AFL Idiosyncrasies, Part Two: 50 Metre Penalties

Much like Greg Matthews, whose predilection for bowling flighty, flamboyant off-spinners from around the wicket with his hat on earned him unofficial ‘rare unit’ status within the Australian cricket set-up, AFL is an idiosyncratic and complex beast. As such, The Public Apology founder Dave Edwards is here to guide you through the various obscurities that make this national sport so unique. In Part Two of this probably short-lived series, Edwards discusses and dissects the sporting anomaly that is ‘The 50 Metre Rule’…

The 50 Metre rule. For those who don’t know, this phenomenon typically occurs once or twice a game. Such a penalty can be awarded for myriad reasons, but usually in response to a disciplinary breach by the defender.

That said, a 50 metre penalty may be awarded for something as violent as a coat-hanger tackle, or something as minor as failing to return the ball back to an opponent after conceding a free kick. The latter example bears some similarity to parenting, with the umpire admonishing the petulant ‘child’ for stealing his younger brother’s toy.

Whatever the reason for a 50 metre penalty, it is invariably met with the same crowd response, which I will now outline in detail.

Firstly, any AFL crowd worth its salt will bellow “50!!!!!!” in unison, having recognised that their team may – according to the rules and regulations of the AFL – be entitled to such a penalty. The “50!!!!!” cry is shorthand for “Dear Umpire, please recognise this indiscretion as deserving of a 50 metre penalty.”

Being at an AFL game is an immersive experience
Being at an AFL game is an immersive experience

If this demand is indeed upheld by the official – who has almost certainly made his decision based on their reaction – the crowd will seamlessly merge the lengthy ’50!!!!!’ plea into the word “YEAH,” denoting their satisfaction in the outcome. This will, of course, give the impression of a singular, elongated word that reads as such: “FifttyyyyyyyyyyyYYYYYEEEAAAAAAHHHH!!!!” This word will carry a particularly deep, guttural resonance around the YEA part of “YEAH.”

On the flipside, the crowd that has perhaps been paying less attention to this passage of play will wonder aloud what all the fuss is about. They may have been preoccupied by a conversation, busy ordering a mid-strength beer, or just plainly ignorant – due to their background or lack of formative AFL education – of what a 50 metre penalty is.

Dumbfounded, this portion of the crowd will consequently seek further information from those around them as to why and to whom the penalty was awarded*.

While this is happening on the field, of course, the umpire is busily pacing out what he has arbitrarily deemed to be a 50 metre distance. Meanwhile, the player who has been penalised is generally running backwards, in step with the umpire, vigorously disputing the decision.

The game must go on – unlike in rugby union, where the referee will stop for five minutes to articulately explain to the captain, in-depth, how section 18(b) of the Rugby Rule Book clearly states that one must be on their feet when pilfering the ‘live ball’ from a ruck scenario. In AFL, however, this discussion must take place quickly – and on the run.

A great read.
A great read.

This scenario – two grown men communicating with other both verbally and non-verbally while at 75% pace, one running forwards and the other backwards, is both absurd and wonderful.

Once the umpire has arrived at his designated mark, the player with the ball – who has been quietly jogging behind the umpire sizing up his next kick while taking care not to engage in the post-penalty dialogue, will likely play on quickly to an alert teammate on the lead.

That is, unless, the 50 metre penalty has brought said player to a point where he can have a shot at goal. In these situations, the penalty is more hotly disputed by the defender, who is now solely accountable should his opponent go on to kick the goal.

And just quickly for those budding young footballers out there – if you have indeed given away a 50 metre penalty, it is important that you appear completely indignant.

You should dispute the decision with the umpire, even though there is no precedent of an official reversing any on-field decision in the history of sport, ever.

Remonstrate with the official, using as many vaudevillian, Chaplin-era hand gestures and facial expressions as you can to illustrate to those watching how ludicrous the decision is. This will help deflect the fact that, in reality, your error of judgment has cost your team dearly.

Vaudevillian antics will help swing those tight decisions.
Vaudevillian antics will help swing those tight decisions.

In short, the 50 metre penalty is yet another distinctly unique aspect of the game of AFL. I guess there are some parallels with a Technical Foul in basketball, but the level of shaming is greater in AFL.

Again, comparisons could be made to both rugby union and rugby league, in which defenders are told to retreat 10 metres following a penalty, but here the entire team goes back the same distance, in unison.

Put simply, no player wants to be on the receiving end of a 50 metre penalty. It singles you out for committing a misdemeanour – otherwise known as a coach killer – and gives your opponent a considerable piggy-back up-field.

The 50 metre penalty has brought me and many other AFL fans a great deal of pleasure over my lifetime. I hope it will provide the same to you, too.

By Dave Edwards

*The sound of thousands of people simultaneously murmuring to one another is one of the greatest auditory sensations one can experience at a live sporting venue.

PREVIOUS: Part One: Scorelines

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