Holding the ball, the most contentious issue in AFL laws of the game since the 1880s, is classified under four scenarios by the AFL umpiring department: prior opportunity, diving on the ball, reasonable attempt and illegal disposal.
Contrary to popular belief, it's not all as easy as it sounds. Umpires need to make split-second decisions in the heat of the game about whether a player has had prior opportunity, whether they've made a reasonable attempt, whether they've made a legal disposal and whether they've had sufficient time to dispose of the ball, all while keeping an eye on the other players around and ensuring that no infringments are made.
The first and most important consideration in a holding-the-ball decision is whether or not a player has been tackled legally. If a legal tackle has not been laid at the time the infringement is deemed to have occurred, then there is no holding-the-ball decision to consider. This means, specifically that:
- If a player is tackled immediately after gaining possession (no prior opportunity) and the umpire allows "reasonable time", but the tackler slips and loses grip before this "reasonable time" has expired, allowing the player to break free, this is not considered holding-the-ball.
- If a player dives on the ball (i.e. they have had prior opportunity) and another player jumps on top of them and into their back when tackling to claim holding-the-ball, then the player has infringed by diving into the back of the other player, and this is considered a free kick for push in the back.
Umpires, players and coaches should always remember that the umpire's first priority is to protect the ballplayer, and as such a legal tackle is paramount to any decision around holding-the-ball to be considered.
The first consideration an umpire needs to make is whether or not the player has had prior opportunity to dispose of the ball.
This is typically considered as for the player to have had sufficient time (depending on the skill level of the level of football; junior footballers often receive more leniency in this area) to make an assessment of their surroundings and been presented with at least one opportunity to legally dispose of the ball, regardless of what that opportunity is. For example, if a player can take two or three steps with the ball, then it could be considered that they have had prior opportunity because in that time they could most likely have handballed the ball away. They might not necessarily have been able to hit a teammate, and this might not be a preferred option, but this does not matter, The simple fact that they could have disposed of the ball is considered prior opportunity.
According to recent AFL rule interpretations, if a player dives on the ball or takes the ball out of the ruck then they are also deemed to have had prior opportunity.
There is no hard and fast rule around when a player is deemed to have had prior opportunity. It is not a matter of "the player had X seconds" or "the player took X steps". The decision is ultimately the umpire's.
If a player has been deemed to have had prior opportunity and they are tackled, they must immediately dispose of the ball in a legal manner (i.e. either via kick or handpass). Once a player has had prior opportunity it is not sufficient to simply attempt to dispose of the ball - the disposal must be legal.
If a player swings and misses a kick in this situation, then the decision is holding the ball.
A player will be adjudged holding-the-ball in this situation if:
- after being legally tackled, they do not immediately dispose of the ball (whether an opportunity exists is irrelevant; they must dispose of the ball immediately, and if they cannot do so then this is just too bad)
- after being legally tackled, they do not correctly (legally) dispose of the ball (i.e. they attempt to kick or handpass and miss or otherwise drop the ball)
For the avoidance of doubt, a drop kick is not considered to be a legal form of disposal in this scenario.
However, if a player does successfully dispose of the ball in a legal manner immediately after being tackled, then the decision is play on.
Dislodged in the tackle
When a player is tackled, consideration must be made by the umpire as to whether the ball was physically and directly dislodged from the player's grasp by the tackler, thereby causing them to lose control of it. If this occurs, the player should not be penalised for holding-the-ball or dropping-the-ball, since they have been unable to dispose of the ball legally anyway.
Reasonable Time To Dispose / Realistic Attempt
If a player has not had prior opportunity (i.e. they are tackled immediately after receiving possession of the ball), then the umpire must then allocate them a reasonable amount of time to dispose of the ball, provided they are able to realistically do so. During this time, the player must take the first realistic opportunity to dispose of the ball, and must also make a realistic attempt to dispose of the ball even if they cannot do so.
Typically if a player has their "arms pinned" in this situation, then they are granted the benefit of the doubt. However, if the player did have a realistic ability to kick the ball despite their arms being pinned, then this may (depending on the circumstances) be considered an opportunity to dispose of the ball and therefore must be taken.
