Holding the ball
Holding the ball is a rule in Australian rules football. The rule results in a free kick being awarded against a player if he fails to correctly dispose of the football upon being tackled by an opponent, although not under all circumstances. The rule provides the defending team a means to dispossess a player who is running with the football, as well as preventing players from slowing the play.
The holding the ball rule dates to the formative years of the game. It has a long history as one of the most contentious rules in the game and one of the most difficult to umpire consistently, in large part due to the several points of umpire discretion involved in its interpretation.
Under the 2015 release of the Laws of Australian Football, holding the ball (officially holding the football) is covered by Laws 15.2.3 through 15.2.6. Three specific variations of the rule apply depending upon how the player came to be in possession of the ball. The wording of these three variations in the laws is as follows:
- 15.2.3 (a): Prior opportunity – where the field umpire is satisfied that a player in possession of the football has had a prior opportunity to dispose of the football [between taking possession of the ball and being correctly tackled], the field umpire shall award a free kick against that player if the player does not kick or handball the football immediately when they are correctly tackled
- 15.2.3 (b): No prior opportunity – where the field umpire is satisfied that a player in possession of the football has not had a prior opportunity to dispose of the football [between taking possession of the ball and being correctly tackled], the field umpire shall award a free kick against that player if, upon being correctly tackled, the player does not correctly dispose or genuinely attempt to correctly dispose of the football after being given a reasonable opportunity to do so.
- 15.2.5: Diving on top of the football – where a player is in possession of the football by reason of diving on top of or dragging the football underneath their body, the field umpire shall award a free kick against that player if they do not immediately knock the football clear or correctly dispose of the football when correctly tackled.
Although the name of the rule is 'holding the ball', cases where the football is dropped or otherwise illegally lost come under the same rule; this is sometimes informally referred to as 'dropping the ball'. Cases where the football is thrown or disposed of in another illegal manner are penalised under the 'Incorrect Disposal' law (Law 15.3.2).
The umpire signals holding the ball by leaning forward and sweeping both arms below his body and out to his sides. Customarily, spectators will shout "Ball!" when they believe a holding the ball free kick should be paid.
Points of discretion
Although it is commonly understood that a player assumes prior opportunity at some stage shortly after he has taken possession of the ball, the Laws of the Game do not explicitly define what constitutes a prior opportunity. Defining and interpreting the prior opportunity is left to the discretion of the umpires, acting on the direction of the umpiring coaches. Under the directions given by the AFL umpires coach in 2015, the cues an umpire should use to determine whether or not a prior opportunity exists are: is the player balanced and steady with the football; has the player chosen to break or fend away a tackler, or; has the player chosen to ignore a reasonable opportunity to dispose of the ball.
Likewise, there are no explicit definitions within the rules for what constitutes a 'reasonable opportunity' to dispose of the ball when a player has had no prior opportunity, nor what constitutes a 'genuine attempt' to dispose of the ball. As is the case for prior opportunity, the umpires can determine this at their discretion and at the direction of the umpiring coaches.
Other than the basic rules outlined above, the Laws of the Game outline several other specific stipulations relating to the holding the ball rule.
- A player who loses possession of the ball when bumped rather than tackled (Law 15.2.4 (a)).
- A player who loses possession of the ball when his arm is knocked (Law 15.2.4 (b)).
- A player who drops the ball when his arms are pinned by his side, unless he has had prior opportunity (Law 15.2.4 (c)).
- A player who drops the ball while attempting to kick or handpass the ball while being swung in a tackle, unless he has had prior opportunity (Law 15.2.4 (d)).
- A player who drops the ball while being swung by one arm in a tackle, unless he has had prior opportunity (Law 15.2.4 (e)).
In the latter three cases, a player with prior opportunity who was caught in such a manner would concede a free kick. Otherwise, no free kick would be paid for any of these scenarios.
- A ruckman or other player taking possession of the ball directly out of a ruck contest (ball-up or boundary throw-in) rather than tapping the ball out of the contest (Law 15.2.3 (c)).
- A player in possession of the ball who bends down and drives head-first into a stationary tackler (Law 15.2.3 (d)).
- Ball held to a player
Law 15.2.6 clarifies that the holding the ball rules should not be interpreted any differently if the tackler holds the football to the body of the player in possession of the ball. In this scenario, the player with the ball pinned to him is still required to correctly dispose of the ball if he is tackled with prior opportunity, or must make a genuine attempt to dispose of the ball if tackled without prior opportunity, to avoid conceding a free kick; the fact that the actions of the tackler make it impossible for him to effect a disposal does not change these requirements.
- Running bounces and handpasses to oneself
Law 15.2.2 specifies that a player who is executing a running bounce or is handpassing to himself without the ball touching the ground is still considered to be in possession of the ball, even when it is not in his hands. The practical consequence of this law is that a player who executes either of these skills while being tackled is automatically considered to be holding the ball under the prior opportunity rule.
