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Sirengate

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Sirengate was the AFL siren controversy surrounding the conclusion and result of a match played on April 30, 2006 during Round 5 of the Australian Football League's 2006 season. The match was played between St Kilda and Fremantle at York Park (AKA Aurora Stadium) in Launceston. When the final siren sounded, Fremantle were leading by one point, but the umpires did not hear the siren and play continued for around twenty seconds, during which time St Kilda scored a point to tie the match. Four days after the match concluded, the AFL commission determined that the match should have been ended when the first siren sounded, stripped St Kilda of a point, and awarded the victory to Fremantle. It was the first and only case of an AFL or VFL game result being changed in 106 years.

Fixture and venue

Both teams went into the match with two wins and two losses, and many media commentators had commented on the importance of the match to both teams. The two teams had developed an intense rivalry in recent seasons, with a number of games between the two teams ending in very close margins of victory. The previous match between the clubs had been highly controversial, with Fremantle coming from behind to win by 5 points after Justin Longmuir took a mark with seconds left in the match, then kicked a goal after the siren. Numerous contentious free kicks in the match had angered Saints fans, and the anger was intensified by the subsequent "Whispers in the Sky" controversy.

York Park was not a regular venue for AFL matches, having previously hosted only 16 regular season AFL matches. Although officially a home game for St Kilda, the venue is over 400 kilometres from the club's home city of Melbourne, and St Kilda had previously played only six matches there for three wins and three losses. Fremantle had played at the venue five times and were yet to win a match there, although they had been involved in several close losses. One of these losses was in the only previous match between the two teams at the ground, which St Kilda had won by a single point after receiving a contentious free kick in the final minute of the game when scores were level [1].

In previous matches, the low sound level of York Park's siren had been the topic of some discussion in the media, with some commentators calling for it to be replaced.

The match

For the first half of the match Fremantle were clearly the better team, and they were leading by 27 points midway through the third quarter when St Kilda full forward Fraser Gehrig conceded five consecutive free kicks during a scuffle with a number of Fremantle defenders. Three of the free kicks were converted to consecutive fifty-metre penalties, with the result that the Fremantle full-back walked the length of the ground to kick a goal that gave Fremantle a 33 point lead.

St Kilda coach Grant Thomas responded by benching the angry Gehrig. Shortly afterwards he benched tall forward Nick Riewoldt, replacing the forward line with smaller targets in Stephen Milne and Brett Voss. St Kilda then kicked seven of the next nine goals to move to within one point of the Dockers with less than a minute to play in the final quarter. This momentum shift came at a point where Fremantle were "killing the clock", and with 8 minutes remaining took to chipping the ball around to prevent St Kilda scoring. They were aiming to defend rather than attack, and this let St Kilda back into the match.

Final minute controversy

With 37 seconds remaining in the game, St Kilda's Leigh Montagna scored a goal to bring the Saints within 1 point of Fremantle. Following the centre bounce, St Kilda moved the ball into their forward line, where a pack formed about 45 metres from the St Kilda goal and a ball-up was called by the umpire with 8 seconds remaining.

Nick Riewoldt knocked the ball across the field and another pack formed as the official time-keeper's clock reached 0:00 (the time-keeper's clock is displayed on the television broadcast). Umpire Matthew Nicholls signalled his intention to bounce the ball to restart play, oblivious to the barely audible siren which was sounded. A number of Fremantle players, particularly Scott Thornton, appeared to have either heard the siren or reacted to other players hearing the siren.

At this point, the Fremantle players began to celebrate what they thought was a one-point victory. Nicholls, however, did not hear the siren, and refused to listen to the claims of Fremantle players, particularly Byron Schammer, that the siren had sounded. He also did not confer with the other two umpires as to whether the siren had sounded. Nicholls bounced the ball to restart play, and the Fremantle players, who believed the game to be over, defended the stoppage poorly.

The ball was cleared to St Kilda defender Steven Baker, who kicked a behind from around 35 metres out to tie the game. Whilst this kick was in motion, the time-keeper sounded the siren again, and this time it was heard by one of the other field umpires, Hayden Kennedy. The rules of Australian football allow for kicks for goal to be counted if they are in the air when the umpire hears the siren.