If the player is at the bottom of the pack, they must still make a realistic attempt to dispose of the ball regardless of the fact that they are at the bottom of the pack. Note that if they dived on the ball before the pack formed, or "dragged it back in", then this is considered holding the ball as they do not reach this point in the decision-making process.
In this situation, it is always sufficient for a player to simply attempt a disposal, so if a player swings a kick and misses in this situation, this is considered acceptable (since they have attempted a kick) and the correct decision is play on.
A player can still be adjudged holding-the-ball in this situation if:
- given a reasonable amount of time and a realistic opportunity to dispose of the ball, they elect not to do so; or,
- given a reasonable amount of time to dispose of the ball, they do not at any stage make a realistic attempt to dispose of the ball
- they drop the ball while in the process of being tackled, without attempting to dispose of the ball legally (i.e. put the ball on the ground or hand the ball to somebody else)
Again, there is no set rule about what is considered a "reasonable amount of time" and this is at the discretion of the umpire. Whether or not a player has been presented a realistic opportunity to dispose of the ball is also up to the umpire on the day, as is what is considered a "realistic attempt" to dispose of the ball.
At the end of this decision-making process, and umpire will call for a ball up if:
- the player could not realistically dispose of the ball ("arms pinned");
- the player was given sufficient time to dispose of the ball, made an attempt to do so, but was unable to do so or the ball remained within a pack of players and did not come free
It is important to note that unless a player has not had prior opportunity, then none of this is relevant.
Reversed or "Touched" Marks
In the event an umpire blows a mark incorrectly (i.e. they call the mark too early and realise, after the whistle has gone, that the mark was dropped), the umpire may reverse the decision by immediately calling play on. In this situation, the umpire should take care not to penalise the player for the incorrect call and, unless the player has had clear prior opportunity to dispose of the ball, the umpire should call for a ball up if that player is tackled.
Further, if the umpire calls "touched, play on" because a kick is touched and there is any doubt at all as to whether or not the marking player heard the call (i.e. if they "claim" the mark), then the umpire should generally give that player the benefit of the doubt and call for a ball up.
These are at the discretion of the umpire on the day, and the umpire may still call holding-the-ball provided all other holding-the-ball conditions are met and the umpire feels that the marking player had sufficient time to realistically dispose of the ball (i.e. if the umpire feels the player heard the call and there was plenty of time to decide to do otherwise).
Remember, if you are wrapped up after taking a mark and you hear the umpire calling "play on", then you should attempt to dispose of it. Most likely you have not had prior opportunity, so as long as you make a realistic attempt to dispose of the ball, you should be fine.
A player should not be penalised directly because an umpire made an incorrecAn umpire will also often call for a ball up
Dropping the Ball
It is important to note that dropping the ball is not the same thing as holding-the-ball, but (unfortunately) the signal is the same. This means that there can sometimes be confusion as to the exact meaning of a decision, and an umpire should take care to explain his or her decision in these circumstances.1
Dropping the ball can be paid at any time when the player in possession does not legally dispose of the ball and when they are being tackled. Umpires often exercise discretion in this area and will not generally pay this for fumbles or where the ball is knocked from a player's hand, provided one of the aforementioned holding-the-ball scenarios does not also apply.
However, if a player is tackled on their knees and they place the ball on the ground, then this will generally always be considered dropping the ball regardless of the length of prior opportunity or time the player has had.
Got all that?
So, you can see that an umpire's job is not as clear cut as it might seem. On top of this, an umpire must also deal with positioning, and the fact that a football field has over 40 moving pieces, many of which will conspire to block the umpire's view at the critical time!
Umpires can prepare for these situations by remembering that:
- getting yourself in the best position will help you to be able to see to make the best decision you can;
- the player with the ball should always be protected;
- community footballers (and particularly junior players) are not the same as AFL footballers and discretion should be used by umpires at all times
Remember that an Under 14's player doesn't have the same skills as a Hawthorn premiership player, so just because it's holding the ball in an AFL game doesn't mean the same thing applies at our level!
Coaches, players and spectators should be mindful that umpires are only human and need to process a complex set of rules, often with a constantly changing view of the situation and under the pressures of the match in general, including fatigue and stress. Mistakes can be made, but they are never made deliberately.