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Round 5 was a violent round with a mix of big fights and unexpected goal scorers.

Twice on Anzac weekend, the vigil the AFL claims to keep over violence in the game slipped.

The first was at the end of the Port Adelaide-Geelong game, when Cats captain Joel Selwood was announced as the winner of the Peter Badcoe Medal. “The Anzac spirit was really on the line,” said Selwood, “and I thought we saw that at the end of the first quarter.”

No problem there: Jack Viney was not charged over this incident with Alex Rance.

No problem there: Jack Viney was not charged over this incident with Alex Rance. Photo: Getty Images

Selwood had played another brave, masterful and telling game, and doubtlessly was exhausted, and footballers tend to speaking well-drilled blandishments anyway. But what he said was a malaproprism. What we saw at the end of the first quarter was not a manifestation of the so-called Anzac spirit as it is ordinarily understood. It was a ridiculous melee, mostly faux in its hostility, but real enough for watching juniors to conclude that this was a reasonable way to go about playing football, and now franked with the force of the “Anzac spirit”.

The second instance was the immediate aftermath of Alex Rance’s now-infamous blow to the back of Jack Watts’ head at the MCG on Sunday night. Jack Viney’s split-second reflex was to go at Rance, knocking him to the ground. The match review panel concluded that it was with an open hand to the chest, and not forceful enough to constitute a strike. But the footage suggests that Viney’s lunge landed much nearer to Rance’s jaw than his chest. This is the era, remember, in which the head supposedly is sacrosanct.

Viney had played another inspiring, match-winning, Selwood-like game, but that is no alibi. This outcome leaves an impression that the panel thought as the hoi polloi did, that Rance had it coming. Football must be bigger than that.

At heart, the game is still threaded with mixed messages. Anzac weekend throws this into sharp relief. The rite before each game is fair enough, important even as a pause for reflection. But every year, though everyone involved slaps themselves on the thigh and cautions against overblown analogies between football and war, they arise anyway.

Nowhere does the game tie itself more in absurd rhetoric than in the citations that accompany the medals awarded at some – but not all – Anzac weekend games. Supposedly, each is to reward the player who best exemplifies the Anzac spirit: “skill, courage in adversity, self-sacrifice, teamwork and fair play”. These are, of course, laudable qualities, but at dog-whistle level you can hear the distant guns. The very idea of a medal this day prompts an immediate and fatuous conflation of medal winners in two incomparably different spheres.

In any case, noble criteria notwithstanding, the medal inevitably goes to the best player, however much or little the Anzac spirit courses through him. Steele Sidebottom played a wonderful game for Collingwood on Monday, but there was nothing detectably Anzac about it. One year, I voted for Jake Carlise, who wasn’t the best player on the ground, but had played injured on Travis Cloke and beat him. I was laughed out of court. The citation might as well read: “Got a lot of touches, won.”

The time has come to tone down the Anzac Day elaboration. The AFL should dispense with the medals for players, and the cup, too. The preceding ceremonies have their rightful place, as recognition that this is not just another day, but they should be kept separate and distinct from the game. It is enough that it is played.

It took the league’s newest and youngest coach to maintain perspective. Brendon Bolton’s father is a Vietnam vet, and both his grandfathers fought. He might be forgiven some passing sentimentalism. But when asked if he had tapped into the Anzac spirit in driving his team to its breakthrough win against Fremantle, he said: “It’s very difficult to compare football to the Anzacs. You do always draw inspiration, and we understand the significance of it.” And left it at that.

By Tuesday, a new spirit was abroad in the AFL. First, Rance publicly apologised for his moment of madness, heartfelt contrition that was predictable of him, but no less easy for that. Then, surprisingly, Melbourne’s Tomas Bugg went public with a mea culpa for various acts of provocation in the game against Richmond.

Initially, it prompted nervous tittering: footballers saying sorry? But, surely, here was a distillation of the Anzac spirit upon which all could agree: character, humility and recognition of a brotherhood in the game.