverage of Saturday afternoon's Coburg versus North Ballarat match, viewers were asked the following question: 'Has the game gone soft?' It was obvious what kind of response the question was trying to elicit. I haven't bothered to seek the results.

I don't like the Jack Ziebell verdict any more than Drew Petrie and James Kelly do. The fact that Ziebell didn't breach any of the laws of the game, yet landed a hefty suspension, strikes me as absurd. He didn't even concede a free kick. Umpire Justin Schmitt – who was standing ten metres away from the contest – said three times, "He was just going for the footy."

Daniel Merrett's knee into Nick Riewoldt's vertebrae in the same round was infinitely more malicious than what Ziebell did to Aaron Joseph. Merrett knew what he was doing. It was also a much worse 'look' for the game.

So much of the Match Review Panel's hysteria in recent seasons has been under the guise of this elusive 'look'. It's a futile hysteria. No one is going to stop watching (or playing) the game on account of Ziebell's bump or Jack Trengove's sling tackle. The most bone-jarring hits of the game are those that can't be legislated against.

For this reason alone, the game will never be soft. Consider Jonathan Brown's thrice-mangled face! Consider the metal plate and screws lurking behind James Hird's left eye socket! Consider Lenny Hayes' guttural voice after the 2010 Grand Final!

Last year an American colleague – a world championship winning water polo player – asked me what Aussie Rules was like. I sat her at a computer and made her watch the Jordan Lewis/Jarrod Harbrow collision in 2010.

I'll be honest. I enjoyed watching her recoil in her chair when Harbrow cannoned into the unsuspecting Lewis with his hipbone. She asked if Lewis' neck was broken. And I knew she was a true sports fan when, seconds later, she said, 'Play it again!'

I loved Dennis Cometti's response to the Lewis/Harbrow collision in the commentary box. In a hoarse voice, Cometti said, "It's a primitive game sometimes. There's not many sports in the world where you see that sort of courage. In fact, I can't think of a one."

I used to loathe Clint Jones as a footballer before his collision with Sydney's Martin Mattner in 2008. Daily Telegraph photographer Wayne Ludbey captured the extraordinary point at which Jones' flesh jarred away from his skeleton. I'll never speak another bad word about the Saints' tagger. Any player who is prepared to take such a hit for the jumper is a gem.

Ludbey's image of Jones' distorted features is one of the most enduring images of the modern game. In one frame it captures the senselessness of our national game; a game with breakneck speed, majestic leaps and brutal collisions. Whether it's a good 'look' is superfluous. We all want senselessness in our lives. The best form of it is football.

My father brings his international students to an AFL match once every season. There are two features of Aussie Rules that always capture their imaginations:

1) The speed of the game

2) The possibility of being struck from 360 degrees

As Dennis Cometti pointed out, not many sports carry this second possibility. The threat of a collision – and the potentially serious consequences – is what makes the game captivating to the students. It has nothing to do with any supposed 'look' that the Match Review Committee is busy preserving.

As much as we cry foul when there is a verdict that is beyond comprehension, none of us are going anywhere. We're addicted. We unite in our grimaces when there is a sickening collision. We disappear from social engagements on weekends to sneak glances at television screens. We calculate DreamTeam statistics in our heads whilst lovers talk lovingly at us. To those who don't understand the sickness, we're barbarians.

No, the game isn't soft. It has everything I want in a Saturday night.

Perhaps the ABC's question should have been: 'Have the officiators gone soft?'

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