Disgraceful: Umpire howler proves AFL desperately needs captain's challenges

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Should the AFL introduce a captain's challenge? (4:05)

The ESPN Footy Podcast team debates the merits of a 'captain's challenge' in the AFL, following a howler which cost Brisbane the win. (4:05)

WHENEVER SOMETHING remotely controversial occurs in a game of football, the reaction from the public is often the same: "Imagine if that happened in a Grand Final."

If Friday's night's clash between Geelong and Brisbane was in fact the AFL's showpiece game -- and let's face it, they are two of the sides most likely to square off in the big dance -- Chris Fagan and his troops would have every right to feel cheated.

The Lions were blatantly robbed of a free kick in the dying seconds at GMHBA Stadium, one which almost certainly would have seen the eventual result reversed in favour of the visitors. Instead, the Cats clung on to win by a solitary point, in one of the most dramatic games in recent memory.

With Geelong up 81-79, Mark Blicavs took possession of the ball, no more than 15m from Brisbane's goal. After passing up a chance to dispose of the ball, and thus forfeiting his prior opportunity, Blicavs was wrapped up by Zac Bailey and spun around a full 360 degrees before dropping the ball to the ground.

Everyone at the stadium knew it was holding-the-ball. Everyone watching the broadcast knew it, too. But, amazingly, umpire Robert O'Gorman, who enjoyed prime viewing of the entire sequence of play, refused to blow his whistle. Did he not want to cop a spray from the fiery locals or did he honestly believe it was "play on," as he declared at the time?

Isaac Smith, who earlier kicked what turned out to be the match-winning goal with three minutes left on the clock, was able to rush the ball through for a behind and kill the final seconds of the game before the full-time siren boomed, extending Brisbane's losing streak in Geelong to 12 games.

Okay, it wasn't a Grand Final. But why should that matter? The reality is the Lions were robbed of four valuable premiership points; come season's end, that could be the difference between finishing top four, and earning the coveted double chance, or missing out.

The AFL rubbed salt into Brisbane's wounds on Saturday evening when umpire's boss Dan Richardson fronted the media and admitted the non-call was an error.

"Upon review, we acknowledge that it was a missed free kick on this occasion," Richardson said. "By attempting to evade the player with the ball, that's prior opportunity, and as a result the call should've been holding the ball. In this instance, we didn't quite get this one right."

It's true we mustn't call for change every time something goes awry in sport, but this umpiring howler is proof that a captain's challenge is desperately needed in the AFL.

In this instance, Lions skipper Dayne Zorko could have signalled to O'Gorman, or any other field umpire, that he wished to challenge the ruling, or lack thereof. Whether it's then sent to The ARC or the three field umpires crowd around a monitor, VAR-style, to make a decision is up for debate. But what we witnessed on Friday evening cannot happen again.

The NRL introduced captain's challenges in 2020, moving with the times and technology. There's no reason the AFL can't do the same. There's also no reason it can't be introduced mid-season. It's not as if that would be totally foreign to the league.

In an ideal world, each captain would be offered one unsuccessful challenge. This means captains could challenge as many calls as they like until one is wrong. You wouldn't want them to hold any more than that or you risk captains challenging tactically, such as what we see in other sports. Looking at you, tennis.

Again, just as in other sports, in order to overturn an on-field call, there would have to be significant evidence to show the original call was an error; it can't be a 50-50 in which a captain hopes to get lucky.

If Zorko had already used his unsuccessful challenge when the non-call came at the death, then tough luck. The on-field decision is still incorrect, but at least it is easier to accept, as the Lions wasted their opportunity to have it reviewed. After all, the challenges should only ever be used on these types of shocking decisions and just because you have one, doesn't mean it must be used. In fact, no team in the NRL last year used a challenge in every game played.

The idea of a captain's challenge has been floated before by the AFL. The league's competition committee was seriously considering a challenge system in 2019, but one which was specifically for scoring, when goal-umpiring decisions could be challenged. Why not extend this to all facets of AFL adjudication?

Of course there will be those who argue it slows the game, but I ask this: Wouldn't you rather have the correct result at the end of the day, even if it takes an extra minute? What difference does it make if a two-hour-and-45-minute game runs 60 seconds longer?

In 2020, 42 percent of the NRL's captain's challenges were successful, and thus overturned. It means the correct decision is being reached more often, and that can only be a good thing for any sport.

The NBA allows referees to check anything in the final two minutes of a game; this feels a little extreme, but there's no reason why a captain's challenge can't be introduced.