Holding the ball, and at times its pairing with the holding the man rule, has been one of the most contentious rules in Australian rules football throughout almost the entire history of the sport, for a wide variety of reasons. Confusion and inconsistency are the chief causes of this contention, which in large part arises from the many different facets of the rule, the amount of discretion and judgement umpires must exercise, the fact that different field umpires may interpret the same scenario in different manners, and the lack of formal definitions for 'prior opportunity', 'reasonable opportunity' and 'genuine attempt'. Specific points which often cause contention include:
- How to interpret a 'reasonable opportunity' to dispose of the ball. For example, in a scenario with no prior opportunity, spectators would normally expect holding the ball to be paid if the player is still holding it after being swung around 360° in a tackle, but the umpire may elect not to do so if he feels a genuine attempt has been made to dispose of the ball or if the player breaks the tackle.
- How to interpret a 'genuine attempt' to dispose of the ball. It is not uncommon for player seeking to force a stoppage and avoid a free kick to feign an attempt to handpass the ball by punching it with one hand while making no attempt to release it with the other. It is at the umpire's discretion whether he deems this a genuine attempt or not.
- How to interpret cases of dropping the ball. Unintentionally dropping the ball is legal under the various scenarios defined in Law 15.2.4(a-e), and illegal under all other circumstances, but the rules which distinguish these cases are detailed and complicated.
Another point of contention among football observers regards how stringently the rule should be applied to make for an optimum spectacle. Applying the rule less strictly will tend to lead to congested play and an increase in the number of stoppages, because players who are tackled after having won the contested ball would rather hold it to force a neutral stoppage than kick the ball into a potential turnover. Applying the rule more strictly leads to a scenario which discourages players from trying to win the contested ball, as they find that it is more profitable to wait for an opponent to win the ball, then earn a free kick by tackling them; such a practice is considered to be against the spirit of the game as a contest. Changes to the rule throughout history have generally been brought about by moving undesirably close to one of these extremes, but many observers have differing opinions on which is the less desirable outcome and what the optimum interpretation would be.
The holding the ball rule has its origins in Rule 8 of the Melbourne rules, the rule which placed limitations on a player's freedom to run with the ball. By the early 1870s, it had become common practice that a player running with the ball should drop it upon being held by an opponent; this was enshrined in the rules by 1876, with Rule 8 including the stipulation "in the event of a player with the ball in hand trying to pass an adversary, and being held by him, he must at once drop the ball," with a free kick to be paid for a breach of the rule.
Application of the law in the early years and throughout the first half of the 20th century would appear extremely stringent to a spectator familiar with the modern application of the rule. In general, the tackler needed to do little more than grip an opponent by the guernsey with one hand, not necessarily even retarding his progress, to earn a free kick. The full body tackle which would be seen in modern playing style was not necessary, and was very uncommonly seen because executing one would almost always result in conceding a holding the man free kick – that rule was also applied very stringently at the time, so a full body tackle would almost always linger for some time after the player had dropped the ball, and therefore would always be penalised. Until even the 1950s, full body tackling was thought of by the football-going public as a "rugby tackle": and while it was legal within the rules, it was so scarcely seen that many thought it to be illegal.
One of the early difficulties encountered by the Australasian Football Council, which owned and administered the laws of the game from 1906 onwards, was in establishing a consistent interpretation the holding the ball rule between the different states. Sportswriters noted a particularly wide disparity between the interpretations of the rule in South Australia and Victoria: in South Australia, the rule was applied extremely stringently, with a defending player needing to do little more than touch a player running with the ball to force him to drop it, making it almost impossible for a player to run with the ball in the vicinity of opponents; but that in Victoria, a more significant hold or tackle was required to earn a free kick, resulting in players more willing to run through packs of opponents. These wide differences often led to difficulties in interstate matches.
Particularly under the stricter interpretations of the rule, a problem emerged in that players were finding that standing back and allowing an opponent to win the ball before immediately tackling him to win a free kick was more profitable than attempting to win the ball and risking being tackled himself. This practice, known in those times as "malingering", was and still is considered undesirable, as it was believed that a rule which discouraged players from winning contested ball was against the spirit of the game. The banning of the flick pass in 1925, forcing players to use the more cumbersome punch pass, exacerbated this by making it more difficult to dispose of the ball.
Several attempts were made during the 1920s to standardise and clarify the rules. In 1920, the Australasian Football Council amended its wording of the rule, replacing the word "caught" with "held" when describing the act of tackling, to attempt to make it clear that the defending player must do more than simply touch the ball-carrier to win a free kick. The rule was then rewritten entirely in 1928, when it was removed from the original Rule 8 (which by this time had been renumbered) and was added as a stand-alone rule. The new rule, intended to be less stringent, read: "A free kick shall be given against a player who, while being held by an opponent, and being in possession of the ball, does not at once kick, handball or drop it so as to relinquish possession of it. The free kick shall be given to the player who holds him. A player shall not be deemed to be held within the meaning of the foregoing paragraphs unless he is held firmly enough to stop him or to retard his progress."
