The AFL must save Joel Selwood and his kin from themselves

Call it ducking. Call it a lowering of the centre of gravity. Call it evading a tackle. Call it a shoulder shrug. Call it whatever you will. But please, do not correct those who call it ducking.

You know it when you see it. You know exactly what this is.

That’s Joel Selwood executing a duck to win a high contact free kick on Easter Monday.

James Sicily knows exactly what it is, too. The Hawthorn hot head took one for the team – the team being the anti-duck team – in letting Geelong captain Joel Selwood know exactly what he thinks about his exploits. Sicily initially gave Selwood a bit of a shove after he milked the free kick above, an act the anti-duck team loudly applauds. Later, he took it too far by dropping his knees – a symbolic gesture as much as a means to cause physical harm (”you think you can drop at the knees, Selwood?”) – but still, his commitment to the cause cannot be doubted.

…moving along.

It is one of the few pimples on the face of modern football. Every edge – within and without of the rules – is exploited. The duck is an edge that many players exploit, the action designed to turn a correct tackle into an incorrect tackle. It takes many forms: the shrug of the shoulder, the lifting of the arm, the collapse of the knees, or in the rare moment of ducking perfection all of the above.

After cracking down on the action last year, the first two rounds of the 2018 AFL season have seen the return of the duck.

Geelong’s Joel Selwood is the avatar for the duck, but many players deserve a mention alongside him.

Toby McLean is a ducker.

Rhys Mathieson is a ducker.

Allen Christensen is a ducker.

Lindsay Thomas is a ducker.

Scott Selwood is a ducker.

Luke Shuey is a ducker.

Anthony Miles is a ducker.

Paul Puopolo is a ducker.

Michael Walters is a ducker.

Adelaide’s Tom Lynch used to be a ducker, until he almost died.

Even, *gulp*, Scott Pendlebury is a ducker.

To now we know Selwood’s ducking ways through anecdote. But can we see it in the data? Onballers secured access to head high free kick statistics from a league source, with total high contact free kicks paid plus the top five players per game over the past four seasons and two games.

From Round 1, 2014 through Round 2, 2018, 7,498 high contact free kicks were paid across the league – around 24 per cent of total free kicks paid. Joel Selwood was given a free kick for high contact 145 times over the same period, accounting for 52 per cent of his total free kick tally.

That’s interesting, but only tells part of the story. After all, Selwood spends a lot of his time around the ball, and within that time he spends the lion’s share putting his head over it. To give more context, let’s compare high contact free kicks to adjusted contested possessions (contested possessions less contested marks and free kicks for – a proxy for winning the ball on the deck when it is in dispute).

At a league-wide level, there was a high contact free kick paid for every 25 adjusted contested possession won. Selwood was paid one high contact free kick for every 6.2 adjusted contested possessions won. Crudely, Joel Selwood was four times as likely as the average AFL player to win a high contact free kick when hunting the ball. Coincidence? Perhaps, but married with the eye test almost certainly not.

Selwood is the posterchild, but he isn’t the league’s king of the duck. The numbers, which Onballers has secured from a league source, show Rhys Mathieson of Brisbane has taken that title. Over the past four seasons plus two rounds of 2018, Mathieson has been granted 2.5 free kicks for head high contact per game. In second place is Toby McLean of the Western Bulldogs (2.14), and close behind him is Allen Christensen (2.09). Selwood comes in fourth on 1.59 per game, while Anthony Miles of Richmond rounds out the top five on 1.5 per game.

It’s an epidemic the AFL has long-promised to stamp out. Ahead of last year’s season, the league issued an edict that read as follows:

What we’re trying to do there is if the players’ legitimate attempt to tackle appears to be correct and that the high contact is caused by the player ducking into the tackle, dropping his knees or trying to shrug it off, then it will be a play-on call

But a quick trip down the Google News memory lane reveals similar words were spoken in 2011 and 2015, in addition to last year’s musing. From the first two rounds of 2018, it appears that edict has once again gone missing.

The players will continue to do it. It affords an opportunity to win clear possession of the ball, from a position of relative weakness. And all things considered it is a fairly simple manoeuvre: brace for contact, cock the free arm close to the body, once contact is made go weak at the knees and raise the free arm.

As Selwood himself said in 2012: there is a little bit of an art to it.

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Selwood defenders – and boy there are plenty of them, although they rarely defend the other duckers – will say he’s simply evading a tackle, and the tackler should tackle lower. That’s fine. What’s not fine is what he and the rest of the ducking brigade are exposing themselves to.

Head injuries are no joke. While Selwood’s example from above was on the mild end of the high contact spectrum, Adelaide’s Tom Lynch got a concussion during a preseason game in 2015 after ducking into a tackle. Toby McLean always looks like he’s seeing stars after he executes one of his moves to perfection. And, well, Selwood has been hit in the head with enough force to warrant a free kick 145 times in just over four years. Think about that for a minute: hit in the head 145 times.

Back to Selwood’s 2012 remarks: I will keep doing this until they change the rules. Changing the rules hasn’t achieved anything. Instead, it is time for the AFL to use its refurbished Match Review system to ping players that make obvious ducking-type moves for staging.

It should go hand in hand with a much more sceptical eye by field umpires on match days, who should treat drawn high contact free kicks with similar contempt as most fans do. Obvious attempts to draw high contact – those I’ve highlighted above – should count as prior opportunity rather than an automatic free kick.

Umpires already have an impossible task. Asking them to judge these things in the moment is unfair, and would lead to inconsistencies. Instead, like other undesirable actions like high bumps, jumper punches and (this year) accentuating contact, it is time to get the judicial system involved. Duckers should be on the hook for staging in the same way divers are.

Because we know from their repeat actions there is no other way to save Selwood, Mathieson, McLean, Christensen and the rest of their band of duckers from themselves.