‘Protect them from themselves’: Doctors warn AFL duckers against playing for frees

Players who duck into tackles to attract free kicks must be “protected against themselves”, according to an experienced former AFL club doctor, amid concerns over how umpires are policing the practice.

The AFL warned players last year that umpires would call play on or holding the ball if players forced high contact in tackles by dropping their knees or waists or raising their arms. It’s a common method, particularly among small forwards such as Collingwood’s Jack Ginnivan, who has received the most high contact free kicks in the league this year.

However, some believe there has been a change in the interpretation of the rule in recent weeks after Ginnivan did not receive free kicks when he was caught high in almost identical fashion earlier in the season.

During round 18high tackle free kicks were paid to high-profile players Scott Pendlebury, Michael Walters, Liam Ryan and Kysaiah Pickett, but denied to Ginnivan despite a similar placement of the tackler’s arm around his neck.

While some commentators have criticised the lack of consistency, the trend of ducking into tackles to draw free kicks has also raised concerns among doctors who fear players are putting their health at risk.

“We’ve been doing everything we can to eliminate head high contact over the past few years to reduce that risk of concussion, and, you know, this is unfortunately creeping back in, this ability to duck into tackles, which leads themselves [players] open to injuries” said Peter Brukner, professor of sports medicine at La Trobe University.

“Any contact to the face or head has the potential for serious injuries depending on where you’re contacted, so we want to try to avoid that if we possibly can,” said Brukner.

Jack Ginnivan tackled by Will Hamill in round 18, 2022Credit:Getty Images

“We’re concerned about both the short and long-term effects of a concussion…Players don’t think about the risks they put themselves into when they duck their head and they want to get a free kick, but sometimes they have to be protected against themselves.”

Brukner added there is concern over sub-concussive knocks , which are hits below the concussion threshold that don’t register symptoms but have the potential to cause accumulated damage.

“I think in a sport like Aussie Rules, there’s not a lot of concern compared to American football or even the rugby codes but still, even if something doesn’t necessarily cause a concussion, we still don’t want to have these episodes where someone is struck a blow to the head. We don’t know what the potential damage is that is long term.”

“We don’t want to spoil the whole game, but I think in this case, you know, we can eliminate it without impacting on the game too much. It probably would improve the game.”

Dr Rowena Mobbs, a neurologist at Macquarie University, said players ducking into head high frees also poses a risk of neck injuries.

“If there are players dropping into the tackle, there is a risk to the head and the neck, not only resulting in mild traumatic brain injury or concussion, but also risk of neck fracture or other neck injury,” said Mobbs.

Joel Selwood tackled by Melbourne’s Max Gawn in round 4, 2021Credit:Getty Images

“Whether or not the player is intending this is up for the codes to review or up for the AFL to review, and the decision may not always be clear-cut I expect, but it is a concern if there’s an intended risk to the players for the tender for free kick.

“Dropping the head and neck into a tackle is always dangerous… It’s vital that players have a take a long-term perspective on their health in the game.”

In 2015, the AFL cracked down on dangerous tackles, revising previous interpretations regarding listing, slinging or rotating techniques to enforce stricter definitions to protect players against forceful high contact.

They also enforced stricter interpretations around players leading with their heads to draw free kicks for high contact, for example, a player who drives or leads his head into a stationary or near-stationary player would be classified as having prior opportunity to dispose of the ball.

However, AFL football operations manager Mark Evans said at the time, no changes would be made to stop awarding free kicks when a player drop his knees or shrugs causing high contact to occur, despite North Melbourne’s Lindsay Thomas and Geelong skipper Joel Selwood being accused of deliberately exaggerating head-high contact to milk free kicks.

The AFL was contacted for comment.

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