Holding the ball
Holding the ball is a law in Australian Rules Football. It is necessary to prevent players from slowing down play. Instead of the umpire calling for a ball-up (which gives either team an opportunity to win possession), it allows the defence a way to take possession directly from the attacking team.
The most basic description of the law is: if a player does not dispose (kick or handball) of the ball legally whilst being legally tackled (between the shoulders and knees, and not pushed in the back) by an opposition player, then the umpire will award a free kick to the tackling player.
There are technical laws concerning whether or not the free kick will be paid. The categories under these laws are prior opportunity, no prior opportunity, and diving on the ball or dragging the ball underneath oneself.
An umpire will deem that a player or players from the same team have had a prior opportunity to dispose of the ball if one of those players have had a reasonable time to dispose of the ball prior to being tackled.
Holding the ball still applies if multiple players from the same team are holding the ball without the opposing team also having joint possession of the ball.
A player being tackled must not hold onto the ball, unless it is trapped to his body by the tackler or the ground.
A player may correctly dispose of the ball by hand (handball or handpass) or by foot. Bouncing or deliberately dropping the ball is not a correct disposal. Throwing the ball is a free kick, regardless of the holding the ball law. An attempt to handball, or the ball being slung out of one hand by the force of the tackle, is not a throw if a player is being tackled, but it is an incorrect disposal if there is prior opportunity. A player is not deemed to have made a correct disposal nor an incorrect disposal while being tackled, if the player handballs the ball in the air and catches it again without the ball touching the ground or another player (the player is in possession of the ball if he has control of it, even if he is not touching the ball), but may be penalised for holding on to the ball too long, under the prior/no prior opportunity laws.
In 2009, clarification was given by the AFL regarding drop kicks (the ball touches the ground slightly before being kicked), meaning that drop kicks are not considered to be a correct disposal for the purposes of the holding the ball law. The clarification confirmed the convention that if the ball drops to the ground before being kicked, when there is prior opportunity, it is an incorrect disposal.
When there is no prior opportunity, the player will be penalised only if the umpire deems that he has made no genuine attempt to dispose of the ball correctly within a reasonable time of being tackled and the ball is not trapped to the player by the tackler or the ground, including when his non-carrying hand is pinned by the tackler with the ball not being trapped (making a handball impossible). Any genuine attempt to correctly dispose of the ball within a reasonable time will result in a "play on" decision - the disposal does not have to be "correct", i.e. the hand or foot does not need to make contact with the ball in the attempted handball or kick, and the ball can touch the ground. (See next paragraph.) A player may knock the ball clear of his possession instead of attempting to correctly dispose, without penalty, if the tackle brings him to ground causing the ball to be grounded. If the ball is jarred free immediately by the force of the tackle; including if the ball is slung out of one hand, or both arms are pinned to the side of the player causing the ball to drop; the player will not be penalised. Furthermore, if the ball is held to the player by the tackler or the ground, causing the ball to be trapped, a ball-up will result.
An umpire could technically penalise a deliberate drop kick (because it is not a genuine attempt at a correct disposal), but such an instance would be extremely unlikely because deliberate drop kicks are extremely rare and would be difficult to substantiate as not being a "genuine attempt" at kicking the ball without it touching the ground. (N.B. This is only in relation to holding the ball. Players can legally drop kick the ball if they are not being tackled.) If a player attempts to kicks or handball correctly and the foot or clenched fist makes no contact with the ball, it is a "play on" decision.
If there is prior opportunity, the player must correctly dispose of the ball immediately when he is tackled to avoid giving away a free kick. If the ball is held to him, jarred free by the tackle or the ball drops to the ground, holding the ball will be paid. An attempted kick or handball is only allowed if there is no prior opportunity.
If a player elects to drag the ball underneath himself or dive on the ball, he is then required to immediately knock the ball clear of his possession (a player is no longer in possession if he is not laying on the ball or the ball is not within his grasp) or correctly dispose of the ball. The laws in relation to prior/no prior opportunity do not apply in this instance. However, if opposition player(s) fight for possession, rather than tackling the player(s) with the ball, a ball-up will result. This law does not apply if two or more opposing players simultaneously dive for the ball and one player wins possession of the ball - prior/no prior opportunity laws apply. (In the AFL, if a player elects to drag the ball underneath an opposing player, this will also result in a free kick against the player that dragged the ball underneath, if he doesn't immediately knock the ball clear of his possession or correctly dispose of the ball. In most other leagues, there won't be a free kick, i.e. a "play on" call, or a ball-up if the ball is held to an opposing player, as per the law.)
If a player is not dispossessed on the instant of the tackle, the application of "immediately" is applied in a reasonable fashion so that the amount of time given to make a correct disposal is not impossible.
If a player is dispossessed upon being tackled, then is pushed in the back in the completion of the tackle, a free kick for a push in the back will result, even if the dispossession happened first. This also applies to an illegal disposal that is not a throw. The player must execute the tackle correctly for holding the ball to be paid.