Confusion reigned at this point. The three field umpires and goal umpire conferred to discuss the result. Nicholls ruled that Baker's shot had been within game time, and that Fremantle's Daniel Gilmore had illegally bumped Baker after his shot at goal. This meant that Baker would be given the option of letting the point stand or cancelling the point and shooting for goal again.

A number of Fremantle players, particularly Des Headland, overheard Nicholls stating that the point would not stand, and again began to celebrate in the belief that they had been awarded the match. At this time Fremantle coach Chris Connolly and CEO Cameron Schwab had stormed onto the ground. Saints captain Lenny Hayes yelled at Connolly to leave the ground and former teammate Heath Black stepped in to separate the two.

Baker elected to take another shot at goal, but again kicked a behind. After Baker's behind, the two goal umpires then compared their score sheets and signalled that the scores on the scoreboard were correct and that the match was a draw.

It later emerged that the time keeper had believed that the first siren had been acknowledged when he saw the Fremantle players celebrating the win and the umpire calling for the ball. He then began to do paperwork, paying no attention to the continuing match, and was not made aware that play was continuing until a spectator got his attention by striking his window with an empty bottle. He then sounded the siren a second time.

Coincidentally, later that afternoon in Melbourne, another AFL game between Essendon and Hawthorn finished in near identical circumstances, with Hawthorn winning by 1 point. The siren sounded with the umpire calling for a ball-up about 40 metres from the Essendon goal, but in this case the louder MCG siren was heard by the umpires and no further play was allowed.

Relevant rules

The relevant clauses of the official Laws of Australian football are:

"10.4.1 The timekeepers shall sound the siren to signal the end of a quarter until a field umpire acknowledges that the siren has been heard and brings play to an end."

and

"10.4.2 Play in each quarter shall come to an end when any one of the field umpires hears the signal."

Most commentators agree that the timekeepers erred with respect to Rule 10.4.1; that is, the siren did not continue to sound until it was formally acknowledged by an umpire. Acknowledgement of the siren requires any one of the three field umpires to raise both arms into the air and blow the whistle. There remains some doubt as to whether any of the three umpires did hear the siren, but in any event, none chose to bring play to an end as required by Rule 10.4.2. This rule is well known by football fans and clearly states that the umpires are the sole judge of when a quarter ends. However, generally this is in terms of a split second decision as to whether a mark or kick occurred before or after the siren sounded, rather than the 25 seconds difference in this case.

Aftermath

Initial Result

Immediately after the match, Fremantle lodged an official protest, claiming to have won the game by a point. The AFL agreed to conduct a full investigation, and did not rule out overturning the result and awarding the match to Fremantle. However, the AFL still released the official round results that listed the result of the match as a draw.

Betting

As a result of the official results being issued on Sunday afternoon, most betting agencies paid out on a draw. Some smaller agencies also annouced (before the AFL awarded the victory to Fremantle) that they would voluntarily pay out for the Fremantle win as a goodwill gesture. The largest sports bookmaker in Australia, TAB Sportsbet, however, refused to alter from the original decision, even after the AFL revised the official result, claiming that their conditions of betting clearly state that they pay based on the league's official AFL match results sheet, as recieved by fax shortly after each game.[2]

Media coverage and analysis

As the goal umpires were signalling that the scores were correct, Nine Network reporter Michael Roberts interviewed Chris Connolly on the ground. Connolly was adamant that the siren had gone and said that the emergency umpire had thought Hayden Kennedy had heard the siren, so the game had finished before the final ball-up. He said "The right thing has got to be done... I'm sure the AFL will make the right decision".

A few minutes later in the changerooms, Roberts conducted an interview with St Kilda coach Grant Thomas who acknowledged that the Saints had played poorly and were happy to escape with a tie.

In his post-match conference, Connolly stubbornly described the match as "a great win by the boys", and stated that "the Fremantle Football Club will leave no stone unturned for our 35000 supporters to get these four points".

Over the next few days, the incident received widespread coverage in the Australian sports media, with the Australian Football League website describing the match as "one of the most controversial matches of the modern era". The West Australian and Nine Network's The Footy Show dubbed the incident Sirengate, the -gate suffix being a reference to the Watergate scandal.

