If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?
Or rather, if the final siren goes and the umpires don’t hear it, is the game over?
It was the question at the heart of the AFL’s investigation following the aftermath of Fremantle’s clash with St Kilda on 30 April 2006 at York Park.
The game remains one of the most memorable in Fremantle history.
Both Fremantle and St Kilda had a 2-2 record for a clash hyped as their first meeting since Justin Longmuir’s famous goal after the siren in 2005.
Few people will remember that Matthew Pavlich kicked six goals that day. After he opened the scoring in the third minute, Freo held their lead right through to the final siren, which sounded with Freo up by a point.
But play continued as the Fremantle players protested to the umpires, and 25 seconds after the final siren sounded, Steven Baker levelled the scores.
And yet the game still wasn’t over. Baker had been bumped after the play. Under the rules, Baker had the option to take the kick again, and he missed again.
Did both scores count, or only one? Weren’t Fremantle ahead when the clock struck zero? According to the commentators, all three possible results were in play - a Fremantle win, a draw and a St Kilda win.
A draw was only confirmed after the goal umpires met in the middle of the ground and signalled that the scoreboard at the ground was correct. A draw.
Confusion still reins around what happened in those moments, but in this feature, we see how it all unfolded from the eyes of Fremantle’s then senior coach Chris Connolly, CEO Cameron Schwab and captain Peter Bell.
The clash featured some of the greats of the AFL, pitting the likes of Pavlich, Bell, Jeff Farmer, Des Headland, Michael Johnson, Aaron Sandilands, David Mundy, Luke McPharlin and Shaun McManus against St Kilda’s Nick Riewoldt, Robert Harvey, Fraser Gehrig, Brendon Goddard, Leigh Montagna and Nick Dal Santo.
In the final minute, Schwab had moved from the stands to a TV inside the corporate area so he could see how long was left.
With 42 seconds to play, he watched on as Montagna put the surging Saints within a point.
“From memory we were well up and St Kilda made quite a run at us in the final quarter,” Schwab said.
“We were in control of the game and then all of a sudden we were on the brink of losing.”
To Connolly, a win against a team like St Kilda would help Freo gain what they craved most in the competition at that time – respect.
It turned out this wasn’t the only time Connolly had taken issue with not hearing something through the speakers at York Park.
“This was our second trip to Tasmania in a month. In our earlier game we’d run out and they wouldn’t play our song, I used to chase up people on things like that!” Connolly said.
“It was a big game and St Kilda were a good team. Tasmania was not an easy road trip for the club.”
Peter Bell was on the last line of defence in the final seconds on the field.
“I was around the goal square, to the end St Kilda were kicking and I remember hearing the siren and every subsequent siren as clear as day,” Bell said.
“I couldn’t comprehend how anyone didn’t hear it but I realised pretty quickly that the umpires hadn’t heard it.”
Feeling Fremantle had secured the win, Schwab made his way down from the corporate area to the ground.
“I don’t think I heard the siren, as soon as the time clock hit zero on the TV, I just walked out the back and I went down to the ground,” Schwab said.
“You had to go through the changerooms to get onto the ground. By the time I got there a minute later I was shocked to see the game still being played.”
Initially, Connolly was in the coaches’ box but it wouldn’t be long before his famous march onto the field.
“The siren had gone, I’ve got a countdown clock in the coaches box, I turn to the coaches and say well done, good job,” Connolly said.
“I turn back around and the game’s still going!”
In a post-game interview on Channel 9, St Kilda senior coach Grant Thomas took a veiled swipe at Connolly for what would come next.
“Well I haven’t seen opposition coaches out (on the field) in the past, directing players where to go when the game (was still going),” Thomas said.
“It was quite laughable, it was very funny.”
Nothing was funny to Connolly, whose on-field appearance had little to do with game play.
“I thought the only way this was going to get the attention of the AFL was to cause a bit of a ruckus,” Connolly said.
“So I stormed out on the ground and had it out with the umpires. It was a bit messy but it was the only way it was going to get to the forefront.
“We’re in Tasmania, it’s Fremantle, there’s not much interest there from the Victorian side of things.”
Bell remembers being surprised to see the senior coach.
