Jack out of the box

Tuesday August 14, 2012

Jack Ziebell returns this weekend from one of the most controversial suspensions in recent years. Should he change the way he plays? Nick Mockford looks into it further.

It’s been a crazy weekend of football. Again.

The Selwood antics, which most certainly were deliberate, and a pesky football that continued to cross the boundary line, perhaps not quite as deliberately. There were a couple of phenomenal performances from young Brownlow Medallists-in-waiting, several outstanding games borne out of high finals stakes, and another controversial press conference from a Scott twin.

All in all, more ammunition for the view that Monday and Tuesday are perhaps the most exciting days of the footballing week now.

Monday is of course the day we sit and wait for the Match Review Panel to deliver its latest lottery results, and Tuesday the day of any riposte. This week, Luke McPharlin is likely shaking his head in disbelief that Steve Johnson can play against St Kilda on Friday, while the Selwood household probably hasn’t stopped laughing as the MRP sent Joel to bed without dinner.

Saturday night at Etihad Stadium also marks the return of another perceived victim of the system in Jack Ziebell, who prior to this week was probably the stand-out case in a season of controversial findings.

Ziebell, as most will recall, was suspended three weeks for high contact on Carlton’s Aaron Joseph, delivered as he jumped for an errant Marc Murphy handball, bracing himself for contact at the last moment. North Melbourne challenged unsuccessfully, and the penalty increased to four.

While many felt his sole intent was the ball, including the tribunal, he was deemed to have had an alternate option in contesting the ball, and was thus held responsible for damage caused to Joseph. This alternative was never disclosed, although most felt it was to stay on the ground and tackle, a course of action which goes against everything that embodies the sport and enthrals the punters.

Ziebell was interviewed on Monday about his return, and stated he would not change the way he plays the sport, pledging to deal with any future repercussions if and when they should arise. To summarise: if the ball is there, I will continue to attack it, as I have been brought up to do. Exactly what every North Melbourne supporter, and indeed any football purist would want to hear.

Every football purist it seems except Patrick Smith, a long time journalist at The Australian newspaper.

I have to concede, I almost choked up my lunch reading Patrick’s analysis of Ziebell’s comments, such were the insinuations being thrown about.

Firstly, the assertion was made that, should Ziebell be cited for a similar incident, it should be graded as reckless or intentional, as it would be hard to believe it was only negligent a second time around.

Secondly, Patrick openly queried whether North Melbourne coach Brad Scott would support Ziebell’s “plan to openly trash the rules of the game”, a question Brad Scott’s media performances in the immediate aftermath of the collision would have answered fairly bluntly.

Of course, it is often the role of a journalist to purposely take an opposing stance, to play devil’s advocate, in order to create a stir and encourage readership. Perhaps this is the case here; else Patrick’s article borders somewhere between slightly farcical and downright insulting towards a player whose fearless and unconditional attack on the football should be celebrated, not dissected.

To suggest the next time a similar collision involving Ziebell should be automatically graded at a higher severity suggests that there is further intent, and not just instinct. To imply he is knowingly looking to rebel against the rules of the game – rules that seem to be adjudicated differently week to week – is bordering on character assassination.

Ziebell is a ball player. A tough, physical player in the Michael Voss or Glenn Archer mould; one who attacks the ball as a first, second and third option, and considers possible alternatives later. The sort of player his own supporters love, and opposition fans respect, be it openly or grudgingly.

He is a young man brought up playing country football at the age of fifteen, some initiation for even the toughest, and a young man whose leadership and approach to the game are lauded amongst his team mates, coaches and supporters.

On Saturday night, if Ziebell is put in a similar situation, and attacks the ball in similar fashion for a similar result, it will provide an interesting acid test. Will the MRP adjudicate in the same way? Will they take a harsher stance? Or will they apply a touch more common sense? Several cases since suggest the latter, but Monday evenings with Mark Fraser remain anyone’s guess.

We can only hope Jack has worn one for the good of the game. To criticise a player for vowing to continue a “ferocious” attack on the ball is anything but that.