Mac Andrew tackles Charlie Curnow during Gold Coast's clash against Carlton in round 11, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

THE AFL's umpires boss says officials will not blow their whistle for a ball up as long as a tackled player has an arm free to dispose of the ball, but concedes the delay can leave tacklers in an "invidious position".

Stephen McBurney, the four-time Grand Final umpire who recently re-joined the AFL as the Head of Officiating, says there can be "some confusion or difficulty" when interpreting holding the ball as umpires seek to give a tackled player reasonable time to dispose of it correctly.

The interpretation of the holding the ball rule is in the spotlight after the two coaches from Saturday's match between Carlton and Gold Coast, Michael Voss and Damien Hardwick, said they would seek clarification from the League about how it is being adjudicated.

Hardwick pinpointed a tackle from Suns defender Mac Andrew on Blues forward Charlie Curnow, where Curnow had an arm free in the tackle and eventually got a kick away after being spun in a tackle, as one that should have been whistled earlier to minimise the risk of serious injury.

McBurney said umpires are clear on when they should and shouldn't blow the whistle, but added the League will continue to monitor incidents to determine if officials have the balance right.

"We've spent a lot of time with the umpires, and they have a very good understanding of what holding the ball is," McBurney told Footy Feed Extra.


"We have to judge prior opportunity first; if the player has had prior opportunity, they must dispose legally by kick or handball. And that's well understood by the fans out there.

"Where we get into some confusion or difficulty is when a player is tackled immediately. In that circumstance, they must make an attempt to kick or handball and if the ball is pinned, it will result in a ball up. If the ball is knocked out in the tackle, we will call play on.

"Curnow was being stood up in the tackle and had reasonable time to then have the free arm with the ball dropped onto his boot and kick the ball away after what the umpire deemed was still a reasonable time.


"The issue or question going forward is the tackler is in an invidious position because if he takes the player to ground and does so dangerously, he risks a free kick or a report.

"We are monitoring that and we are continuing to catalogue examples of where this occurs so we can judge whether we've got reasonable time right or whether we need to address that.

"The critical thing is the umpire cannot blow his whistle for a ball up if the ball has not been pinned. When we see the arm free, we will hold the whistle and see whether the player can dispose."

Speaking on's Access All Areas on Monday, chief football correspondent Damian Barrett said the current adjudication of holding the ball is "a mess".

"There's a narrative in the industry that we talk about the umpiring in the media at some stage every season, and we do," Barrett said.


"But I can't recall it being as big a mess as it is right now on this issue.

"The core of it the refusal to blow the whistle at the starting point. I know there's not one issue that fixes everything, but this is the core of it - the non-blowing of the whistle at that point."

McBurney said he has had and will continue to have open dialogue with coaches and football departments at all 18 clubs and encouraged them to send through vision of specific incidents that require clarification.

He added the adjudication of whether a disposal is legal or not is "one of the hardest decisions" for an umpire to make, particularly when their vision is blocked by other players.

Christian Petracca and umpire Matt Stevic chat before Melbourne's clash against Carlton in round nine, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

He said the addition of a fourth on-ground umpire was in part designed to minimise the number of incorrect disposals that are missed by the officials.

"One of the hardest decisions to pick up is when a player is at the bottom of a pack or is in the middle of a tackle on the blind side throws the ball out," he said. "We do see throwing the ball missed from game to game.

"What we try and do is put more than one umpire in a position to see it. Now that we have four umpires, we get different angles and perspectives and if they can see the player throw the ball out, they will call incorrect disposal."