Is there an administration in world sport that doesn’t understand its own game as much as the NRL?
It lurches from one crisis to the next, seemingly unable to right itself.
But while off-field issues are at least partly out of its control, the issues on the field are almost entirely of the NRL’s own making.
With rules that were either ill-conceived, misunderstood, not road tested or a combination of all three, the game is at a point where the way the game is officiated is taking centre stage every week.
This isn’t to whinge about the referees. They have honestly been wedged into a nigh on impossible position, and we’ll get to that in a moment.
This is to point out how the game’s current administration doesn’t know its own game or product.
I’ll be looking at the following rules and issues as I see them negatively impacting the game:
- Seven tackle 20 metre tap
- Coaches on the rules committee
- Widening of the six again
- The Bunker backseat refereeing
- Players on report
- An honour system
- Lack of referees
Seven tackle restart
I’m going to start with a nice easy one. The seven tackle restart following the attacking team dropping the ball over the goal line, kicking it dead, or the defending team catching a ball in the in-goal on the full.
This rule was brought in to prevent halves rifling the ball dead from 60 metres away to avoid fullbacks returning the ball.
This rule came in during the pomp of Greg Inglis, Billy Slater, Ben Barba and Jarryd Hayne carving up defensive units on kick returns.
They were too good so the likes of Cooper Cronk, Jamie Soward and Braith Anasta were simply smashing the ball over the dead ball line, allowing their side to set a defensive line with a 20 metre tap.
Adding an additional tackle to the ensuing set has curbed this from happening. It’s a net negative now for the ball to go dead.
But the issue here, and it has been all along, is that it discourages attacking play.
Halves are more hesitant to grubber into the in-goal and kick cross field bombs as they run the risk of a seven tackle set.
Why should an attacking team get punished if they fail by a fairly slim margin to score a try?
A player knocking on over the line is in no way trying to prevent a fullback returning the ball, so why are they penalised?
Why isn’t it simply the rule that if you’re kicking from within the 20 metre zone, which is now easier to see courtesy of the red line, that it’s simply a normal set of six?
The same should go for a field goal attempt. This is not why the rule came in.
Again, why are we punishing sides that attempt to score points? It makes no sense. Keep in mind the NRL has introduced a two point field goal to encourage field goal attempts.
With this rule altered, we’re likely to see more attacking kicks into the in-goal. Right now, particularly in tight games, the side with the ball sometimes won’t even attempt to score if they’re on the attack.
They’ll instead just run the ball into the corner and get tackled on the last to prevent a seven tackle set in case they err by a couple of centimetres.
I’m sorry, but when did we become the NFL? Why is it normal in the game of rugby league to have players running interference with the sole intention to interfere with an opponent?
We have an obstruction law that is constantly talked about, but when the ball is kicked it seems to disappear.
We have referees talking about lines being run, players arriving before or after each other, “taking up a position”.
It is simply and utterly ridiculous that we will run a magnifying glass over the barest of touches when it comes to lead runners and defenders, but think it’s entirely normal for a defender to purposely get in the way of an attacker competing for the ball.
In the first week of the finals, two tries were pulled back due to obstruction, because the ball runner received the ball on the inside shoulder of their block runner. To the letter of the law it was an obstruction despite, in David Fifita’s case, he had to beat four players to score.
However, as soon as the ball is booted into the sky, those rules disappear. Occasionally someone gets pulled up for an “escort”. But why is it allowed in the first place?
If a defender is simply there to prevent a contest for the ball, then they should be penalised.
Now, the other part of blockers is having players stand next to the ruck to prevent defenders pressuring the kicker.
This, for me, is the most tone deaf rule in the game.
On one hand we have tries being stopped for a player being one step too early in receiving the ball, and on the other a halfback can stand behind three teammates to pot a shot at field goal.
And you’ll have Grahame Annesley trot out some spin like “well they didn’t prevent him from taking a direct line to the kicker”.
I’m sorry, but if you plonk three blokes in front of the defenders, who not only aren’t getting the ball, but are specifically there to block defenders, then it is a penalty.
What happens if the kicker shapes for the field goal then takes off? Is it then a penalty? If so, why?
