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Is Joel Wilson In Charge Of The AFL Umpiring This Year?

When England’s Ben Stokes was hit plum on the pads off a ball from Nathan Lyon in the dying moments of the third Ashes test at Headingly, Australia held its breath.

For a split second we assumed the prestigious urn was ours (again).

But when umpire Joel Wilson failed to lift his finger, the nation’s heart collectively shattered into 359 tiny pieces. The Ashes were still alive and England had just pulled off the most successful run chase ever. The only thing was, they technically hadn’t.

Wilson’s call, or lack thereof, was wrong. Technology later demonstrated that Stokes was out. Indisputably. The ball would have sailed through middle stump.

The call alone (not denying that the Australian squad had its chances: the failed run out, dropped catches and a wasted review) changed the entire course of the series. And if England go on to win the Ashes, it will go down in history as one of the most controversial umpiring decisions the game has ever seen.

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It's lucky Wilson won't officiate the rest of the Ashes-- a personnel decision made well before the series began -- fans would have driven him off the pitch, demanding he be stood down. And rightly so.

Sporting code aside, this is a prime example of how adjudicators can win or lose you matches -- of that scale and stature -- even when technology is involved.

The AFL's umpiring shambles this season shows the League has no idea what it’s doing either. In fact, it completely re-wrote the rule book in the 2018 offseason and kept it all pretty hush-hush. No wonder no one’s on the same page.

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And on the eve of the 2019 AFL Finals series this should concern fans, because players no longer exclusively win games, umpires do too.

This exposes the AFL to a potentially series-changing Joel Wilson-esque gaffe. You know, the type which is talked about decades later, prompts season-long meltdowns, dominates chat with panel experts and shatters family ties.

Given we’ve just witnessed the most poorly adjudicated season of AFL ever, you could almost count on it. The umpiring this year has been a downright foundation of frustration and I can’t see that changing come the Finals. Yet, rather than being furious, fans are simply left bewildered.

Should the ump have gone to Specsavers? (Image: Getty)

We’ve seen it happen in the home and away season. With a little over a minute to go and scores level at the 'Gabba, North Melbourne veteran Scott Thompson was penalised 20-metres out from goal for a push in the back on Brisbane’s Oscar McInerney, when the now-retired defender actually made contact with the side of his body and the Lion beanpole made it look a little worse than it was. McInerney slotted the goal and Brissy went on to win the game.

Then, a week later, when Essendon was in the midst of a third-quarter comeback against the Gold Coast Suns, Bomber David Zaharakis had a set-shot for goal when the ball was knocked back into play despite having already crossed the line.

David Zaharakis. Image: Getty.

And these are just two of the countless costly errors that have plagued the 2019 AFL season.

I confess, footy fans love having a moan, but we take every questionable decision with a grain of salt. Yet this year is different, fans have had a gutful.

The inconsistency has prompted a barrage of questions about whether we no longer understand the rules, or whether the sport has evolved so rapidly that the officials can’t keep up.

I’m not saying umpiring an Aussie Rules match is easy. I play, and I know how hard it can be to see everything and make the right call. I know what it’s like to swallow your tongue when you’ve just been tackled off the ball only for the whistle to remain silent.

Umpiring a reserves game in rural Victoria is hard but on the biggest stage of them all – where the League’s interpretation of the rules seems to change from contest to contest – it’s all the more difficult.

How do you please coaches, player, fans, broadcasters and the League when they’re all asking for a different thing from the game? You can’t.

But to an outsider it might seem that the AFL is enjoying complicating things, tinkering and testing, all at the consequence of creating a very confused umpiring community. Which, at this rate, will surely shrink each year if the League can’t get its act together.

Ultimately, the AFL has lost its ability to govern itself, there’s no hiding behind it. It’s lost its integrity and, rather than talking about its efforts to grow the game or look after its grassroots, we’re stuck discussing its mishandling of rules and regulations.

I love this sport but as the 2019 Finals series plays out, we should expect more than the usual cries and moans. The AFL cannot pretend things are fine. Not this September anyway.

Right now, I’m thankful I’m a Carlton supporter. When the result of a game is partially in the hands of the Russian Roulette-style umpiring, it’s less painful to be neutral.