“It was pandemonium,” Bell said.
“The umpires were trying to throw the ball up with players waving their arms around.
“Byron Schammer was particularly vociferous in his gesticulations. Then I remember there being confusion because there was a free kick to Baker and then a further free kick after that.
“I remember glancing up and seeing Chris walking out onto the ground in between and there was some sort of verbal altercation between him and Lenny Hayes.”
When Schwab made it to the sidelines and saw Baker with the ball taking a free kick, his mind went to one possible scenario.
“Because Barker was playing on Jeff Farmer, and my first thought was Jeff had done something. The Wiz was capable of doing something like that,” Schwab said.
“I was thinking ‘can you get a free kick paid after the game?’ – there was all this crazy stuff going through my head until it became apparent that the umpires hadn’t heard the siren and the game kept being played.
“I never got to see what happened with my own eyes but I probably watched it a thousand times later that week.”
A native Victorian, it didn’t take long for Connolly to adopt a WA attitude as his anger built around the result.
“I was a Victorian coming over to Perth, and felt that we were not respected in many ways,” Connolly said.
“I think the greater Fremantle supporter group thought ‘here we go again we’re going to get the rough end of the draw.”
Schwab said he felt the same, admitting he hadn’t initially considered the club’s options in the situation.
“It was just massive confusion and there was a sense that we’d been dudded. It just felt unfair,” Schwab said.
“The players were in a pretty disconsolate mood, including Belly. He was a feisty little bugger, as you can imagine.”
The players could not afford to dwell on the result. They were in Tasmania. A five-hour flight awaited, as did a clash with West Coast in six days time.
The guidance came from an unexpected place – strength and conditioning coach, Ben Tarbox.
“I remember Ben yelling out at the top of his voice,” Schwab said.
“He said ‘ok boys, we can’t control what happened! All we can do is get ourselves right, we’re playing the Eagles in six days time. It’s up to the blokes in the suits to get this sorted.”
In a football changeroom, Schwab clearly stood out in his club suit.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m the bloke in the suit!’ and that it was actually my responsibility now,” Schwab said.
“This was not just about feeling dudded, we needed to do something about this and get this changed.
“There was this underlying thought that we know the game isn’t over until the umpire hears the siren and blows the whistle.
“I thought, that shouldn’t be right! That was the feeling, that it wasn’t right.
“It was a wonderful piece of leadership from Ben, who really straightened us up at that time.”
Schwab gets on the phone to the AFL’s head of football operations, Adrian Anderson.
He tells Schwab Freo were ‘unlucky’.
“I remember thinking, hang on, that’s not the response we’re looking for here. This isn’t unlucky, this is a total breakdown of the fundamentals of the game,” Schwab said.
“We’re the team that was in front when the siren went, and we know there’s a margin of error in that, but not a 25 second margin of error.
“I remember saying that we were going to take this on and we were going to challenge it.
“We didn’t know how we were going to challenge it but we were going to try.”
Fremantle’s track record in Tasmania speaks for itself, there’s nothing worse for a football team than to make the trek from WA to the Apple Aisle and back again.
But to Schwab, it was an ideal scenario to begin his investigation and planning.
“The benefit was that we were getting on a plane and getting back to Perth, so we had five hours to really formulate what we were going to do next,” Schwab said.
“We had all of the people who were involved in it, in a confined space and available to discuss everything.
“I was able to interview the players, people who were sitting on the bench who heard it or didn’t.
“What became apparent was hardly anyone could say definitively that they heard the siren.
“The only player who could definitely tell me he heard the siren was Scotty Thornton.
“When you watch the replay, all the other players are jumping up, it’s mainly because Scottie had gone up to the umpire saying the siren had gone.”
Schwab began to piece together exactly what went wrong.
“It was a windy day, the sound was getting carried,” Schwab said.
“The umpire blew his whistle for a ball up at the same time the siren went.
“The time keepers thought that this whistle was the umpire acknowledging the siren, as he’d blown the whistle.
“It turned out the timekeepers were basically packing up, until someone tapped their window from the Crown Lagar box next door to tell them the game was still being played.
“That’s why there was such a delay between them blowing the siren again.”
