The match was played between St Kilda and Fremantle at Aurora Stadium in Launceston, Tasmania. 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 controversial games between the two teams ending in very close margins. The previous match between the clubs, at Subiaco Oval, had been highly controversial with Fremantle coming from behind to win by five points after Justin Longmuir took a mark with seconds left in the match and 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. The match before that, held at Aurora Stadium, was won by St Kilda by one behind, scored by Aaron Hamill in the final minute following a contentious holding the ball decision.
Aurora Stadium was not a regular venue for AFL matches; it had been used as an alternative home ground by St Kilda and Hawthorn since 2001, and had previously hosted only 16 regular season AFL matches. The crowd numbered 15,282 (the maximum capacity and record attendance for the venue being around 20,000).
Brownlow Medal votes:
3. Matthew Pavlich
2. Josh Carr
1. Brett Voss
Fremantle 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 50 metre penalties, with the result that Fremantle fullback Michael Johnson 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 eight 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.
Four reports were made during the clash all during a spiteful first quarter. Three Saints and one Docker were cited:Max Hudghton (St Kilda) for spitting at Luke McPharlin (Fremantle) in the first quarter.
Fraser Gehrig (St Kilda) for striking Josh Carr (Fremantle) in the first quarter.
Jeff Farmer (Fremantle) for striking Robert Harvey (St Kilda) in the first quarter.
Lenny Hayes (St Kilda) for attempting to strike Steven Dodd (Fremantle) in the first quarter.
With 37 seconds remaining in the game, St Kilda's Leigh Montagna scored a goal to bring the Saints within one point of Fremantle. Following the centre bounce St Kilda moved the ball into their forward line where a pack formed about 45 metres from goal and a ball-up was called by the umpire with eight seconds remaining.
Nick Riewoldt (St Kilda) 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). The umpire, Matthew Nicholls, signalled another ball-up to restart play, oblivious to the siren which was barely audible over the vocal crowd. 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 before restarting play.
The Fremantle players, who had converged around the ball-up celebrating and remonstrating with Nicholls, were unprepared when the ball spilled out of the contest and was cleared to St Kilda's Steven Baker. Baker, in the clear, kicked from about 35 metres out to win the game, just before being bumped by a desperate Daniel Gilmore (Fremantle). While 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.
Baker's shot for goal missed and scored a behind, worth one point, thus tying the scores at 94 apiece. At this point, confusion reigned. The three field umpires and goal umpire conferred to discuss the result. Unaware that the siren had sounded previously, Nicholls ruled that Baker's shot had been within game time, and also that Gilmore's late bump was illegal. If no score had been registered this would usually result in a downfield free kick, but under the circumstances it meant that Baker was given the option of letting the point that he'd scored stand (ensuring a draw would result) or cancelling the point and having a set shot for goal from the same place. The latter option would be a kick after the siren to win the game.
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, not realising that Baker had received a free kick. At this time Fremantle coach Chris Connolly and CEO Cameron Schwab had stormed onto the ground. St Kilda captain Lenny Hayes yelled at Connolly to leave the ground and former teammate Heath Black, now playing for Fremantle, stepped in to separate the two.
Baker elected to take another shot at goal but again kicked a behind. At this point the two goal umpires from either end met at the centre of the ground to compare their score sheets, as is standard practice after the conclusion of AFL matches. After a minute they 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 beer can. He then sounded the siren a second time, just after Baker's first kick for goal.
The relevant clauses of the official AFL rules 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."
"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 not 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.
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.
As a result of the official results being issued on Sunday afternoon, most betting agencies paid out on a draw. Some smaller agencies also announced (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, did not alter from the original decision, even after the AFL revised the official result, because their conditions of betting clearly state that they pay based on the league's official AFL match results sheet as received by fax shortly after each game.
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 the St Kilda coach, Grant Thomas, who acknowledged that the Saints had played poorly and were happy to escape with a draw.
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 35,000 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.
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)."
During a four-hour hearing on Wednesday, 3 May, 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, with the official final score reading St Kilda - 13. 15. 93, Fremantle - 14. 10. 94. On 4 May, 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 overruling an onfield umpiring decision; hence no precedent was set for the overturning of results decided by controversial umpiring decisions, errors by goal umpires, etc.. 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.
