The Ziebell conundrum – how to keep the AFL physical but safe

Jack Ziebell
Jack Ziebell – Credit: Realfooty

The AFL has a love/hate relationship with Jack Ziebell.

Please keep reading! This isn’t a whinge about Ziebell’s suspension last week. The case has been tried and he’s already served one week. He’s in Utah now preparing for his return. That matter is done and dusted.

There’s a wider issue at play here though. The AFL obviously have a problem with Ziebell’s uncompromising attack on the footy. He’s been suspended for seven matches now in a “calendar season”, both times for incidents where he has dished out a bump or made contact with a player in a contest.

So the powers that be are clearly sending a message to Jack: you’re playing our game the wrong way.

Except, er, those self same powers that be featured Ziebell’s hit on Nick Riewoldt last year on its keystone television ads for “Australia’s Game!” this year.

And herein lies the circle that the AFL is struggling to square.

It knows that people love the physical aspect of our game. It is what makes it many ways unique. Yes, there’s other contact sports but the 360 degree nature of Australian Football leads to contests and clashes found nowhere else.

Every team has its “hard man” – West Coast fans adore Beau Waters in the same way North people love Jack – and the reality is that player who has an almost suicidal attack on the contest is a staple of our game, like the high-flying forward and the crafty goal sneak that dribbles through the impossible goal from the boundary.

The physical aspect of the game is one we adore. Nobody wants to see people cleaned up brutally where’s there’s no intent get the ball, only harm the man, but the very core of the game is the physical clash for possession of the footy.

The AFL knows this instinctively. That’s why it used Jack’s hit on Riewoldt in the ad. But the AFL’s problem is magnified now by its need to appeal to the rugby-centric markets in western Sydney and the Gold Coast.

Its market research will have shown what anyone who has ever visited LeagueUnlimited knows anecdotally: a key claim against Australian Football in the rugby lands is that it is “soft” compared to League.

Yet the AFL does have a legitimate cause for worry. Even if (and obviously in my view he was) Ziebell only had eyes for the ball in his collision with Aaron Joseph, the pace of the game and the increasing size of the players means that collisions are growing ever more dramatic.

And as we see the career of a potential champion in Kurt Tippett hanging in the balance due to repeated concussions, the bind the AFL finds itself in is clear.

There’s no easy answer to this, otherwise you can be guaranteed that Adrian Anderson would already have wheeled it out. The level of public and media outrage at the Ziebell verdict shows us how close we are to a tipping point.

What if a player like Dayne Beams was suspended in a preliminary final and would thus miss a Grand Final because of a contest where no free was paid against him and the Match Review Panel agreed he had eyes only for the ball?

The streets of Melbourne would not be for safe for rampaging hordes of Collingwood fans, led by a Eddie McGuire frothing at the mouth, looking for the heads of tribunal members to put on spikes.

And yet, what if Beams is ruled out of a Grand Final by that exact kind of hit? No doubt those same Collingwood supporters would be outraged.

I’m not sure how the AFL untangles this knot, or even if it can. But it certainly needs to start thinking hard if only because Jack Ziebell will be back for Round 21 and won’t be changing the way he plays.

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