It was on the plane that Schwab felt they made their most important tactical decision on how to challenge.
“By the time we’d got back to Perth, we had formulated an idea of how we’d challenge,” Schwab said.
“We said we weren’t going to be angry with anyone. We weren’t going to play the blame game and point the finger at anyone in particular.
“That’s one thing about the AFL, they’re very good at defending their people if they are put in that position.
“We basically formed a position where no-one was going to have to defend themselves.”
Rule 10.4 states: “The Timekeepers shall sound the siren to signal the end of a quarter until a field Umpire or the emergency Umpire acknowledges the siren and brings play to an end, by blowing a whistle and holding both arms above their head.”
The above rule is still in place in the current AFL rule book.
An additional rule, 10.4.2, was in place in 2006 but is not currently.
“10.4.2. Siren Heard by Field Umpire: Play in each quarter shall come to an end when any one of the field umpires hears the siren.”
For Fremantle to be successful, they would need to rely on another rule, 1.4, which gave the Commission the ability to overturn a rule at their discretion.
Fremantle turned to someone across town, David Grace QC, who frequently handles West Coast’s tribunal hearings.
“David’s an Eagles guy, he’s based here (in Victoria) and he was recommended to us. He’s very clever and understands the sport and he loved the challenge of it,” Schwab said.
“We interpreted the rules. We thought the rule about the umpire hearing the siren was just an indicator of the end of the game.
“I think we had enough technically in the rules that would support our argument.
“To the credit of the AFL, they set up a commission meeting and (Fremantle president) Rick Hart, myself and David represented the club.”
Schwab said Fremantle were aided by having the support of both the media and people high up in the AFL.
“Ron Evans was chairman of the AFL commission at that stage,” Schwab said.
“He felt we couldn’t have this situation in a modern competition, where the team which is in front at the end of the game loses it 25 seconds later.
“It’s a game of moments really and 25 seconds gives you plenty of them.
“I think the rule was worded for situations such as when the ball was in the air. There’s an intended vagueness around it, but not for 25 seconds of vagueness.”
The commission were wary of overruling the result, concerned it might open the door to further challenges relating to umpire decisions that affect the result of a game.
Instead, it was the Commission’s view that this was a unique circumstance and it would not set a precedent.
The deciding factor surrounded the timekeeper not continually sounding the siren after time had expired, as required by the rules.
After a four hour hearing, Fremantle were awarded the four points.
The AFL Commission’s decision had a significant impact on the final standings, which in turn, had a significant impact on the AFL landscape in 2006 and beyond.
And it could be argued that it didn’t exactly turn out in Fremantle’s favour.
Here’s how the top six finished in 2006.
West Coast 17-5, 68 points, 120.4%
Adelaide 16-6, 64 points, 142.1%
Fremantle 15-7, 60 points, 109.8%
Sydney 14-8, 56 points, 128.7%
Collingwood 14-8, 56 points, 119.3%
St Kilda, 14-8, 56 points, 118.4%
Here’s the top six, if it was a draw.
West Coast 17-5, 68 points, 120.4%
Adelaide 16-6, 64 points, 142.1%
St Kilda, 14-8, 58 points, 118.4%
Fremantle 15-7, 58 points, 109.8%
Sydney 14-8, 56 points, 128.7%
Collingwood 14-8, 56 points, 119.3%
A draw would have given St Kilda a top four place in lieu of Sydney.
No-one understands how much four points can mean to a single individual more than a senior coach in the AFL.
“There’s a lot riding on these things, you go back through history, the four points was the difference between St Kilda getting a double chance or not,” Connolly said.
“History shows Melbourne beat St Kilda in the first final and Grant Thomas was sacked after the season.”
The Thomas sacking set off the dominos that would lead to the start of Ross Lyon’s coaching career. Lyon would take over from Thomas in 2007 and eventually head to Fremantle in 2012.
Connolly gave an interesting answer when asked about how one single game can impact the entire future of the league.
“Now listen, I’m a big fan of Star Trek. If you want to go down that track, making it one of those sliding doors stories, by all means go ahead!” Connolly joked.
