The AFL has offered further explanation as to why GWS Giants midfielder Stephen Coniglio was penalised for umpire dissent at a crucial moment in their loss to Carlton last weekend, but stopped short of explicitly backing the call made by umpire Craig Fleer. Coniglio had been penalised in the fourth quarter of the Giants' loss to Carlton, with the free kick resulting in a crucial goal for the Blues.
The timing of the free kick has prompted a major AFL controversy, resulting in AFL umpires boss Dan Richardson releasing a lengthy statement on the issue earlier in the week. While he didn't specifically endorse the decision made against Coniglio, he implored all involved - between players, coaches and media commentators - to respect that Aussie rules is an 'emotional' sport.
Coniglio had thrown his arms in the air, reportedly to question why a free kick for holding the ball had not been paid moments before the Blues kicked a behind. The former Giants skipper was pinged as they team was preparing to bring the ball back into play, resulting in a goal for Jesse Motlop and a seven-point swing in favour of Carlton.
Was that worth a goal?
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The likes of former AFL player Jason Dunstall has implored the AFL and umpires to find the right line between an emotional response from players in the moment, as opposed to what was genuinely disrespectful of the on-field officials. The crackdown on umpire dissent in 2022 proved to be controversial, with players routinely penalised for raising their arms in response to a free kick being paid against them.
The Herald Sun's Jon Ralph reported that Coniglio had been 'consistently badgering or complaining' as the game went on, with the final complaint evidently the last straw and leading to the free kick.
“Umpires boss Dan Richardson said Fleer had made a ‘call’ – didn’t say it was right, didn’t say it was wrong – and admitted players and umpires have differing levels of temperament and that you can’t coach human response," Ralph said. "As GWS privately told me, the AFL is just twisting itself in knots here just to come out and not say what they should be saying: ‘It’s a great rule, we love it, but in this case it was an overreach.'
“My understanding is the AFL believes Stephen Coniglio was consistently badgering or complaining to the umpiring department throughout the game for free kicks – and this was the last straw, this is why the umpire made this decision. Richardson speaks in that statement about there being an ‘accumulation’ of events at times.
"I spoke to GWS, for their part, ‘he just doesn’t do that and contests these decisions and doesn’t say boo to umpires’. It’s just a really complicated way of the AFL probably trying to have a bob each way to support the umpire when I think it probably confuses us even more.”
Umpires boss responds after AFL backlash over dissent free kick
In his statement earlier in the week, Richardson said umpires were not immune from emotions running high, much like players could not be expected to be unemotional. He said that had Coniglio not reacted to what he believed to be a missed free kick, then there would be no controversy regardless of what the line was for each individual umpire.
"If there was no challenge to the decision, regardless of personal opinion on the threshold, then no free kick could or would have been paid," he said. "Just like we have some players or coaches who occasionally get emotional, or become overly expressive when under pressure, we also have umpires with differing levels of temperament.
"We have a set of guidelines for the umpires to work between, and we coach them, but we also can't coach human response."
He said umpires would continue to pay dissent free kicks moving forward particularly when there's been an accumulation of incidents within a specific game. It's somewhat of a backflip, the AFL having told umpires last year to soften their hardline stance after a series of harsh calls were made against players showing a small level of emotion.
"Footy is not black and white, it is one of the hardest games to umpire, there is a level of 'grey' and within this area is where the debate always sits," Richardson said. "The umpires understand in the heat of battle there are going to be times regarding this rule, whether it has been an accumulation across the match or a single response, a time comes where they need to make a call."
Earlier, Carlton defender Sam Docherty, whose team benefited directly from the Coniglio decision, stressed it was important to protect the umpires.
"An overarching principle of why they brought in the dissent rule was to protect the umpires and I think that itself is what it should be," he said. "The hard part with it, it's open to interpretation between umpires and some things will get paid, some won't.
"There's grey all over it ... you've just got to accept that's part of AFL footy and it's an incredibly hard game to umpire and our umpires do a great job."
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