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Glen Quartermain: Why the umpires opt to ‘put the whistle away’

Find a quiet suburban footy ground and listen for long enough and you will hear its unmistakable trill.

The sound of the Acme Thunderer. A sound so rare it would ring true in a Sir David Attenborough documentary.

The piercing tone of the AFL umpires’ whistle of choice has become as rare as the western black rhino and the Tassie Tiger.

The men in green have opted to “put the whistle away” and while the free kick isn’t extinct, it’s threatened.

An average 44.1 free kicks were paid across the nine games in this year’s opening round, but the figure dipped to 34.5 in round eight and was as low as 31.6 the week before.

There is a theory that by paying only the free kicks that are “99 per cent” there, somehow the game becomes more open and as a consequence more attractive.

Channel Seven commentator Leigh Matthews doesn’t subscribe to it.

The AFL’s player of last century says umpires have become scared to make big decisions and that not only should free kicks be paid if they are there, but if umpires believe they are “75 per cent” there. Holding the ball, holding the man and incorrect disposal are rarely paid.

Players are confused. Fans are angry. Maybe it resonates more in election week given umpire bagging is a bipartisan sport in itself.

Umpires, who make decisions in a split-second and often on instinct, say they are operating to the stricter sense of the law, that if a player doesn’t have prior opportunity they only have to make an attempt to get rid of the ball. The execution doesn’t come into play.

One other change, at least for visiting teams to Perth, is the “noise of affirmation” claim made by St Kilda coach Alan Richardson and backed by Geelong’s Chris Scott seems to have edged its way back almost to parity.

Ignoring the round four western derby, of the seven games played at Optus Oval this season four have resulted in free-kick tallies in favour of the home side. North Melbourne (round one), Greater Western Sydney (round two) and the Western Bulldogs (round six) all emerged on the good side of the ledger.

The AFL’s free-kick ladder also makes for interesting reading. The Eagles are mid-table in free kicks for and against, but Fremantle are a curious case, ranking last in both. The low free-kick count against Adelaide in round seven (10 each) would have helped keep both tallies down, but another clue might rest with the way teams are playing the Dockers.

Fremantle are ranked second for uncontested possessions against (1982), which means their opponents are playing keepings off. In other words, they aren’t getting close enough to their opponents to win free kicks or give them away.

Perhaps it’s the purple. Or a malfunctioning Thunderer chasing the wind.


For (ave free kicks per game)

1. Brisbane (22.9)

2. Collingwood (21.4)

3. Western Bulldogs (21.2)

4. Kangaroos (20.6)

5. Melbourne (19.0)

6. Port Adelaide (18.9)

7. Sydney (18.9)

8. Essendon (18.5)

9. GWS (18.5)

10. St Kilda (18.4)

11. West Coast (18.4)

12. Gold Coast (18.0)

13. Richmond (17.8)

14. Geelong (17.6)

15. Adelaide (17.2)

16. Hawthorn (16.5)

17. Carlton (15.9)

18. Fremantle (15.8)


1. Port Adelaide (21.4)

2. Brisbane (20.9)

3. Essendon (20.6)

4. Melbourne (20.6)

5. Sydney (20.6)

6. Carlton (20.2)

7. Richmond (19.4)

8. St Kilda (19.4)

9. Hawthorn (18.9)

10. West Coast (18.6)

11. GWS (18.5)

12. North Melbourne (17.9)

13. Gold Coast (17.4)

14. Collingwood (16.8)

15. Geelong (16.4)

16. Adelaide (16.1)

17. Western Bulldogs (15.8)

18. Fremantle (15.6)

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