If there is not a reasonable time to dispose of the ball prior to being tackled, then the player(s) with the ball receive a reasonable time to attempt to dispose of the ball correctly after the tackle has been laid. Either way, the player with the ball must be given a reasonable time to dispose of the ball, whether before or during the tackle. (Technically, any time the player had before the tackle is not included in the reasonable time after the tackle is laid, if there is no prior opportunity.) Only after a reasonable time has been given to the player(s) with the ball, will a free kick be paid if there is no legal disposal. A player is penalised immediately if he makes an illegal disposal while being tackled, as long as the complete tackle has been executed correctly. Umpires will usually wait a couple of seconds before deciding to pay holding the ball, to prevent premature decisions that may end up being incorrect.
A player who takes possession of the ball on the full at a bounce/ball-up or boundary throw-in (except if the bounce or throw-in is offline and the umpire calls "play on") assumes the same responsibilities as a player who has had a prior opportunity. If he is tackled, he must correctly dispose of the ball immediately, otherwise he will be penalised.
A player that is tackled while he is bouncing the ball is deemed to be in possession of the ball and will be penalised if there is no legal disposal. A bounce is not a correct disposal of the ball. If a player bounces the ball upon, or immediately prior to being tackled (in instances where the ball does not bounce back to the player - the player is still deemed to be in possession), a free kick for holding the ball will result.
Bouncing the ball is one of the guidelines for an umpire to deem prior opportuninty, but the umpire still has discretion if he believes the player has not had a reasonable time to correctly dispose of the ball prior to being tackled. On the extremely rare occasion the player is tackled after a bounce and immediately prior to the bounce coming back to the player, and the player manages to make a disposal that complies with the prior/no prior opportunity laws, then he should not be penalised. In general observation of players bouncing the ball and being tackled, it seems as though as it is an automatic free kick for holding the ball because players are rarely able to bounce the ball and make a legal disposal because of the force of the tackle, but it is possible.
If a team-mate prevents a player from disposing of the ball, by falling on top of him, for example, an opposition player enters and tackles one of the players that has possession of the ball, the umpire will penalise the team with the ball if there is no legal disposal. This prevents teams from forcing ball-ups.
In situations where there is doubt, the benefit-of-the-doubt goes to the player with the ball.
If a tackler makes an insubstantial and incomplete tackle, causing the ball to jolt free, then holding the ball should not be paid. i.e. The tackle must "stick". Also, a bump is not a tackle.
A player that receives a free kick or mark (i.e. set kick) and plays on, does not forfeit his prior opportunity. The player receives a reasonable time to dispose of the ball, from when he plays on, regardless of how much time he had to dispose of the ball prior to playing on. If a player is tackled within a reasonable time of the player playing on, then there is no prior opportunity. The player is still given a reasonable time to attempt to dispose of the ball, upon being tackled. A player who plays on, then has had a reasonable time to dispose of the ball after playing on, is then deemed to have had a prior opportunity to dispose of the ball and must make an immediate, correct disposal.
Guidelines for an umpire deciding whether there was a reasonable time or not, prior to a player being tackled are:
- How long the player has had possession of the ball.
- How long or how far a player has run with the ball.
- Deliberately taking on an opposition player.
- Whether the player was trying to make the play (even if there is a need to take on an opposition player), rather than force a ball-up by the umpire.
- Whether or not the player was attempting to avoid injury by taking evasive action. (But being injured before or during a tackle is not an exemption for requiring to comply with the holding the ball law.)
- The player bouncing the ball.
- Whether or not there was a reasonable opportunity to dispose during a previous, broken or incomplete tackle.
- Whether or not player had a reasonable time to think about what he was doing.
- Whether the player was in control of his own actions or was unbalanced. A reasonable time must be given for a player to think and make a balanced disposal, considering the momentum of play.
The umpire will consider these guidelines if they are relevant to his subjective decision. None of these guidelines automatically constitute prior opportunity or no prior opportunity. The umpire has the discretion on the weighting of each guideline, depending on the circumstances.
"Dropping the Ball"
Although fans often call for it and umpires sometimes use the term, the words "dropping the ball" have never existed in the laws of the game. i.e. The ball falls to ground without kicking or handpassing it (upon being tackled), but also without throwing it. Deliberately dropping the ball is covered under the holding the ball laws and is always penalised, regardless of whether there is prior opportunity or not. However, where no prior opportunity exists and the ball is jarred free immediately in the tackle rather than deliberate action by the player with the ball, the player with the ball will not be penalised for "dropping the ball". If a player holds onto the ball looking for a disposal option, but drops the ball upon finding none, he will be penalised under holding the ball laws, with the umpire deeming that the player has not attempted to correctly dispose of the football within a reasonable time of being tackled. This same applies if the player deliberately drops the ball upon or immediately prior to being tackled.
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. i.e. When there is no prior opportunity, the player is allowed to be dispossessed in this manner without penalty.
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.
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. 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.
- Field Umpire Accreditation Manual (Australian Football League)