No-drop holding the ball
An undesirable style of close-in play had emerged by the 1930s: a player with the ball would be tackled, would drop the ball at his feet, wait for his opponent to release him, then bend down and regather the ball, with this sequence of events repeated over and over with both men trying to win a free kick – either for holding the ball or holding the man – rather than actively trying to move the football. These contests then attracted other players and formed scrimmages which slowed the game down. To eliminate this style of play, the concept of "no-drop holding the ball" was developed. This took away the provision for a player to drop the ball upon being tackled, as had been permissible for more than sixty years, and required him to dispose of the ball by kick or handpass, which is fundamental to the modern interpretation of the rule.
Although some small competitions had played under no-drop holding the ball rules earlier (the Victorian Junior Football Association, for example, introduced the rule in 1927), the Australian National Football Council first introduced no-drop holding the ball nationally prior to the 1930 season. In was unpopular in the early months, and was blamed for an increase in congested play and an increase in injuries caused by players attempting wild kicks when previously they would have dropped the ball. Consequently, the change was hastily repealed after only two months.
No-drop holding the ball was next introduced by the Victorian Football Association (VFA) in 1938. The VFA, which did not come under the National Council's influence, introduced the rule as part of a suite of novel rule changes, which also included the legalisation of throwing the ball as a type of handpass. The VFA's combination of the no-drop rule and throwing the ball had the immediate effect of reducing congestion, as it gave players the easy option to throw the ball into open space when tackled, instead of dropping the ball at their feet and causing a scrimmage to form around it.
The National Council quickly followed the VFA's lead, re-instating the no-drop rule from the 1939 season, but it did not pair it with the throwing the ball rule. The no-drop rule again proved to be unpopular. Without the ability to execute a drop or a VFA-style throw, players were forced to rely on the more cumbersome disposal methods of a kick or a handpass; because umpires had conventionally called holding the ball penalties almost immediately when a player was tackled, it was very difficult (and sometimes impossible, depending upon the quickness of the presiding umpire) to execute either of these skills before conceding a free kick, and those who did manage to dispose of the ball often committed turnovers in doing so. Consequently, players favoured malingering over winning the contested ball moreso than ever before. South Australian umpire Frank Armstrong commented that the no-drop rule became known as "the Bludger's Rule" among umpires during this time, since the rule so heavily favoured the tackler over the ball-winner.
To rectify the problems, a more liberal interpretation of the rule was gradually adopted by the state leagues during the mid-1940s, then was formally codified into the Laws nationally in 1948. The new rules eliminated the requirement for the player to dispose of the ball "immediately", and replaced it with the stipulation "umpires must give the player who is in possession of the ball a reasonable chance of disposing of it before free kicking him," first introducing the concept of a 'reasonable chance/opportunity' which remains enshrined in the modern Law 15.3.2 (b). Giving a reasonable chance, according to the VFL umpires' coaches in 1951, meant that a player who had bent down to pick up the ball would be given enough time to stand up and execute a disposal, or a player who collected the ball in full stride would be given time to balance himself. Additionally, the five definitions which are still enshrined in Laws 15.2.4 (a-e), outlining specific situations which are not considered to be holding the ball, were added to the Laws in 1948 (excluding the references to prior opportunity which were not added until the 1990s). These changes help to reduce malingering and provide incentive to win the hard ball; but, they introduced further points of discretion and sources of inconsistency to the umpire.
The wording of the holding the ball rule remained more or less unchanged for the next forty or fifty years, but the interpretation of the rule was adapted to suit changes to the game. As full body tackling became a fundamental part of the game, the interpretations of holding the ball (including what constituted a 'reasonable opportunity' to dispose of the ball) and holding the man were adjusted to suit.
Adjustments made to the rules in the late 1970s created the definitions currently enshrined in Law 15.2.2, removing the ability for players to bounce the ball or handpass to themselves as ways to avoid holding the ball free kicks or win holding the man free kicks. Richmond footballer Kevin Bartlett was particularly well known for these tactics and the rule changes are generally associated with his play.
The next and last major change to the holding the ball rule was the introduction of the 'prior opportunity' rule. The rule was initially introduced in 1986 and known as the "perfect tackle rule": tackling a player who had an opportunity to dispose of the ball before being tackled was defined as a perfect tackle, and the provision for a perfectly tackled player to have a reasonable time to dispose of the ball before being penalised was eliminated. The rule was introduced to speed up the game. This later became the modern 'prior opportunity' rule in 1996, and it was the first time that different holding the ball interpretations had been applied on the basis of what had taken place before the tackle was laid.
Since then, only small adjustments have been made to the holding the ball rules. The rule under which a player who catches the ball on the full in a ruck contest is considered to have had prior opportunity was introduced in 2003, and the rule under which a player ducking and driving his head into an opponent is considered to have had a prior opportunity was introduced in 2015.
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