‘The greatest game of all’ – it’s a phrase that all those who possess any sort of relationship with rugby league would have heard time and again. But with the game suffering from the effects of entrenched and unresolved issues, does it still retain the lustre to warrant that tag?
In addition to the usual array of off-field indiscretions, 2014 has highlighted the fact that Rugby League is just as misconstrued on the field as off it. With rule changes designed to make the game more exciting, increase fanfare, prevent injury and, ideally, increase return for the game’s backers, the most prominent accomplishment is to have portrayed referees as vacillating, confused figures, leading spectators and players to question the integrity of the game.
Reflecting on the season, what is worrying for NRL fans is that the most prominent headlines are not outstanding plays or triumph stories, but rather the controversies amongst those who control the game. With blunders including a try after full-time, constant obstruction rulings which stretch credulity, and the crackdown on the brutality of tackles (framing the game as ‘soft’), the game’s administration is bordering on disarray.
Moreover, the notion of an ‘obstruction’ has come under a heavy cloud of criticism following dubious decisions not only deciding fixture outcomes, but many teams’ places on the NRL ladder. However, the main factor infuriating NRL coaches is the inconsistency of these decisions, and the struggle to comprehend how the rule is to be implemented.
One of the most controversial obstruction rulings occurred in Round Seven, during a match between Manly and North Queensland. Kieran Foran’s try through a blatant obstruction came under increasing scrutiny as it ultimately handed the Sea Eagles a 26-21 win, having an adverse effect on the Cowboys early premiership plans.
Cowboys coach Paul Green acted as the ambassador for his fellow coaches in his tirade against referees following the controversial result.
“I am absolutely bewildered how they can get it so wrong, and this is not just our game – this is happening too regularly,” Green said.
“What’s disappointing for the game is that decisions like that are deciding outcomes; that’s not good enough.”
“They owe us an explanation.”
The obstruction rule is officially described as “the illegal act of impeding an opponent who does not have the ball.” However, the ruling has been difficult to fully understand, with multiple explanations and technicalities creating complexity amongst what should be a simple decision.
A seething Green made clear his bewilderment regarding the obstruction ruling at the Manly/North Queensland post-match press conference.
“If that is not an obstruction, I will walk through Pitt Street nude,” Green said.
While the obstruction rule has always been a shady part of NRL rulings, it has not received this much attention in previous years. The introduction of two referees has been raised as a major contributor to the new wave of confusion, and the impending obscurity of decisions has led to coaches calling for the return of one referee.
Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy is the most recent figurehead to validate the ‘one referee’ policy. The veteran trainer declined to front his post-match media conference after Melbourne’s clash with Manly with reports citing frustration as the telling factor. Bellamy was tight-lipped following a ‘please explain’ meeting with NRL CEO Dave Smith, but stuck to the favoured one referee policy.
“We need to go back to one referee, because that guy’s going to have [the] same thoughts throughout the game, rather than [ones that are] different to the other referee,” Bellamy said.
Bellamy was supported by his side’s captain, Cameron Smith. Smith, who also spoke for other players, believes consistency will be the main beneficiary thorough the requisition to one referee.
“As a player, that is the biggest thing for us – the inconsistencies between the two referees,” Smith said.
“I don’t know whether the NRL needs to look at that and go back to one referee. I don’t think anyone had an issue with the refereeing in that [Australia-New Zealand] test, because [the ref] knows how he wants to referee the game and he views it the same for both teams.”
Alongside this, with the shoulder charge abolished, an increasing amount of tackles becoming illegal and new concussion rulings keeping players off the field, prominent figures have labelled the game ‘soft’.
With these controversies shaping current perceptions of the game, we arrive at the question: would the game have been better off being left alone?
Former New Zealand international Gene Ngamu feels that while the magnitude of changes to NRL structure have paid dividends in creating an exciting style of football, the extent of some changes has led to the continuing struggles of referees and the game’s newfound perception of ‘softness’.
“The concussion rule wasn’t around back in the day mate – we bred em’ tough!” Ngamu said via email.
“I think they [rule changes] have benefitted the game for sure. League’s evolving each year, it’s ten times faster and players are bigger and stronger. Dave Smith and his boys need to keep on top[,] otherwise the players and clubs will dictate when and what needs to be looked at – even though they do have a big influence now. But, that’s when the shit will hit the fan.”
But whilst he believes that overall, most of the changes have proved positive step for the NRL’s development, Ngamu feels one unnecessary change was the outlawing of the ‘shoulder charge’.
“Being from the older generation, the one that gets me is the shoulder charge ban. Contact with the head – ban them; no contact – all good.”
Greg Bird’s initial six-match maximum ban for a ‘lifting tackle’ highlighted the slightly absurd nature the new safety rulings have adopted.
“Players are confused. You have a big man coming at you, you can’t shoulder charge, you can’t dive in below the knees. Now you can ‘t bend your back and drive. It is getting complicated. It ‘s going to be interesting to see where we go from here,” Bird said.
Ngamu believes changes need to be made to the new refereeing hierarchy following obvious refereeing inconsistencies.
“I can’t knock the guys on the field, but I just think they need someone else in their ear other than the TMO (Video Ref) to help them make decisions on the run or reverse decisions quickly, before players have time to react and blow up,” Ngamu said.
“TMO needs to speed up ‘try’ or ‘no try’ decisions too.”
Although there has been a huge culture shock in the NRL following the multitude of changes in such a short period of time, the afore mentioned adjustments that have increased the game’s pace, levelled competition and made the game more exciting should rightly be heralded as a success.
Two new rules that have increased points scored and created a more expansive form of the game are the new 20-metre restart rule and the abolition of the corner post.
The introduction of the 20-metre quick tap, which includes a seven-tackle count, has allowed teams to expose tired forwards, play an expansive brand of football and score more tries. This, in conjunction with the corner post being disregarded, has resulted in some spectacular tries.
Ngamu listed these changes, as well as specific others, as the main factors attributing to the increased pace of the game in perspective to his NRL era.
“The seventh tackle would’ve been nice back then! (Ngamu’s era)” said Ngamu.
“Two referees introduced, footy fields and stadiums in much better condition, interchange (being) tampered with and footy jerseys being skin tight (have had an impact).”
The prospect of a level competition is an eye-opening opportunity for the NRL, with more fanfare and a more profitable business the main drawcards.
However, there is concern over these new open play rules allowing ill-disciplined sides to go un-punished.
Sides that incorporate a flamboyant approach to their structure have been more successful than in previous years, represented by the relative success of sides such as the Parramatta Eels, Wests Tigers and Gold Coast Titans in comparison to last year. Conversely, disciplined and structured sides, headlined by Sydney, Souths and Melbourne to an extent, have struggled to adjust this year after reigning supreme over last year’s premiership.
This isn’t the first time new rules have affected successful sides, with the Rabbitohs’ famous 1967 premiership being a coherent example of such an effect. Following St George’s unbelievable 11 premierships in a row between ’55 and ’66, the sixth tackle was introduced and the Rabbitohs, taking full advantage of the new rule, ended St George’s reign.
The notion that Rugby League is ‘the greatest game of all’ is obviously one to be scrutinised, distinctively because of its lack of ability to control the way in which it is conducted on the field.
There is no questioning the NRL is one of the most loved sports in Australia, but it does have a long road to the level of its rival, AFL.
It is an assumed fact that all sports need to incorporate change and are hindered by their own issues, but none emulate that of Rugby League and its constant need for adjustment. While developments have had a positive and negative impact, the NRL could enjoy greater benefits by indulging in that sense of inertia, and relating it to that of decades ago – the time that made the game so great.