Because under the rules an obstruction involves an attacking player taking an advantage by a pass, run or kick. Kicking a field goal is taking an advantage.
It shouldn’t matter if the blockers are staggered or flat, they just shouldn’t be there, full stop.
You want blockers? Go watch the NFL.
The Rules Committee
“If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it,” Charles Kettering.
The rules committee is apparently dead because Peter V’landys now has an “innovation committee”. Which sounds like a Prime Minister re-organising Cabinet.
Anyway, this innovation committee is responsible for our current state of affairs, headed by Wayne Pearce and featuring V’landys, Graham Annesley, Craig Bellamy, Ricky Stuart, Matt Cecchin, Damien Cook and Luke Keary.
Ummm, what the hell is this?
Why are two head coaches and two players on this committee making up rules? Consult the coaches and players, sure. That seems fair. But why are they actually making up rules?
Coaches and players are naturally self-serving. Coaches perhaps even more so given the high turnover of their position.
There are eight people on that committee. Four of them are directly impacted by any rule changes made.
There are no representatives from the NRLW or the RLPA on that committee. Damien Cook is part of the player advisory group, but Clint Newton, the RLPA CEO has been removed from the committee.
For comparison, the AFL has 18 people on its competition committee, including representatives from 11 clubs, the AFLPA president and AFLW Head of Football.
Widening the Six Again
Perhaps contributing most to this year’s blowouts is the widening of the six again.
Introduced last year on a spur of the moment, most people could see it settling into the fabric of the game as it was originally implemented.
But widening it to include penalties for being inside the 10 metres and a basic refusal from referees to penalise sides deliberately abusing the rules has made it into a farce.
Teams are more than prepared to cop an extra tackle or two in a set if they can allow their defensive line to be organised.
Plenty of people pointed this out when the rule was announced in December 2020 by the innovation committee.
The current six again system mainly benefits the defending team now. And because they are very rarely awarded after the third tackle, teams are mostly only giving away an extra 2.3 tackles on average.
Coaches and players will take that every day of the week.
Probably the most infuriating part of this season which has followed the high tackle crackdown has been The Bunker constantly getting involved to go back six tackles to put a player on report.
This is sometimes being followed by a penalty and a sin bin.
At one point in the year, it seemed we were only going back for a penalty if a player was being binned, but if the first week of the finals were anything to go by, we’re now rewinding two minutes to put a bloke on report and penalise him.
It is absolute insanity.
What is essentially happening, is the referees are missing something in the middle, The Bunker spends two minutes analysing it, and we then wipe away those two minutes like they never happened for a penalty that no one noticed.
The clock isn’t going back to when the infringement occurred so we’re effectively being robbed of game time.
What happens if a team scores during that period? Are we taking off a try because The Bunker has decided to become involved?
No other sport in the world operates like this. The Bunker was never brought in to do this job.
Why does the NRL think this is a good thing? It isn’t. It shouldn’t be happening. As fans we are being robbed of game time. Sometimes checks are taking close to two full sets.
You cannot have The Bunker refereeing the game. If referees miss something like that, then so be it.
In week two of the finals we had the whole Mitchell Moses taken off the ball situation, and you had Annesley saying because it didn’t become a try scoring situation, the Bunker couldn’t get involved.
I understand what he’s saying. Because the ball didn’t end up in the in-goal in a try-scoring situation, the Bunker couldn’t intervene.
However it is a curious quirk in the rules, given if Moses isn’t taken out, perhaps it does become a try scoring situation.
But the Bunker was happy to get involved when Marata Niukore bumped James Fisher-Harris.
Players on Report
Speaking of Marata Niukore, he was placed on report for that hit on Fisher-Harris. The match review committee didn’t charge him.
Again, why does this report system exist? Annesley claims it acts as a deterrent. Where is the evidence to back that up? Where?
It wouldn’t be the first time Annesley has stated something without evidence. After all, it was his department who claimed there was no extra fatigue in the game despite V’landys stating that’s exactly why the new rules were brought in, and the players themselves saying there was more fatigue.
But the whole report system doesn’t make sense.
What purpose does it serve? The match review committee, as the name suggests, reviews every match anyway. So if they’re going to do that, why are players being out on report?
And putting players on report allows the team infringed against two free interchanges. Penrith ran out a total of 15 in their week two finals game.
