Holding the ball

Holding the ball is a rule in Australian rules football. It is necessary to prevent players from slowing down play. Instead of the umpire having to bounce the ball (which gives either team an equal opportunity to win possession), it allows the defence a way to take possession directly from the attacking team.

Main Interpretation

The most basic description of the rule is: if a player does not dispose of the ball correctly whilst being tackled by an opposition player, then the umpire will award a free kick to the tackling player. There are technical rules concerning whether or not the free kick will be paid, and these vary depending upon prior opportunity. An umpire will generally deem that a player has had a prior opportunity to dispose of the ball if they have made some unpressured football move before they are tackled, or if they unsuccessfully attempt to break the tackle, but there is no specific definition in the laws of the game.

A player being tackled who has not had a prior opportunity must not hold onto the ball. They may legally dispose of the ball by hand (handball or "handpass") or by foot. If the ball is jarred free by the force of the tackle, the player will not be penalised. Furthermore, if the ball is held to the player by the tackler such that he cannot dispose of it, a ball-up will result. When there is no prior opportunity, the player will be penalised only if the umpire deems that he is making no effort to dispose of the ball, including when his non-carrying hand is pinned by the tackler (making a handball impossible).

If there is prior opportunity, the player with the ball is given no leniency. He must legally dispose of the ball immediately (within perhaps ½ second) when he is tackled to avoid giving away a free kick. If the ball is held to him, jarred free by the tackle, or he is tackled while he is taking a running bounce, holding the ball will be immediately paid.

Added Interpretations

If the player deliberately puts his body over the ball, pulls the ball underneath himself to prevent opposition players from getting to the ball, or dives on top of the ball, then he is required to clear the ball from the pack he is in. If he cannot knock the ball out of the pack within about three seconds, holding the ball is generally called. However, if opposition players are fighting for the ball, rather than tackling the opponent, a ball-up will more usually result.

A ruckman who takes the ball out of a ruck contest assumes the same responsibilities as a player who has had a prior opportunity. He must legally dispose of the ball as soon as he is tackled, otherwise he will be penalised.

If a team-mate prevents a player from disposing of the ball, by falling on top of him, for example, and an opposition player enters and tackles the pack which forms, the umpire will almost always penalise the team with the ball, regardless of whether or not there was a prior opportunity. This prevents teams from forcing ball-ups.

In situations where there is doubt, umpires are generally lenient. This most commonly arises when a player takes a mark which was touched off the boot or travelled less than 15m, resulting in the umpire calling play-on. If the player is then tackled, but makes no effort to dispose of the ball, a ball-up will usually result.

Umpires are directed to pay holding the ball only if a legal tackle is laid. If a tackler makes light contact with a player who has had prior opportunity, causing the ball to jolt free, but fails to complete a tackle, then holding the ball should not be paid.

Although the drop kick is still a legal form of disposal, it is no longer common. As such, umpires will penalise a tackled player who disposes of the ball by an accidental drop kick.

"Dropping the Ball"

Although fans often call for it, no specific free kick exists for dropping the ball; "i.e." releasing the ball without kicking or handpassing it, but also without throwing it. Dropping the ball when prior opportunity exists is covered under the holding the ball rules, and is always penalised. However, dropping the ball when no prior opportunity exists is generally allowed, provided it is done immediately; if a player holds onto the ball, looking for a disposal option, but drops the ball upon finding none, he may be penalised under holding the ball rules, with the umpire deeming that his hesitation constitutes prior opportunity.

The call "how'd he get rid of it?" is often heard from the crowd when the ball is jolted free of a player in a tackle — this often occurs when the motion of a tackle causes a ball-carrier to drop the ball during an attempted kick or handpass. Under these circumstances, players are only penalised when prior opportunity exists; when there is no prior opportunity, the player is allowed to be dispossessed in this manner.

Crowd interaction

The rule generally results in the most vocal crowd interaction. The cry of "Ball!", pleading the umpire to reward the tackler with a free kick is a famous phenomenon in the spectator sport of Australian rules football. The rule is very technical, so many cries for "ball" are not rewarded, but the interpretations are nonetheless fairly consistent.

ignal

To signal a holding the ball decision, the umpire first blows his whistle. Then, he crosses both arms in front of this stomach with his hands open. He leans forward, and in a smooth motion, simultaneously swings both arms around in front of himself until they are outstretched to his sides.

The action is slow, takes a second or two to signal, and has a certain dramatic aura about it. In many ways, it attracts such attention that the umpires seem to be showing off. It makes the gesture appear almost insulting to the tackled player, and this excites the crowds even more - cries of "Ball! Yeah!" are amongst the most intense in a game, and fans will cheer the holding the ball free kick more boisterously than anything except for a goal, win, or specky.


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