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The AFL says it has no plans for a 'red card' rule — but Tom Stewart's hit on Dion Prestia has put the spotlight back on the debate

Richmond's Dion Prestia was ruled out with three quarters to go against the Cats. (Getty Images: Dylan Burns)

Tom Stewart's visit to the AFL tribunal has resulted in a four-week suspension, which could deliver a serious impact to Geelong's top-four chances in 2022.

However, the Cats defender's MCG moment of madness where he hit Dion Prestia high and concussed the Richmond midfielder has raised more questions than just the length of the ban he faces.

The AFL has responded to the incident, with a spokesman saying there are "no plans" for a send-off rule nor a red card system. But should the league be considering the option?

There are two elements involved — safety, including protecting the head — and fairness.

Australian rules is a contact sport and there is acceptance that accidents will happen in the heat of a game, whether it be a forward having an awkward landing going for a pack mark, two players colliding while going legally for the ball or something else.

The AFL has introduced a medical sub to allow for these kinds of injuries — and already this season we have seen multiple occasions where teams use the subs and still end up one or more down on interchange rotations because another player or players cannot continue due to concussion or other injury.

This is accepted as part of the game. The big question arises where a player is injured or incapacitated due to an error or foul by an opposition player.

The attempt to take certain actions out of the game, such as sling tackles and high bumps, has been done in an attempt to protect players from head trauma.

Suspensions, like Stewart's, are the main response to head-high contact.

Geelong's Tom Stewart's (left) bump on Dion Prestia (second from right) led to the Tigers midfielder being ruled out of the game. (Getty Images: Darrian Traynor)

Saturday's incident came on the wing at the MCG, when Prestia leapt high to tap the ball inboard towards a teammate.

Stewart was intent on stopping Prestia. He did not slow down or deviate from his line after the ball had gone, and delivered a shoulder to his opponent's head.

As play went on, Prestia appeared to be instantly affected by the hit, struggled to regain his equilibrium and took at least two minutes to even get to his feet as play went on around him. He then was assisted from the field with the help of two trainers and there was no surprise when he was ruled out of the rest of the game.

Stewart was clearly distressed and remorseful after the incident, and he reportedly spoke to Prestia the following day to apologise.

The problem is, from a game perspective, and from a human perspective, the damage had already been done.

Prestia a big loss for the Tigers

Prestia has been one of the Tigers' most influential players, when fit and healthy.

The Richmond midfielder leads his side, on average, in contested possessions, clearances and stoppage clearances, and is second in overall disposals, centre clearances and goal assists.

He was on for less than a quarter against Geelong before being injured and ruled out of the game.

Despite his absence, the Tigers made a stirring comeback, hit the front late on and only lost to a last-minute goal. It is a reasonable assumption to make that their chances of winning the game would have improved with Prestia available for all four quarters.

Following the incident, despite his emotions, Stewart went on to play a vital role in the Cats' win.

He racked up 29 disposals, 13 contested possessions, had six marks, two tackles, two clearances, 737 metres gained — more than 200m more than anyone else on the field — three inside 50s, five score involvements and an incredible 17 intercepts.

The last of these intercepts literally saved the game with less than 40 seconds left, as the Tigers kicked it to the hotspot in an attempt to get a mark to set up the winning goal, only for Stewart to deny them.

Putting aside the incident with Prestia, Stewart was close to best on ground, while the Tigers lost one of their best for the majority of the game.

In a round 15 match, this would be more than irritating for the Tigers. If the same thing happened in a qualifying final, or a prelim — or of course, a grand final — the outcome would most likely have been the same, and the reaction would be much more intense.

The match review officer (MRO) referred Stewart directly to the tribunal, where another element came into play. The incident was deemed high contact and severe impact — but the conduct was listed as careless rather than intentional.

Prior to 2018, the AFL did have three categories: careless, reckless and intentional.

Since the new system was introduced, the middle category was eliminated. Now the options for conduct are simply careless or intentional.

Both sides agreed with the grading of careless and, following the hearing, the tribunal handed down a four-week ban, one more than Stewart and Geelong were seeking. 

The key defender will now miss a sizeable part of the run-in to the finals for the Cats.

No price to pay for offending during games

Bans play a part in establishing a deterrent, but they do not affect the offending player nor his or her team in the game. Instead they have an impact on future games.

Fremantle's Andrew Brayshaw's broken jaw led to an eight-week ban for Andrew Gaff, but nothing aside from a report happened during the game. (Getty Images: AFL Media/Will Russell)

The most-extreme cases may come along once a year, or once every couple of seasons, or even less often. 

However, even for cases such as Andrew Gaff's punch to the jaw of Andrew Brayshaw in the second Western Derby of 2018, there is nothing that can be done within the game, aside from putting a player on report.

If there was a high hit in the grand final on one team's most-influential player, while the offending player stayed on and had a crucial impact in the remainder of the game, it's not beyond possibility — however unlikely — that that player could win the Norm Smith medal.

The optics of that would be horrendous on the sport's biggest stage.  

Most sports that involve some form of contact have a send-off rule, whether it is soccer, rugby union, rugby league, basketball or others.

Even in Australian rules, there are other leagues where the option exists. Indeed, the Laws of Australian Football apply to all other jurisdictions — where there are differences with the AFL's own laws, the latter league's rules take precedence.

Under rule 23, players can be "ordered off".

Umpires can give players a yellow card to send them off for a specified period of time, or a red card to send them off for the remainder of the game.

For example, the WAFL introduced a rule in 1991, allowing umpires to issue a red card to send a player off for the rest of the game — the player could be be replaced immediately — or a blue card, where a player is off for 15 minutes and can be replaced immediately. 

The AFL's review centre (ARC) could be used to determine whether incidents met the requirements for a send-off or red card. (AAP: Erik Anderson)

The rule was used in the preliminary final that year, when Swan Districts defender Steven Handley was sent off against Subiaco.

Opponents of the red card approach say it isn't necessary, given the rarity of incidents that might require it. Some say that, if there was such a rule, the decision shouldn't be made by umpires, who already have so much to watch for during a game.

However, with advances in technology there is the potential for incidents to be reviewed by the AFL's review centre (ARC).

If video evidence supported a red card, that information could be relayed to the umpires and acted upon within the game.  

Clearly there is no intent from the AFL to move on this issue at this stage.

However, if another incident such as the one involving Stewart and Prestia happens during this year's finals series, expect the calls for an in-game penalty to grow louder.