Tom Stewart’s hit on Dion Prestia in Saturday’s blockbuster clash between Geelong and Richmond at the MCG has reignited public debate around whether the AFL needs to introduce a send-off rule.
With neither team having grabbed scoreboard ascendancy, the Tigers were forced to activate their medi-sub at the 23rd minute mark of the first quarter, following a late off-the-ball bump that left star midfielder Dion Prestia visibly dazed and distraught as he lay on the ground in the hands of the Richmond trainers.
Prestia missed the remainder of the game after being subbed out with concussion and will also certainly be forced to watch next week’s clash against West Coast from the sidelines under the AFL’s 12-day concussion protocols.
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Stewart faces a lengthy stint on the sideline as a result of the incident, with his case being referred directly to the Tribunal by the AFL’s Match Review Officer (MRO) Michael Christian. But controversy surrounds whether the Cats star should have been allowed to stay on the field.
In a tight and tense tussle that was decided by a Jack Henry goal, Stewart was arguably Geelong’s best player with 29 disposals, 17 intercepts, 737m gained and nine rebound 50s. He was central to two crucial plays inside the last minute of the game that sealed a significant Geelong win.
Meanwhile, the Tigers lost their No. 1 clearance winner and arguably their most important player, considering the Tigers in the past six years have won 71 per cent of their games when Prestia has played, compared to 60 per cent without him (55% v 38% since 2021).
The Cats dominated around the clearances and locked the ball inside their forward half as the Tigers struggled to adjust to the loss of Prestia. Coach Damien Hardwick threw gun utility Liam Baker into the midfield with great effect. But by this point lots of damage had already been done, with Geelong kicking 4.4 to Richmond’s 0.0 since Prestia’s exit.
These numbers alone paint a clear picture of just how much of an impact Prestia’s loss had on the end result, not to mention the tangible influence that Stewart had in the three and a bit quarters he was allowed to remain on the field following the incident.
So considering all this, should there should be a mechanism in place for a player to be sent off for an unsportsmanlike act?
Foxfooty.com.au outlines the AFL’s send-off rule state of play below.
THE CASE FOR
Former Port Adelaide 300-game player Kane Cornes on The Sunday Footy Show: “He should’ve been sent off, let’s be honest about this. There should be a sin bin in the AFL for serious incidents because that was the difference in the game. Richmond lose their most important player by any numbers you want to look at over the last couple of years early in the first quarter. Stewart stays on the ground, has 29 disposals, 17 intercepts, puts himself in the right spots at the right time, and had a game-saving intercept late in the game. At the end of this round Richmond may be out of the eight on the back of that hit that sent Dion Prestia out and Tom Stewart was allowed to stay on.”
AFL legend Leigh Matthews in June 2018: “I believe our system is the worst of the four (football codes). I just think there’s a match-day fairness issue.’’
Former Fremantle and St Kilda coach Ross Lyon on Triple M’s The Sunday Rub: “I think it’s got some merit. Maybe it’s just something that can sit there for the umpires to have (up there sleeve), just as a deterrent, just so it doesn’t happen because potentially it could happen with no ramification in a final or a big game.”
Fox Footy commentator Anthony Hudson on First Crack: “I think the AFL have to absolutely consider it. We saw the disadvantage that Richmond were left at with maybe their best or their most influential player out of the game… We have the ARC, so we have someone who can be the judge and the jury. I’m talking only extreme cases here but I think we have to consider when it’s something like we saw yesterday, where there is no doubt and where the video clearly shows, then we can have someone who does it every week that can look at it and make a decision that a red card or a send-off rule applies here.”
Dual premiership Kangaroo David King on First Crack: “If we are using it once every two years and the action is so severe then I’m with you (Anthony Hudson). If you’re not going to have five a year and you might only have one case where it’s an absolute 100% lock, where almost even the coach (off the offending player) signs off on it. I reckon if you said to Chris Scott yesterday that hey we are going to red card that player (Stewart), then he is not going to kick up a fuss about that.”
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THE CASE AGAINST
Geelong coach Chris Scott in his post-game press conference: “I don’t think so. I am strongly of the view – and have been for my whole career that when the vision became good enough for things to be tried by video – that there shouldn’t be match day reports. The risk of an ump getting it wrong is far too great. The idea of sending a player off and getting it wrong in a big game is a risk not worth taking.”
Former Richmond and Western Bulldogs player Nathan Brown on Triple M’s The Sunday Rub: “I don’t think we need it. I don’t favour it because you’re talking about that (Stewart’s hit) yesterday and then the next one you go back to is the Gaff one, which is what four or five years ago now. They are few and far between these incidents that everybody talks about, so to change a ruling that hasn’t been there for 120 years for the occasional hit, then I’m not sure we need it.”
Former St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt on Triple M’s The Sunday Rub: “It would have to happen grand final day to bring about the change. I think there would not be a compelling enough argument on the back of something like yesterday. Where’s the line? If a player is hampered for the rest of the game then do you send the (offending) player off? There’s enough grey within our game without bringing that in.”
