In insisting that a player has an obligation to concede possession of the ball to another player if contesting that ball could create head-high contact, the AFL will fundamentally change the DNA of Australian Rules football.
And yet, that is precisely what the AFL will do on Thursday night at the tribunal hearing for David Mackay’s collision with Hunter Clark. In arguing that Mackay not only had other options, but should have chosen one, they will effectively be arguing that contested possession is dead.
If a player must add the potential likelihood of head-high contact to the myriad of other things they already have to think about in a split second during a game, they will simply choose not to. By which I mean, they will always concede possession and tackle.
Take the particular example before us. The AFL will argue that in this circumstance Mackay had other options, which of course he did. But in also arguing that he was obliged to choose one of those other options in order to avoid head-high contact, what they are in-fact saying is that he was obliged not to attempt to take possession of the ball. Because he had no other option in that scenario, if he was to compete for possession, than to speed up and attack the ball. If he was to have done what the AFL are claiming he should have, and prioritise avoidance of head-high contact over taking possession of the ball, he would undoubtedly have simply allowed Clark to take possession and then tackled him.
From that point two things might have happened. He might have tackled well, or he might have tackled poorly. Given the circumstance, his experience level and his career-long tackling form, we’ll assume for the purpose of this article that he would have tackled well. That would have almost certainly created a stoppage. Given that Clark would clearly not have had any prior opportunity and assuming he would have attempted to get rid of the ball, the umpire would almost certainly have called a ball up. And that is the way it would go for the majority of examples like this one.
If you’re going to suggest that a player should concede possession to avoid head high contact, you’re inevitably going to create countless extra stoppages. You’re inherently changing the way the game is played. You’re making it defensive by design.
Insisting that Mackay had other options is factually true and correct. Further insisting that it was unreasonable to choose the one he did is where the problem occurs in my view. Players have the option not to attempt to mark. But asking them not to in order that they might avoid head-high contact would be seen as unreasonable. And yet, here the league is suggesting that Mackay’s decision to attempt to take possession of the ball was unreasonable.
When all is said and done, what the AFL is really saying here is that Mackay should have chosen not to attack the ball. They’re saying he should have ceded possession to Clark because it was safer.
Ultimately, they’re saying that Mackay did not have the right to possesses the ball. That’s a game changer.