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The night the holding-the-ball rule jumped the shark

Tom Jonas did everything that could have been asked of him. Photo: Getty

Tom Jonas did everything that could have been asked of him. Photo: Getty

Other than complaining about the price of a pie or the length of the beer queue, it is football’s most Pavlovian response.

“Baaaaaall!”

The cry goes up as predictably as a Christmas pantomime audience pointing out the villain.

Memo to umpires: these whistles are made for blowing
• Port Adelaide: the basket case that roared

At which the umpire, with theatrical timing, pauses, sticks his backside out and, with a curious uncrossing of his arms, delivers football’s equivalent of the thumbs down in the Colosseum to the poor sod at the bottom of the pack.

Football fans are reaping what they sow.

The abominable free kick paid against Port Adelaide’s Tom Jonas with less than one minute remaining in the white hot preliminary final must lead to a re-assessment of the absurdity that is the hold-the-ball rule.

Tom Jonas did everything that could have been asked of him. Photo: Getty

Tom Jonas did everything that could have been asked of him. Photo: Getty

It is virtually a truism to suggest that the way the holding-the-ball is interpreted is unpopular and controversial among football fans.

The voices on talkback radio and in the front bar lament the paucity of holding-the-ball decisions, urging umpires and administrators to “reward the tackler”.

In fact, as the Jonas decision showed, the opposite is the case.

In the desperate bid to keep the game moving at all costs, there are too many holding-the-ball decisions.

The way the rule has been applied in recent seasons mocks the spirit of the game, which must surely reflect the primeval urge to win the ball.

Instead, players are too often rewarded for hanging back, waiting for someone else to win the ball, and then playing for a free. Sometimes, in pursuit of this advantage, players will actually contrive with sleight of hand or foot to ensure their opponent has the ball – as opposed to trying to wrest it from them.

This achieved ridiculous proportions last season when a player was pinged for holding-the-ball but when, after the pack of players who had mobbed him cleared, the culprit was found lying on the ground heavily concussed. Not easy to make a “realistic attempt”, or whatever the textbook jargon states, when you are seeing stars.

Every club has a player who seems to get pinged more than seems reasonable. Generally, they are the players we most admire. (At my club it’s Nathan Jones.)

Jonas did everything a coach would hope for in the last seconds against Hawthorn. He went after the football, he did not dive on it or drag it in, but bent over to pick it up, going to his knees in the process. (You do need to get low to pick up the ball up from the ground, no matter how much this might offend the purist fantasies of legislators, who seem to think the game is played in a laboratory.)

Then he was smashed in a gang tackle by Ben Stratton and Luke Hodge. No “prior”, as they say. Not a jot. (See the free at 2:20 in the video below.)

Jonas and Port were ripped off. It may not have made a difference to the result (there were plenty of contentious free kicks on the night), but it should prompt the game to ask which players should be rewarded and which penalised.

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