An upgrade of the York Park siren was implemented by grounds manager, former Western Bulldogs player, Robert Groenewegen, in May 2006, in anticipation of the Round 12 game at the venue.
A secondary point for discussion was Chris Connolly's angry march onto the ground. According to the rules of the game, the coach is not allowed onto the playing arena during the game. Because Connolly had walked onto the ground before the umpires had officially ended the game (after Steven Baker's secondary kick), he had contravened the rule, which would usually result in a fine and a "please explain" from the AFL, but no other penalty. Commentators had pointed out that a fine was not mandatory but applied to a case on its merits and that, in the prevailing confusion of the game, it would be reasonable for the AFL to waive the fine in favour of a simple "please explain".
Ultimately, because the commission changed the result of the game, it meant that the game was retrospectively declared over when Connolly entered the arena. As such, Connolly was no longer guilty of any infraction and the AFL had no grounds to issue any fine.
The result proved important when determining the ladder placings at the conclusion of the home-and-away season. Fremantle finished with a record of 15-7 in third place, and St Kilda finished with a record of 14-8 in sixth place, with Sydney and Collingwood finishing fourth and fifth with 14-8 records. If the draw had stood and all other results throughout the season were unaffected, Fremantle and St Kilda would have been level on 14-7-1; St Kilda's superior percentage would have seen them finish third, with Fremantle fourth, Sydney fifth and Collingwood sixth. This would have affected all four games in the first week of the finals, notably giving St Kilda a double chance at the expense of Sydney (who would go on to make the Grand Final).First Qualifying Final: West Coast vs Sydney (would have become West Coast vs Fremantle)
Second Qualifying Final: Adelaide vs Fremantle (would have become Adelaide vs St Kilda)
First Elimination Final: Collingwood vs Western Bulldogs (would have become Sydney vs Western Bulldogs)
Second Elimination Final: St Kilda vs Melbourne (would have become Collingwood vs Melbourne)
During the season there was ongoing speculation that if the talented Fremantle lineup failed to reach the finals, it might cost Fremantle coach Chris Connolly his job at the club, and that the two points potentially lost by the siren mistake could be the difference between making or missing the finals. Ironically, however, it was St Kilda coach Grant Thomas who was dismissed at the end of the season after (though not necessarily because) the club was defeated by Melbourne and eliminated in the first week of the finals, which would certainly not have happened if St Kilda had finished third and claimed a double-chance.
There have been several occasions of winning scores being kicked after the final siren or bell had sounded, but failed to be heard – with a variety of outcomes to protests.Round 1 of the 1900 VFL season, Melbourne 9.14 (68) drew with St Kilda 10.8 (68). St Kilda successfully protested that Melbourne had scored a behind after the three-quarter time bell, and the score was amended to a St Kilda victory by one point. It is the only precedent of a VFL/AFL match result being overturned on such an appeal; and it was St Kilda's first ever VFL win, after 48 losses in three winless seasons from 1897–1899.
In the 1950 VFA season, Brunswick defeated Camberwell by five points, after the umpire failed to hear the final bell and the winning goal was kicked by Ivor McIvor after an additional fifteen seconds of play. On protest, the match was declared no result; the match was late in the season and did not affect the final four, so it was not replayed.
In Round 10 of the 1962 VFL season, Carlton defeated Fitzroy by one point at the Brunswick Street Oval, after the umpire failed to hear the final siren and the winning behind was rushed by Carlton's Martin Cross from a ball-up. Fitzroy did not protest the result; it did request that the Fitzroy Cricket Club install new sirens the ground to avoid a repeat, but the request was rejected.
The 1980 Night Grand Final between North Melbourne and Collingwood at VFL Park ended in similar circumstances: the siren sounded, but the umpires were unable to hear it. In the ensuing play, North Melbourne's Kerry Good marked and goaled after the siren to win the game for North Melbourne by three points. Collingwood did not appeal, and the result stands as official.
A 1982 VFA match between Frankston and Geelong West ended in similar circumstances. 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 vs Fremantle match, the Association found that the timekeeper should have sounded the siren for longer.
In the 2006 NTFL season, only two weeks after Sirengate, a match between Latrobe and Penguin ended in a similar protest. A Penguin player kicking a goal directly on the final siren; after conferring, the umpires decided it was after the siren and rejected the goal, with Latrobe winning by five points. Penguin protested but it was dismissed due to lack of evidence.