ST KILDA coach Brett Ratten's concern that tacklers are not being adequately rewarded was reflected across round nine, which saw more tackles laid per game than any week this season.
Teams averaged 129.2 effective tackles a game across the round and attempted a season-high 201.8 tackles. But those efforts were not reflected in increased free kicks for holding the ball or throwing.
Free kicks for holding the ball (8.8 a game) ranked fifth for rounds completed in 2021, while free kicks for throwing the ball (1.0) ranked equal sixth, according to Champion Data.
"I don't think we got our reward for our effort around the tackling component of the game," Ratten said after the Saints' loss to Geelong.
"To think we had 85 tackles … and you get three free kicks (for holding the ball). I don't know if it's worth tackling."
Round eight was the low point so far this season for free kicks paid for holding the ball, with 7.6 a game from an average of 117.8 effective tackles.
Ratten's Saints were not the hardest done by statistically in round nine, however, with Essendon and Fremantle sharing just five free kicks between them from 137 effective tackles.
That converted to a season-low rate of 4 per cent of tackles being rewarded with a free kick.
Every game is different, and there is no expectation that free kicks are paid at the same rate for a skill that can be both executed and evaded with various levels of effectiveness.
But stats show a large discrepancy every round in the amount of tackles being rewarded with free kicks.
Melbourne and Carlton, for example, shared an equal season-high 21 free kicks for their combined 152 tackles (a rate of 14 per cent) last Sunday.
Hawthorn and Adelaide also shared 21 free kicks for their combined 109 tackles in round six (a season-high rate of 19 per cent).
In the same round, Collingwood and Essendon shared eight free kicks for a combined 142 tackles at the MCG on Anzac Day, at a rate of six per cent.
The past two rounds have also seen more broken tackles recorded than any other point this season, with an average of 17.6 (round eight) and 17.8 (round nine).
Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge believes the holding the ball rule has become "blurry" since the backlash to his 2016 premiership team's handballing tactics.
"A couple of clubs whinged about us and they tried to pay more free kicks and by round three they knew it wasn't working so they tried to go back to what it was," the Bulldogs coach said on Tuesday.
In the five years since, free-kick rates for tacklers have gone up and down, starting at 7.1 per cent in 2017 and dropping to a low point of 6.1 per cent last year.
Strangely, tacklers are being rewarded at a rate of 7.7 per cent across this season – equal with 2018 as a high point in the past five seasons.
So who is being rewarded? Adelaide ranks No.1 this season for percentage of tackles rewarded with a free kick (11 per cent).
The Crows are followed by Carlton (9.6), Melbourne (9.5) and Port Adelaide (9.3) in the top four.
At the bottom end, Richmond is the hardest done by, with only 5.9 per cent of the Tigers' tackles rewarded with a free kick. Fremantle (6.9) and Sydney (6.2) also rank low.
The other club in the bottom four? St Kilda, with 6.3 per cent of the Saints' tackles drawing a free kick. It is likely Rutten's frustration last Friday night was more than a one-week gripe.