The AFL has made a rare mid-season tweak to high-contact rules, citing a groundswell of support for player safety.
From this weekend on, umpires will be encouraged to pay free kicks to players in possession that “drive” with their heads into other players.
The “drivers” will have to dispose of the ball or instead hear the umpire’s whistle and a free kick paid to his tackler.
The AFL’s guideline now reads: “Any movement where a player drives or leads with their head into a stationary or near-stationary tackler will be deemed as a drive and will be umpired as the player with the ball having had prior opportunity.”
“The player must immediately kick or handball or a free kick for holding the ball, under the prior opportunity rule, will be paid against him.”
Umpires boss Wayne Campbell said it was brought in as a safety issue, with Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson and Sydney coach John Longmire vocal supporters.
While tacklers will still be closely watched for high contact, Campbell said it was important that players with the ball played their part as well.
“We’ve incentivised someone to go in head first,” he told Fox Footy.
“We think the onus has been put all onto the tackler to protect the player’s head.
“We just think maybe players with the ball are taking advantage of that … (and) we just want to shift the onus a little bit towards the player with the ball as well.”
While the move is being introduced mid-season, it won’t take coaches by surprise.
AFL football operations chief Mark Evans said the umpiring department had flagged a move in mid-May.
The AFL is seeking to encourage good technique when players are picking up the ball by turning their bodies to protect their heads, he said.
Just don’t call it a rule change.
“It’s not a rule change but it is an interpretation change,” Campbell said.