They received a total of six additional interchanges due to three incidents going on report. Only one of those incidents actually saw a charge.
So four of those interchanges shouldn’t have been given.
And this season referees have seemed happy to continuously put players on report, while teams utilise the extra interchanges to their advantage.
We’ve seen three interchanges used in the space of 30 seconds as coaches exploit loopholes in the rules.
In this day and age, where the match review committee has some of the best technology to use for reviewing matches, why does the report system exist?
Why not just have the referee simply refer an incident to The Bunker, telling them it should be reviewed after the game?
If it’s not a sin bin or send off offence, then the referee shouldn’t be worried about it. Blow a penalty and move on.
As we saw in the Panthers vs Eels game, there is a form of honour system regarding trainers calling time off for an injured player.
They’re only supposed to do it if the player needs assessment by a doctor or a HIA. But as we saw in Tales from Tiger Town, coaches are clearly instructing trainers to stop play the moment a player is down because it disadvantages them if they’re defending.
This all happened because the referees in a game in 2019 ignored Nene Macdonald’s foot being at right angles while one of the trainers screamed at the touch judges to halt the match so appropriate medical treatment could be applied.
That was a breakdown in the correct process.
But the NRL, as it is wont to do, had a knee jerk reaction, practically handing control of the game to the trainers.
The administration seems to think there is an honour system at play.
That teams aren’t going to try and manipulate something to their advantage.
Well, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop;
“THERE IS NO
BATHROOM HONOUR SYSTEM!”
There must be a great level of naivety in the NRL when it comes to assessing how coaches and teams operate.
This is not Sunday league, this is not a group of mates playing touch footy. This is a professional sporting code where coaches live and die by the sword.
Careers end on results. So why would you implement a system that relies almost completely on everyone toeing the line?
And there is no real punishment for ignoring the rules in this instance.
Penrith’s second show cause notice meant one trainer got suspended for a couple of games and the club fined $25,000.
Penrith Leagues Club made $14 million in profit last financial year. If stopping the game when your side is gassed to treat a cramp, or strap an ankle is the difference between winning and losing, then every club is going to happily cop that level of fine.
Perhaps a large six figure sum and the threat of a loss of competition points is the way to go?
Conversely, a stricter procedure such as that used in the EPL is better?
Referees in the EPL will only stop play if a player is down and the official suspects a head injury, there is a clear serious injury such as a broken leg, the ball goes out of play, play is near the player or the player’s own side has the ball.
Staff don’t get to tell the referee to stop the game. It’s somewhat funny when rugby league fans point fingers at football, saying that players dive while simultaneously rugby league players are staying down for treatment on a stubbed toe, and the game is brought to a halt for them.
Loss of Referees
Now, cast your minds back to the dark days of 2020 when rugby league wasn’t being played. The Lord V’landys decreed that we were going back to a single referee and booting all part time refs from the NRL ranks.
Well hasn’t that come back to bite the game?
Not only did he do that, but he introduced a bunch of rules that put referees under more stress than ever before and removed an extra pair of eyes.
Maybe when introducing rules that would be focussed on the ruck, we shouldn’t have removed the bloke whose job it was to keep an eye on the ruck?
Not only that, but the removal of part-timers impacted the refereeing stocks to the point where full time centre referees are now running the line.
By the time 2022 comes around, because of the lack of lower grade games, we could be seeing referees with basically 10 games of centre refereeing experience in two years in the ranks.
The NRL also inexplicably froze out Gavin Badger and Matt Cecchin. Two well respected and good referees with more than 800 games of experience between them.
There appears to be no accountability for the referees bosses. All recent bosses have been freshly retired referees with relationships and familiarity with the refs they are now in control of.
Meanwhile Graham Annesley sends confusing and conflicting messages during his weekly media sessions that are so full of political speak on occasion it would make Gladys Berejiklian blush. And he does this without pushing back against any of V’landys’ whacky rule changes.
It also appears that because of a referee shortage, referees can’t be dropped. Annesley said as much last year when he said there weren’t any replacement Bunker officials as they didn’t have any trained.
Referees have been forced to do more with less on an increasing basis and the people responsible for that are not being held to account.