AFL 5 months ago

Free Kick Bulldogs? Addressing The Umpires' Alleged Favouritism To The Reigning Champs

  • Free Kick Bulldogs? Addressing The Umpires' Alleged Favouritism To The Reigning Champs

    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 13: Bulldogs head coach Luke Beveridge talks to the umpires to find out more about an umpiring rule during the Western Bulldogs AFL intra-club match at Whitten Oval on February 13, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Ever since the Western Bulldogs snuck home by a solitary point against North Melbourne on Saturday night, there has been a massive outcry against the umpires and how they have been favouring the Western Bulldogs. It's not been the first time people both inside an AFL club or a supporter have gone and complained on any form of social media, dating back to the early stages of last year

On Saturday night, the Dogs comprehensively beat North Melbourne in the free kicks 26-13, with the tally standing at 16-4. Whilst I can admit that the umpiring I witnessed at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night was a below-average performance at best, there were some horrendous decisions that went both ways, but penultimately it was two big decisions that ultimately cost North four valuable premiership points. 

Despite North Melbourne facing a development phase of sorts, clearing out a number of veterans at the end of 2016, they still remain a chance of playing finals footy for the fourth consecutive year. A win over the Bulldogs would've had them sitting two wins behind St. Kilda who sit in eighth place on the ladder.

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Did a play-on call made by an umpire from about 45-50 metres away against an unaware Shaun Higgins, who had exceeded a 30-second shot clock, yet begun approaching the goals decide this game? Did a Ben Brown mark and goal that was disallowed because team mate Mason Wood was pinged for an illegal block that some people labelled 'soft' decide the game? Bulldog supporters will say it didn't, Kangaroo supporters will still say that they were robbed and were 'Hard done by'.

The Higgins decision should've been made by the umpire that was standing at least five metres away rather than the officiating umpire that was standing even further away. It was the correct decision - Higgins offically started approaching the goals at 37 seconds, but it was nothing more than lapse of concentration by the umpires involved. In terms of the decision made against Mason Wood. His intentions were obvious to block Dogs' ruckman Tom Campbell out of spoiling, ruling the free kick - again it was right decision, but at the time I could understand the frustration of many North supporters - that was there game-winning goal after all.

A much-maligned AFL program on Channel Nine - Footy Classified claimed that the Western Bulldogs were getting a pass from the men in green, stating that multiple clubs have approached the league and asked about the Bulldogs' high free kick numbers, delivered by none other than journalist Damian Barrett - a man that many believe loves to post anything negative he can about the Western Bulldogs. 

Last year the Bulldogs were ranked second in the league in receiving free kicks, averaging 20.4 per game and conceding 16 frees per game - ranking them 18th in the league. This year they are still second in the league recieving free kicks and are still averaging just over 20 per game, and are ranked 17th in conceding free kicks - averaging 16.5 per game. The team that's above the Dogs that's winning more free kicks? None other than the Brisbane Lions.

Is anybody complaining about them? I don't think so, it makes this comment that the AFL is favouring the Western Bulldogs absolute nonsense. People have complained in recent years about Hawthorn and Geelong - premiership-calibre teams - that have had the rub of the green, but the fact that they have been up at the top of the mountain has made opposition supporters get a case of the sour grapes. It's a natural thing that happens with any AFL fanatic and it's something no AFL fan should be ashamed of, but the fact that people consistently suggest that the Western Bulldogs are subjected to favouritism by the umpires is really getting on my damn nerves.

It started with the Western Bulldogs' win against the Adelaide Crows in round seven last year. Adelaide coach Don Pyke made his opinions known in the post-game press conference following the Crows' defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs, implying that the umpires had helped the Dogs over the line and questioned the AFL's standard of umpiring. The Bulldogs got over the line that evening by 15 points, with the Bulldogs' final two goals coming in the dying minute. However, the Dogs won the free-kick count 28-12, leaving Adelaide to wonder what could've been if a few missed decisions went their way.

Another coach that has come out publicly and implied that the umpires were favouring the Doggies is Sydney coach John Longmire. The Swans played the Bulldogs in last year's AFL Grand Final, which - as we all know by now - was won by the Bulldogs. However, a free-kick count that read 20-8 in favour of the premiers had a few suggesting that the Bulldogs were handed the cup by the men in green. It's easy to believe that was the case, because the Bulldogs were after all, the fairytale team last September, coming from seventh in the home and away season to win their first flag since 1954 - their only other flag. 

However, the stats will say that the Dogs deserved it. They won more disposals, more contested possessions, more inside 50s and more clearances. The only thing they didn't beat the Swans in was the tackles, recording only nine less tackles in what was a physical, high-stakes game. The Doggies did it and they did it fairly. Dan Hannebery had his knee crunched by Easton Wood as he went in low for the ball and as he was in agony, the umpire allowed play to go on. Should it have been a free kick for contact below the knees? Did it cost the Swans the flag? It certainly was a game-altering moment, but we will never know whether or not Hannebery could've got Sydney over the line that day.

The Swans were also second-best in the free kicks in their Grand Final rematch earlier this year, which saw the Bulldogs defeat the Swans by 22 points, with the reigning premiers winning the free-kick count 31-18, with last year's rising star winner Callum Mills controversially gave away a free kick for deliberately punching the ball over the goal-line in close to goal, in front of a Liam Picken who was a few metres away, seemingly looking like he gave up the chase. This gifted Picken a goal that would put the Bulldogs ahead by 10 points at a crucial stage of the game. Again, Longmire cried foul over the attention the Bulldogs got over his players, but yet again, the statistics proved that the Dogs were the better team that night at Etihad Stadium. They had 60 more disposals, 16 more contested possessions and laid 10 more tackles than the opposition. The AFL did admit that they got an umpiring decision that went against promising defender Aliir Aliir wrong that gave Tom Boyd a shot on goal that he would go on to kick.

The tables turned a few weeks ago when the Bulldogs traveled up to the SCG to meet the Swans in a return match. The reigning champs were decimated from the opening bounce and the Swans got the better end of the umpiring decisions, winning the free kick count 22-13. Did Luke Beveridge sulk about the count? Did he sulk about the questionable decisions that the umpires were bound to make that night? Absolutely Not! Unlike Longmire, Beveridge didn't mention any umpiring mistakes once and accepted that his side stagnated. Most of the other games that the Bulldogs have been involved in, there has hardly been any talk about the umpires favouring the Bulldogs. A week ago, when they got belted by Melbourne, the only people that complained about the free kicks, were a few of the Bulldogs supporters themselves, who believed they got hard done by.

As someone who plays local football on a weekly basis, I was always taught by my junior coaches and by the umpires that officiated us that they would always look after the one who put their heads over the ball and were first to the footy. The Bulldogs over these past two seasons might be getting the calls their way, but they're getting enough of the ball. They were number one team in disposals last year, averaging 412 per game and were a top four team in contested possessions, averaging under 150 per game. This year they're sitting in 5th in both categories, averaging 401 disposals per game and 148 contested possessions per game.

As far as I can tell, any fan that calls out the Western Bulldogs as the AFL's favourite team is simply showing a clear-cut case of the sour grapes.

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