"Fraser Gehrig gave away three 50s in a row, something like that, which led to Scott Thornton kicking a goal. In the end we only won by a point. When you look at moments in the game that are going to have a big impact in retrospect, that’s one of them."
For Fremantle, if they had taken the loss against St Kilda they would arguably have had an easier finals draw - avoiding interstate travel in the first week by facing West Coast for a qualifying final instead of Adelaide at Football Park.
While Schwab was proud of Fremantle’s work on the appeal, he admitted the quirk of the finals draw meant they may have been better off without it.
That year, Fremantle had beaten West Coast twice, including a 61-point thumping of the Eagles in round 21.
Instead they travelled to South Australia, where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
“The sliding doors scenario is interesting to think about, because this was the first time a result had been changed in 100 years,” Schwab said.
“Going into the finals, we hadn’t lost in nine weeks.
“We would have faced the Eagles in week one of the finals instead of having to go a windy Football Park to play the Crows, who were known as the ‘Crowbots' at that time.”
Connolly said Fremantle were undone by the wind that day.
“We had a lot of momentum going into the finals,” Connolly said.
“In finals, you always hit a critical mass of what you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are.
“We weren’t a great kicking team, we didn’t have a lot of great kicks outside of Matthew Pavlich, Peter Bell and a few others.
“In the wind at Football Park, our ball use just got exposed and that put us on the back foot.”
The wind wasn’t the only thing working against Fremantle that day.
“Paul Hasleby broke down before the game, he tore his groin in the rooms, and he ended up coming out of the game and missing the rest of the finals,” Schwab said.
“He played but he came off early, he had five disposals, so we were one short, and that didn’t help us as Chris was one of the first coaches in the AFL to heavily rotate the players on and off the bench.
“A few things went wrong for us on the day which might have played out differently if we were staying in Perth. But it’s hard to say how we would have gone.”
Schwab said he had forgotten about the quality of Fremantle’s 2006 team.
“We were only a good side, it was our top end that was very good,” Schwab said initially.
“Bell, Pavlich, Hasleby, David Mundy was coming through, obviously Sandilands had really emerged in that year, Luke McPharlin and Farmer were stars.
“Heath Black was in good form, Josh Carr…it’s not a bad side actually. Cookie (Troy Cook) was a good one, Roger Hayden was emerging, Des Headland was in good form.
“Michael Johnson was in really good form. Against Adelaide he had 17 kicks and 10 marks - 26 disposals at centre half back. That shows how much pressure we were under back there.”
To Schwab, the biggest sliding door moment for Fremantle at the time had nothing to do with the extra two points, but the right knee of one of the club’s most talented players.
“Justin Longmuir, late in 2006, his body was going to pieces, he was just hanging in there,” Schwab said.
“He was a serious talent, Justin. He was the perfect combination with Sandilands.
“We had the forward who rucked and the ruckman who didn’t go forward much. We thought we had it nailed for the next five years and then his knee kept getting worse and worse.”
While it can be a fun thought experiment, it’s pointless to rearrange the final standings of an AFL season based on the outcome of an appeal held in May. The ‘butterfly effect’ of a lost appeal could have significantly altered the rest of Fremantle’s season in infinite ways, for better or worse.
To Schwab, it just was important that the club stood up for themselves.
“We got the result changed and it was one of the best things I’ve been involved with,” Schwab said.
“I remember getting back on the plane after the hearing, knowing that we’d made a little bit of history. It was a very important thing for Freo, as we just weren’t a club that was taken seriously.
“For us to go about it with a bit of maturity and manage our own emotions, that was a big part of it.
“It would have been easy for us to get angry and point fingers, but we didn’t do that. I’m really proud of the way the club handled it.”
While it was actually no laughing matter, Connolly found one way to make light of the situation.
Sirengate wasn’t even close to the biggest story happening in Tasmania at the time, with two coal miners trapped down a shaft in Beaconsfield.
When interviewing Schwab, he asked if Connolly had told me his joke (he had).
“Did you have a few laughs? He’s a good fella. Did he tell you the one about blokes trapped in the mine?” Schwab said.
“His comeback to the AFL was saying that even the blokes down in the mine heard the siren. That’s a beauty, that was a good line.”