Stats reveal umpires are paying more free kicks since Alastair Clarkson’s criticism

A lot has changed since Alastair Clarkson criticised the umpires and now we’ve got the stats to prove it. We reveal how many more free kicks are being paid — and what for — in the wake of more stunning decisions.

Whistle-happy umpires are paying on average 10 free kicks more per game since Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson’s early season criticism which has led to outrage the game is now being over-officiated.

The AFL on Saturday refused to comment on the controversial free kick against Essendon’s Andrew McGrath on Friday night, when he was penalised for holding the ball after picking the footy up and wrestling for possession with Brisbane’s Jarryd Lyons.

The league has cracked down on holding the ball since Clarkson’s comments in Round 4 and AFL operations boss Steve Hocking last month conceded there were still inconsistencies in how the rule was being interpreted.

Figures obtained by News Corp show the average number of free kicks paid per game in Round 4 when Clarkson described the state of the game as “dreadful” was 32.2.

Last week in Round 8 they were up to 39.8 and through the first four games of Round 9 on Saturday the average was 42.6 free kicks per game.

There has also been an increase in holding the ball decisions, up from an average of 6.8 per game in Rounds 1-4, to 9.8 per game in Rounds 5-9 which equates to 27 more holding the ball free kicks every weekend in the past month.

Essendon great Matthew Lloyd told 3AW on Saturday there had been an over-correction following Clarkson’s comments.

“I knew we were in trouble when Clarko came out and made his comments and Gill McLachlan agreed with what Alastair Clarkson had to say, and I could sense then things were going to change,” Lloyd said.

Umpires are paying more holding the ball free kicks. Picture: Michael Klein
Umpires are paying more holding the ball free kicks.

“The game has changed in the way it’s been interpreted and umpired ever since Clarko made those comments.”

In June Clarkson lamented his side’s inability to win a free kick for holding the ball in Hawthorn’s four-point win over North Melbourne.

“We had 69 tackles and I don’t think we had a free kick from a tackle,” Clarkson said.

“What’s happened to our game? You can’t have that many tackles and not one of them be incorrect disposal.

“If that’s the spectacle that we’re trying to search for in our game, then our game’s in a dreadful space.”

McLachlan said he agreed with Clarkson in part, and days later the league issued a memo to clubs advising them it was about to clamp down on holding the ball decisions.

Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge – who admitted “it’s difficult for me, because I was vocal at the start” – said he considered it to be “2017 history repeating itself” when there had been a previous attempt at tightening the interpretation.

“Now, because everyone is unsure about the rule and unsure about the interpretation, it’s making it really difficult for the umpires, there’s confusion and it’s a shame.

“We can’t address it because we don’t know what the interpretation is going to be and we’re not sure what the rule is.

“We’ll just play and our players will just do their best to make sure we clear the ball when we get tackled and maybe take the opportunity to really clamp down when the opposition get the footy.”

He said he chose to “just gloss over it” with his players given the confusion.

Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson has been outspoken on umpiring. Picture: Phil Hillyard
Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson has been outspoken on umpiring.

“It’s a significant part of the game because it can win and lose games but we’ve just got to control what we can control, and that’s one thing we can’t,” he said.

Beveridge said the club hadn’t asked the league for clarity “because there’s so many examples going either way, we’re not sure which one to ask about”.

“We’re not even giving it any airtime in our club,” he said.

“It’ll sort itself out to a degree, but as long as the game is played, and for hopefully centuries, there’s always going to be some grey in some of these decisions.

“At the moment, there’s a lot of grey, and we’ve got to try and get a bit more black and white in there.”

Speaking after Essendon’s horror loss to Brisbane on Friday night, Bombers coach John Worsfold said he did not get a clear view of the McGrath decision from the bench and he did not have an issue with how the game was being officiated.

“Down on the bench where I am I don’t really get to see all the incidents, so other than knowing you’re asking about it, there must have been maybe something contentious about it, but I’ve got no idea really,” Worsfold said.

“I know what the rule is, I’ve been asked this a few times over the last few weeks and I don’t spend a lot of time stressing about it, I think it swings and roundabouts, there are two teams playing to the same interpretation, I don’t think it’s an interpretation against one team or the other, so that’s something we’ll deal with.”

According to figures normalised by Champion Data, the umpires are on track for a 10-year high in average free kicks per game this season.

The actual figure is 35.8 free kicks per game but normalised due to the shortened quarters in this COVID-19 season, the figure is as high as 44.3 free kicks per game. Last year’s average was 37.6 and was as low as 33.4 in 2014.

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