Media analysis of the incident hinged on the interpretation of the relevant rules. Rule 10.4.2 implies that the match does not automatically end when the siren sounds, but rather continues until the umpire hears the siren and signals the end of the game. This would lead to the conclusion that the result must stand as a draw. However, Rule 10.4.1 requires the time-keeper to sound the siren continuously until an umpire acknowledges the siren and calls an end to play. This rule was not correctly observed by the time keeper. This leads to an argument that the match was not brought to an end according to the rules of the game, and that the outcome of the game was determined not within the playing arena but rather by external governance matters that are the responsibility of the AFL: the quality of match facilities and the performance of time-keeping duties. This line of argument leads to the view that natural justice required the game to be awarded to Fremantle.

Investigation and ruling

The AFL football operations department commenced an investigation of the conclusion of this match, to be conducted by AFL Investigations Officers Allan Roberts and Bill Kneebone. After interviewing the umpires, timekeepers, AFL match manager and a spectator and reviewing the television replay they concluded that "It would appear that the timekeeper(s) have not complied with (Law 10.4.1 End of Quarter)."[3]

During a four hour hearing on Wednesday May 3, the AFL Commission heard submissions from representatives of both teams and the AFL investigating officer. The result of the hearing was that Fremantle was awarded victory and four competition points. On May 4, St Kilda ruled out a legal challenge to the outcome, ending any further uncertainty.

The commission stressed that this decision was in response to a unique set of circumstances external to the game, rather than over-ruling an on-field umpiring decision; hence a precedent has not been set for the overturning of other controversial results. The key factor was that the timekeeper had not fulfilled his duties by failing to sound the siren continuously until the umpires acknowledged the end of the game. This prevented the umpires from being able to end the game at the correct time [4].

An upgrade of the York Park siren was announced by the grounds manager, former Western Bulldogs player, Robert Groenewegen.

Consequences

The AFL's decision to overturn the result had an effect on two local games in Tasmania. The first was just two weeks later in 2006 in the Northern Tasmanian Football League game between Latrobe and Penguin. Penguin had a shot for goal almost at the same time as the siren blew with Latrobe five points in front. The shot for goal was a goal and the umpire in charge had not heard the siren and gave the all clear. However the second umpire had heard the siren and let the first umpire know that it blew before the kick was made. This resulted in the cancellation of the goal. Penguin promptly lodged a protest that the league's General Manager Ian Wotherspoon stated "would not have happened had it not been for the AFL game". The protest was dismissed due to lack of evidence, but it wasted the league's time and resources.

In the 2007 Southern Tasmanian Junior FL Under 14 Grand Final, Sorell led Lauderdale by three points when the siren sounded, but the umpires failed to hear it and the timekeepers failed to keep the siren going. In the ensuing play, while Sorell coaches and staff ran onto the ground to celebrate, a set shot from Lauderdale fell short and was marked by another Lauderdale player, who kicked a goal. Lauderdale initially won the game by three points and was presented with the premiership. Sorell protested, and the STJFL declared the match a draw and awarded the premiership jointly to both teams. They were unable to replay the game.

There have been previous instances where the timekeepers have failed to adhere to the rules and the score has stood, making the AFL decision highly controversial and arguably incorrect by precedent. Whilst the AFL itself could make such an alteration, local leagues have no such resources. For instance, in a game in Barnawartha in country Victoria in 2005 the timekeepers failed to adhere to their side of the rules at half time of a game between the home side and Tallangatta Valley. The visiting side scored a behind in the meantime. It didn't change the result of the game, but suppose it had? There was the additional issue of there being a good reason for the siren not to sound; it had no power due to a temporary power failure.

A 1982 VFA match between Frankston and Geelong West ended in similar circumstances to Sirengate. The controlling umpire failed to hear the siren, allowing Geelong West's Simon Taylor to kick the winning goal after time expired, while the non-controlling umpire heard the siren and signalled the end of play; the two umpires conferred and awarded the goal. Frankston appealed the result, but the appeal was rejected. As in the St Kilda v Fremantle match, the Association found that the timekeeper should have sounded the siren for longer but unlike the AFL refused to cancel the score.

At local level many timekeepers are volunteers brought in at the last minute and invariably do not know their side of the rules, leading to the strong possibility of repeats of this nature.

This is the core reason why this Wikia does not recognise the AFL decision and the ladder for 2006 on the appropriate page takes into account the York Park game being a draw and not a win to Fremantle.

References

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