New ‘last touch out of bounds’ rule does not work

If there is one clear takeaway from round one of the 2018 AFLW season, it’s that the new ‘last touch out of bounds’ rule does not work.

The rule, which had only been trialed at this level in AFLW practice matches prior to the season, caused confusion among supporters, players and umpires alike, with different interpretations being used for three of the four opening round matches.

The umpires’ interpretation of the last touch out of bounds rule changed over the course of the first round. Image: Michael Dodge/AFL Media

In one such case, we were treated to some comical moments during the Adelaide Crows-Brisbane Lions telecast when Carlton midfielder Lauren Arnell was left baffled on special comments, disputing the umpires’ decision to award free kicks when the last touch out of bounds was not a clear disposal, as per the rule.

As humorous as it was, those are just the teething problems that come with introducing a complex new rule to trainee umpires, and will hopefully improve with time.

The key takeaway is that the rule does not achieve its intended purpose.

The AFL’s reasoning for introducing the rule was that it would reduce stoppages, reduce congestion, increase scoring and make the game more attractive to watch.

While stoppages were obviously reduced significantly, congestion was not reduced, scoring was below the AFLW average from 2017, and the games were less attractive to fans despite the increased skill level of the players.

Round one matches featured an average of 60.5 points per game, which is down on the competition average of 65.79 points per game in 2017.

Considering there is also time-on in the last two minutes of every quarter this season, and every game was played in good conditions for football, the hope that the rule somehow increases scoring is not off to a promising start.

But what’s most telling is the way the football was played when teams moved forward.

In the opening game of the season, both Carlton and Collingwood found themselves limited when moving the ball up the ground, with wide deliveries to their dangerous forward lines being punished with a free kick to the opposition.

In the second half, both teams then found themselves playing predictable football when delivering into the forward 50 for fear of giving away a free kick, allowing defenders to flood the hot spot and turn the match into a slug-fest.

No goals were scored by either team in the second half, which is seriously concerning for two sides with as much forward fire power as the Blues and Magpies.

Fox Footy commentator Chyloe Kurdas summed up the effects of the rule perfectly on ABC Radio on Saturday morning.

Kurdas observed that because players did not want to go within 10 metres of the boundary line, it in sense made the field significantly smaller, hence creating more congestion.

She also spoke of the lack of stoppages in the forward line negatively affecting both teams’ chances of scoring, which was clear for all to see.

What would have previously been a throw-in next to the behind post – creating a very possible scoring opportunity – became a free chance to clear the ball for the opposition.

Kurdas’ comments were echoed by Fox Footy commentator Kelli Underwood, who also noticed that the rule was removing opportunities for teams to score goals deep in the forward line.

In regards to free kicks for out of bounds on the wings, the opposition team would immediately drop numbers back as soon as the field umpire performed the goofy lasso signal, and commonly the recipient of the free kick was forced to kick into an interception or congested situation anyway.

The AFL may try to claim that the rule forced teams to play more through the corridor, but one would argue that all teams already play a direct style of play, as is the nature of the women’s game.

The two highest scoring games of the round – Melbourne vs GWS and Western Bulldogs vs Fremantle – had most of the goals kicked from teams executing kicks into their respective forward structures, or by punishing teams on the rebound.

Not to mention the improved skills of both teams allowed them to move the ball with more fluidity than in the past.

Through one round, you could argue that the new last touch out of bounds rule has actually had a negative effect on the AFLW.

Women’s boss Nicole Livingstone had the gall to say that the people opposing the rule change were just “traditionalists”, but the truth is most fans of the competition will welcome rule changes if they stand to improve the game, as was the case with 16-a-side teams in the 2016 All-Stars exhibition match.

This has nothing to do with the tradition of the game, rather the introduction of a rule that adds unnecessary confusion and completely changes the way the game of football is played with nothing to show for it.

At least through the first round of 2018, the rule has failed to improve the AFLW’s watchability from a structural standpoint, and has created a serious irritation for the passionate fans who already loved what they were seeing last year without the needless addition.

It’s hard to imagine how the rule will be responsible for games improving from round two onward, but if it does not have a direct impact in the increase of scoring and decrease of congestion, it surely must be scrapped by season’s end.