Umpiring divergence across the world
An issue that began to become obvious over the course of the 2008 International Cup was a growing frustration amongst some nations over the umpiring. Firstly we should note that the umpires were generally Australian umpires from Victoria who had volunteered their time for the tournament, doing their part for international footy, and it was greatly appreciated by those involved. What we're going to discuss here was a relatively minor issue and was primarily an issue of different interpretations.
To generalise, the main rules that were causing most cries of discontent from the benches were high contact and in the back when tackling, and holding the ball / incorrect disposal.
There were a number of countries, especially northern hemisphere ones, who had a height advantage over opponents such as South Africa, Japan and PNG. However when making tackles they often made incidental contact to the head or top of the shoulder. In years gone by this was play-on, and unless it is a major hit to the head or clearly around the neck, it still tends to be umpired that way in amateur football in Australia and probably internationally.
But in recent years in the AFL any such contact, however slight, is generally paid a free. This occurs even if no damage was done or intended. It actually requires a great deal of skill to ensure that no incidental high contact is made. Clearly this interpretation is not common outside of Australia. Most international players will have been exposed primarily to officiating by expat Australians who learned the game years ago, most likely in leagues other than the AFL. So if the AFL interpretation is slow to flow down in Australia (and there are certainly leagues with no intention of adopting the same strict interpretation), it is almost certain to be even slower filtering into many of the international leagues. However the officials in charge in this tournament appeared to be umpiring to the far more strict AFL code. This did therefore tend to favour the smaller players and thus teams that were generally shorter. In some cases this was very clearly appropriate, e.g. the Samoan team had many players relatively new to footy and frankly they were at times clumsy in their tackles, simply falling into the backs of players such as against Japan. But at other times it seemed to unduly penalise the harder tackling sides.
The holding the ball / incorrect disposal issue is more difficult to understand. On more than one occasion there were comments that we were seeing flashbacks to Kevin Bartlett, famous in the VFL in the 1970s for taking possession of the ball and then letting it go as the tackle came, therefore either getting a free kick or discouraging the tackler from actually bringing him down. This seemed to be back in vogue as players from several countries appeared to take possession only to be tackled and suddenly not have the ball so received frees. Again, it was the quicker, smaller players who benefitted most. The question then is why wasn't holding the ball or incorrect disposal being paid? In some cases whether the player had possession was probably difficult to tell. One theory is that some of the quickest players such as for PNG and South Africa hit the ball at such pace and often played it in front of themselves, that it truly was hard to know when they took control. Personally I think this accounted for quite a few of the controversial decisions, and I think the umpires were probably struggling to know where to draw the line, and too often erred on the side of calling play on.
A related issue is whether to use international umpires for the tournament. Aussie Rules continues to face a major restriction in its growth because of the inability to find umpires - it takes a lot of the time of administrators trying to find someone week in and week out, can also be a financial drain if too much has to be paid to convince someone reluctant to take up the whistle, and poor quality can detract from the sport and the enjoyment of players.
So international footy needs to do all it can to encourage umpires, and having them strive to referee in the International Cup is quite an incentive. In 2005 there were quite a few officials from outside Australia - but that leads us to the downside. This competition is often intense, the players as a whole have spent millions to get to Australia, and there are many different languages spoken. Is that a good environment into which to thrust a relatively inexperienced umpire who may have quite different interpretations of the rules? 2005 was marred by quite a few basic errors that in my opinion detracted from the tournament, and in that respect 2008 was much improved - the laws of the game were generally applied very consistently, if not to the interpretation expected by all countries.
This is a difficult question. Perhaps the best answer is to allow international umpires to participate, but apply fairly strict criteria to ensure they have the required accreditation and sufficient experience to handle the pressure of the Cup.
To offer a personal opinion, I thought the standard of umpiring was generally very good and generally quite consistent. Perhaps some leniancy is in order for the tackler, and a slightly tighter implementation of holding the ball / incorrect disposal, but similarly some nations probably need to dedicate a few sessions before the next Cup to making sure they clean up their tackling, as the AFL interpretation is not likely to get any more loose.
Many thanks to all the umpires and officials who gave their time to the Cup. Hopefully they'll read the above as a constructive discussion of an interesting aspect of the challenges of a tournament involving footballers from all over the globe.