Collingwood premiership player Daisy Thomas on The Sunday Session: “Just a no from me. He’ll (Tom Stewart) get the suspension, it’s unfortunate (Richmond’s disadvantage), but it’s part of the game in the same way that if you have someone go down early with an injury.”
THE AFL’S VIEW
Outgoing AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan in May 2016: “I don’t like the red card, I don’t like the send-off rule. We have incredible scrutinisation of the game, there is accountability for people’s actions on field through the MRP and the processes we have. I think that the send-off rule in the end creates a huge issue because of the significance about where it starts and stops. It raises a whole series of potential impacts and challenges for one or two, or very few incidents on a yearly basis.”
A league spokesman told the Herald Sun on Sunday: “The send-off rule is not something that is being considered. Our position remains the same.”
WHAT PAST INCIDENTS WOULD WARRANT A SEND-OFF?
– Tom Stewart’s bump on Dion Prestia on Saturday.
– Andrew Gaff striking Andrew Brayshaw in Round 20, 2018.
– Jeremy Cameron’s elbow on Harris Andrews in Round 14, 2018.
– Tom Bugg striking Callum Mills in Round 15, 2017.
– Tom Jonas’ elbow on Andrew Gaff in Round 15, 2016.
– Matthew Lloyd’s bump on Brad Sewell in Round 22, 2009.
– Dean Solomon’s elbow on Cameron Ling in Round 15, 2008.
– Barry Hall striking Brent Staker in Round 4, 2008.
WHAT COULD A SEND-OFF RULE LOOK LIKE?
In the lower leagues of Australian rules football, there is a yellow and red card system that can be used by the umpire to send a player off in certain circumstances.
Many believe that system, which is seen in soccer and rugby union, isn’t the right fit for the AFL. But when an incident like Stewart’s on Saturday afternoon comes along, many believe it’s unfair that he was allowed to remain on the field and impact the game while the Tigers were robbed of Dion Prestia’s talent.
If the responsibility was with the umpires to make a red card call, it might be difficult for them to practically make a call on the spot and it could create even more grey area in an already complex game.
And considering these incidents occur so rarely, coupled with the fact the MRO or tribunal will hand the player a suspension anyway, is implementing such a process so necessary?
Yet the AFL, at the very least, could consider the possibility of implementing a send-off rule in exceptional circumstances, such as the one that occurred at the MCG on Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps the most logical way to bring in a send-off rule would be introducing strict parameters. Like how umpires undertake a process to adjudicate holding the ball decisions, you could introduce a three or four-step process for an adjudicator to make a call on incidents.
For example: Was the act intentional? Was the act unsportsmanlike? And has the player been ruled out for the rest of the game?
And when we say “intentional”, that might not be the same definition under the MRO grading system. Stewart’s bump was graded as ‘careless’ by the MRO, but several pundits – including AFL 360’s Mark Robinson – believe it was an ‘intentional’ act because, even though he didn’t intend to give Prestia a concussion, Stewart intended to bump.
North Melbourne champion David King told SEN: “If that’s not intentional, I don’t know what is.
“I don’t understand careless. If you go past the ball, shape to bump and execute the perfect bump in terms of the actual bump, what you’ve designed to do, (was) excellence…
“Now, I think he’s made a mistake, but the actual act is performed with excellence. He did what he designed to do, in that exact moment.”
Any definition for ‘unsportsmanlike’ would need to incorporate taking into account whether the incident occurred off the ball, whether the player had their eyes on the ball and whether the player had sufficient time to choose an alternative action. For example, this interpretation would not be designed to capture all reportable offences such as an illegal tackle or a split second decision to bump when the ball is in play which collects the player high.
If, after reviewing all the available camera angles and replays, the ARC determines the player should be sent off, that ruling would be communicated to the on-field umpires, who would inform the player must be sent off.
This would not be a ‘sin bin’ ruling where a player would sit out for 15 minutes, leading to a 17 v 18 situation. Instead the player who is sent off is not allowed to return for the rest of the game and the team loses a bench rotation as the player would not be eligible to be replaced by the medi-sub if it hasn’t been activated.
Finally, if a player is sent off under the rule, the MRO and/or the AFL Tribunal can take this into account when determining the length of any suspension which arises. For instance, if Stewart is handed a four-game suspension by the AFL Tribunal, then had he been sent off at quarter-time of Saturday’s game then this could reduce the ban to three games to account for the three quarters he already missed.
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This form of punishment would be designed to ensure that the offending player is held accountable for their actions while also offering some form of recompense to the team whose injured player was taken out of the game because of the intentional unsportsmanlike act.
While Chris Scott said in his post-game press conference that he was opposed to a send-off rule, he did acknowledge that there is a need for teams to have the loss of their player offset in some way in incidents such as Stewart’s.
“Richmond are the one that have suffered the penalty,” Scott said.
“(Geelong’s next opponent) North Melbourne shouldn’t get the benefit next week.
“They (Richmond) get no benefit whatsoever from losing one of their best players. That’s my version of restorative justice, that the victim should actually be (compensated) in some way.”
While these types of incidents may only occur on once every two years, many incidents outlined above have not sat well with fans and commentators.
And imagine if something similar were to occur in a Grand Final and had a significant impact on the result of the game…