FIVE MINUTES into the fourth quarter of last week's practice match between the Western Bulldogs and Hawthorn, AFL umpires coach Hayden Kennedy interrupts his phone conversation.
"There it is," he says, as the first 50-metre penalty for a standing on the mark infringement is paid.
It goes against Western Bulldogs skipper Marcus Bontempelli, who slightly shuffles to his right as Hawks opponent James Cousins feigns his kick.
There it is! The first 50-metre penalty for a man on the mark infringement has been paid against Marcus Bontempelli 5 minutes into the last quarter. He moved slightly when Hawk James Cousins went to kick, and Cousins was awarded the penalty & strolled in for a goal. @AFLcomau— Callum Twomey (@CalTwomey) February 24, 2021
Umpire Cameron Dore is quick to notice the movement and penalises the superstar midfielder, with the AFL's new 'stand' rule disallowing players making any movement from a set kick. The Dogs pay the price, with Cousins strolling into an open goal.
AFL.com.au spent last Wednesday at Whitten Oval with the League's umpires group as the AFL's new rules were put to their first test.
Bontempelli's was the only 50-metre penalty paid as the players and umpires' adjustment to the rule was put under the microscope.
PRE-GAME there was uncertainty how the rule would be taken on.
A day earlier, a clip from Essendon's intraclub showing Kyle Langford give away a 50-metre penalty for moving off his line had gone viral online. It incited fears the rule would lead to too many easy goals and that the (50-metre) penalty didn't fit the (sometimes 10cm) crime.
Here’s a taste of the new rule playing out pic.twitter.com/zHGB6zORvX— Raw Rodd (@NotRodd) February 20, 2021
The AFL's new head of umpiring Dan Richardson, who departed as the Bombers' football boss last year and started with the League in January, had visited most clubs in the lead-up to the practice matches, and helped organise more than 300 club visits from umpires across the summer – more than ever before.
The weight of sessions had Richardson optimistic about the rule change.
"From what we've seen in the match simulation we'd hope that players and the umpires have picked up the rule by and large pretty quickly," he said.
"When I first started I sensed probably a bit more tension around it and that's only natural when there's something new, but certainly the month that I've been involved I've seen people move quite quickly through that change. It went from 'What does this mean to us defensively and how do we adjust more defensively?' to 'Where are the opportunities offensively?' in terms of the way they move the ball.
"A lot of clubs, I'm seeing them identify where the opportunity is to move the ball more fluently from one end of the ground to another and get the ball into a scoring position. I can see them adapting to that really well."
The focus was on the 'stand on the mark' rule, which will see the umpire yell 'Stand' and raise their hand in a 'stop' fashion after a mark or free kick is paid. But another rule, seeing the man on the mark at kick-ins push from 10 metres back to 15 metres to open up more space, will also be implemented for the first time in the Dogs and Hawks clash.
Kennedy encouraged the umpires to not be too new rule-centric.
"In training we've missed a couple of protected area 50s where players have just raced through the protected area because we might be caught up in standing on the mark that we've forgotten about something else," he said.
"That's why these games are so important for us. It's really good practice."
KENNEDY watched the game from a box on the wing that was jammed between both clubs' coaching panels. His MacBook laptop was open as he live-coded moments of the game and decisions to make it easier to go back and assess alongside the vision post-game.
Four umpires officiated, with Dore joined by Matt Stevic, Nick Foot and Justin Power. One rotated off the interchange bench every seven or so minutes, with the AFL wanting all of its Melbourne-based umpires to get in some practice ahead of the AAMI Community Series.
Two seconds into the game, Foot gave the first call of 'Stand' after paying a holding-the-man free kick to Bulldogs ruckman Stef Martin.
As the game unfolded, players blended old habits with new. When manning the mark at a set shot for goal, some scratched the ground to remember their spot. Except now, they can't run up to the mark from a distance, nor can they crowd the mark with a group of players behind the mark.
"There's no use marking the ground anymore because you can't move anywhere," Kennedy said.
On a warm day, the ball flashes from end to end and it is easy to see players coming to grips with standing on the mark at a higher intensity. Some look at their feet after marks to know where they have to stay, while others consciously put their arms behind their backs to ensure they don't instinctively move across.
But it was only one facet of what Kennedy was observing. He credited Power for a great call to spot a throw in the middle of a pack, and later, when there was a stoppage up the ground, spotted an umpire looking at the play instead of the other match-ups around the ground.
At a throw-in, Kennedy explained what each of the three field umpires were watching.
"Two umpires split the players who are standing in front of the pack and behind it, while the third umpire watches the ruck contest," he says.
"Once the stoppages starts, they all have their roles and responsibilities to watch."
One piece of play in the second quarter caught Kennedy's eye. Hawthorn had four sharp kicks out of defence, and each time the Bulldogs carefully stand on the mark without overstepping.
Bulldogs gun Lachie Hunter reached the final stop while on the run, but was able to pause his momentum in time. He gazed over his shoulder to check the umpire's call, and then the umpire quickly yelled 'play on', allowing Hunter to recommence his movement.
The umpires have to make split-second decisions, several times a minute.
"In a matter of 30 seconds there, the umpire made 10 to 20 decisions. Was that tackle fair? Was that handball OK? Was that a high tackle?" Kennedy said.
There are 27 goals kicked in the high-scoring and free-flowing game, and two more pieces of play stand out as the effect of the new stand on the mark rule.
One is when Caleb Daniel, pinned against the boundary line, backed himself in the third term to run alongside the boundary from a set kick. In previous years, that avenue – or 'laneway', as the AFL is calling it – would have been shut off by the player on the mark who could corral or control that space by moving across.
Another happens later in the game when Bontempelli, after giving away a 50-metre penalty, became the beneficiary. With the ball in his hands in the centre square, the Dogs premiership star assessed his options before kicking a low, dart pass to a leading Tim English inside 50.
"Last year I would have said that the player would have moved laterally to hit that corridor [and stop that]," Kennedy said.
STEVIC was pleased with how the new rule was interpreted and applied on day one. There were more than 100 stop plays – free kicks and marks – and only Bontempelli was pinged.
"We paid one across four quarters of 30 minutes a quarter, so I think the players have adjusted incredibly well and quickly to it. I think our work with the clubs has helped, we've educated them, we're learning ourselves but obviously the priority is as soon as the player plays on and steps off the mark we want to pay that really quickly," he said post-game.
Kennedy's review of the incident showed that Cousins didn't come off his line and that Bontempelli moved, although a complication to the decision was the umpire had started to call play on when he shouldn't have. It is unclear if Bontempelli reacted to that, or simply Cousins' motioned kick.
"Hopefully it becomes more black and white than grey, but there's going to be instances during this learning period that if this comes up as a really good coaching edit for us then we'll work through it to see what we think is the best call in that situation," Kennedy said.
Richardson was part of an AFL ensemble, including the rule's mastermind football operations boss Steve Hocking, who watched it in action from the sidelines. Designed to bring greater flow to the game, they were satisfied by its introduction.
"There were some really promising examples. Potentially some kicks that were taken forward of the ball to get players into a scoring position, and a couple of good examples of the ball moving from one end of the ground to the other fairly freely," Richardson said.
"There's obviously other elements to umpiring but this is something that we've put some time and effort into. We've still got a month to go so still a bit more work to do as we get close to round one but there's been some work put into it.
"I think we'd all like to see a few more goals kicked, and see the ball move fairly freely. So hopefully that's one of the outcomes we see."