AFL announces stunning mid-season rule change amid scathing criticism from Nick Riewoldt

The AFL has made a change to the contentious holding the ball rule.

The AFL has announced a sudden mid-season change to the highly contentious holding-the-ball rule after mass outrage by players, coaches and fans in recent weeks. The AFL hierarchy has directed umpires to shorten the 'reasonable time' component of the rule amid recent criticism about how few players were being pinged for the common offence in 2024.

"It has become clearer throughout the season that in discharging their duty of care whilst executing a tackle, tacklers are positively electing not to take tackled players to ground in the tackle or are generally doing so in a reasonable way including by not using excessive force," the AFL said in a statement on Wednesday.c"As a consequence, we are seeing players hold onto the ball slightly longer and challenging the definition of 'reasonable time'.

Pictured left Nick Riewoldt
The AFL has made a change to the contentious holding the ball rule as Nick Riewoldt takes aim at the time wasting rule. Image: Getty

"Our umpires are clear on the interpretation of holding the ball and it continues to be a focus of umpire coaching each week. We want to ensure our clubs, coaches and players understand the rules and how they are being officiated."

Carlton's Michael Voss, Gold Coast's Damien Hardwick and Geelong's Chris Scott are among coaches in the past week who had voiced their displeasure at the lack of players being called for the offence. Following the Suns' loss to Carlton, Hardwick said the length of time taken being allowed was creating a "very, very dangerous situation".

The triple-premiership coach said umpires needed to "pay a free kick or blow the whistle". "What I will say is 131 effective tackles today and there were four holding the balls for both sides," he said post-game.

"We've just got to get on top of this because the players certainly owe each other a duty of care, but as umpires we've got to blow the whistle earlier. Because the reality is they're putting players in a really compromising position that they could get hurt, and we don't want that.

"So we've got to look at it. We've got to coach it. I know it's incredibly hard, but from a player's health and wellbeing point of view, we've just got to make sure for the benefit of the game that we look after the players."

The rule change comes as AFL great Nick Riewoldt slammed another rule that has also been heavily criticised in recent weeks. The St Kilda legend said the time-wasting rule has been made a mockery of following a contentious Fremantle free kick that helped spark a game-tying surge on Friday night. The Magpies played out their second draw of the season and the third in the AFL in 2024 after Fremantle stormed home to snatch a share of the points in a 10.15 (75) to 11.9 (75) stalemate at Optus Stadium.

A massive turning point was when Sean Darcy was gifted a goal in front after Collingwood's Lachlan Sullivan was pinged for time-wasting in front of goal. Umpire Mathew Nichols penalised Sullivan for handing teammate Nick Daicos the ball instead of returning it to him after a ball-up was called near the goal square. "You gave the ball to him, you have to give it to me," Nichols told Sullivan, before addressing other confused Collingwood players. "He handed the ball to a teammate, you're not allowed to do that."

Fremantle slotted the resulting set shot from 15m out in what proved to be a huge turning point, as the Dockers surged home and almost snatched victory. The AFL world was up in arms as a result and despite technically being the correct decision under the AFL's time-wasting rules, many fans and commentators called for common sense to prevail in those situations.

In the aftermath, AFL’s umpire boss Steve McBurney discussed the decision on the AFL website and was quizzed on whether Sullivan's intention was considered when he gave the ball to Nick Daicos instead of the umpire. And the answer McBurney gave enraged Riewoldt.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 28: Nick Riewoldt speaks during the 2019 All Australian Awards at Palais Theatre on August 28, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
Nick Riewoldt has urged umpires to use common sense when judging if a player is time wasting.

"In the actual question (reporter Sarah Ollie) has used the word ‘intent’. So, (Sarah asked) ‘Was time-wasting the player’s intent?’,” Riewoldt explained the Footy Talk podcast. "The answer from the person running the umpiring department (Steve McBurney), (he’s) said, ‘Well, we’re not mind readers. So, we can’t judge intent, all we can do is judge the action’.

"So even when they’re trying to explain inconsistencies within decision-making, they’re being inconsistent,” Riewoldt fumed. (Because) we have a rule which is called ‘insufficient intent’ in our game where we are asking the umpires to judge intent. So, they can’t judge intent when it comes to time-wasting like in that situation (with Sullivan). But guess what, they can judge intent when they are officiating ‘insufficient intent’ which happens all the time within the game."

The AFL rules state that a free kick is awarded to a player during a game if the umpire believes an opposition player has not done enough to keep the ball in play or has deliberately tried to get the ball across the boundary line and out of play. This is seen most commonly when a defender clears a ball out of the danger area and it bounces across the boundary line.


In that instance, the umpire makes a call on whether they believe the player has deliberately intended to kick the ball out of play. If they deem it is likely they have, they award a free kick to the other team. It can become a particularly contentious call if the player is being tackled or is under serious pressure at the time as the boot does often not make clean contact with the ball. Regardless, the umpire makes the call on the person's ‘intention’ to keep or not keep the ball in play.

But Riewoldt's main gripe is with the clear inconsistencies in the current game and believes if intent is taken into consideration with one rule it must be with all rules. "So even when they’re trying to explain inconsistencies, they’re being inconsistent and they’re contradicting themselves and the very rules which they are employed to govern," Riewoldt said.

"No wonder the game is stuffed, Joey (podcast offsider Leigh Montagna), when you’ve got the people officiating it contradicting themselves and the rules that they are meant to govern. So, we can’t judge intent on some rules, but we can when it comes to insufficient intent. When I heard that I just thought no wonder we sit here and scratch our heads."

with AAP