The AFL’s head of football has rejected the suggestion changes to protect players from the risk of concussion will make the sport a poorer spectacle.
The league announced rule tweaks for the coming season on Tuesday, including a new interpretation of the smother rule that means players risk suspension for leaving the ground where high contact is foreseeable.
Collingwood defender Brayden Maynard avoided a sanction last season in a high-profile tribunal decision despite Melbourne’s Angus Brayshaw sustaining a concussion in a misjudged smother attempt.
Maynard’s exoneration was applauded by some sections of the football community who argued he had done nothing wrong, but the AFL flagged a review of the smother rule soon after the decision was handed down.
AFL executive general manager of football, Laura Kane, said on Tuesday that the rule change around smother attempts was made with the safety of both elite and grassroots players in mind.
“The game is as good as it ever has been, it’s a spectacle, it’s exciting, it’s fast, but at the same time we’ve made over 30 changes to the rules and the regulations to make it safer,” Kane said.
“So we can do both at once.”
A player can still avoid a sanction by bracing to absorb the force of the high contact.
“The change is a responsibility that now exists for a player who leaves the ground and elects to smother,” Kane said.
“What’s really important about that is it’s not changing an ability to smother, it’s just what happens next.”
The AFL wrote to clubs on Tuesday briefing them on several amendments to competition rules in addition to the change to attempted smothers.
Changes to run-down tackles and striking interpretations by the match review officer are also designed to make the game safer.
The substitute will continue in 2024, though clubs will now name an extended interchange bench of five players with three emergency players. The sub will be confirmed an hour prior to the match.
Whistling from benches – dubbed “distracting” by Kane – has been outlawed.
“Clubs’ coaches, high performance staff, they can still yell out, teammates can yell to their teammates, they can yell instruction, they can talk to each other, all of that is fine,” Kane said.
“But for our umpires, our broadcasters and everyone on the bench, whistling won’t feature as part of our game moving forward.”
But the AFL will not be introducing a mid-season trade period due to pushback from clubs.
“What we heard from clubs is that they need time to introduce something as significant as a mid-season trade period,” Kane said.
“It’s too soon, so we won’t be introducing it this year, but we have an appetite for it, and we want to explore the concept further.”