The rule changes
They’re a step in the right direction, however, these rule changes alone will not see the game maximise its entertainment potential. We still need to look further.
We have played on the same size field for 112 years. Our modern-day players are bigger, fitter, stronger and more mobile than ever before. Interchange football and constant stoppages in play have reduced the fatigue factor.
The field looks pretty crowded these days. We seriously need to consider a reduction in the number of players on the field.
Twelve players a side, if not for the full 80 minutes, certainly for shorter “power-play” periods, would open up a whole new dynamic.
I’ve never been a fan of the two-referee system. NRL referees can officiate a game on their own.
The new six-again rule is good in theory. On many occasions an attacking team gets a penalty when it’s on a roll and doesn’t need it. The defending team deliberately incurred the penalty to stop the flow of the attack. Now the referee can penalise the infringing team, but allow the attacking side to continue with extra tackles up its sleeve.
Some small infringements in the ruck don’t deserve a loss of territory through a long touch-finding kick. Some minor infringements certainly don’t deserve to concede a penalty kick for goal, especially one that could decide a result. I’m sure all fans get frustrated when this happens.
This newly proposed system will give the referee more latitude. The penalties themselves will have more fairness about them. We will see less frustration from players and fans, because the play is continuing.
Referees will feel a lot less pressure in imposing the six-again decision.
The referees have been over-coached. As a result, matches have been completely over-refereed. Having two referees on the field has only exacerbated the situation.
The referee’s objective is to achieve a list of KPIs (key performance indicators), as set down by their coaches and reviewers, rather than actually managing the game that unfolds before them. They referee to a process. They interrupt the game. They don’t manage the game in the best interests of the spectacle.
I do not blame the referees for this situation. I blame the system of over-coaching and the oversensitivity to media and social media criticism.
It has been proven time and again that games with less refereeing interruptions have been the most enjoyable to watch.
That doesn’t mean that we just throw away the rule book and let the players run amok. Not at all. But using two on-field referees, 12 television cameras, two referee coaches sitting high in the grandstand constantly talking to the on-field referees through ear pieces, plus another group of referees in the bunker, poring over instant replays to find an infringement, is not the way to referee rugby league.
During the past 15 years, the tremendous amount of job creation at head office saw former referees seeking full-time roles in management, coaching current and future NRL referees. This new wave of referee coaching and review has blown totally out of control.
Referee bosses have actively campaigned with NRL management for greater reliance on technology, more eyes on the field to capture every possible indiscretion. Their major aim has been protection from criticism, rather than what I believe to be in the best interests of the rugby league product itself.
Penalty counts have been gradually increasing during the past decade as the refereeing division looked to assert its influence. This led to the ridiculous penalty blitz we saw in the first half of the 2018 season that totally frustrated coaches and players. Television audiences fell significantly.
The process is wrong.
One referee. Trust him. Let him referee by feel. Arm him with the power of discretion. Assist him with technology for the non-subjective decisions such as grounding the ball legally for a try. Don’t burden the game with video review of subjective decisions such as obstructions, stripping, ball touched in flight, aerial contest for possession, general play knock-ons. Let’s accept what the referees and linesmen decide, knowing full well they won’t always get it right. But please don’t slow the game and bore us with endless video replays.
As for the wrestle
This won’t be an easy part of the game to unravel. Coaches have spent the past 25 years instilling these tackling techniques into our players. Today’s players grew up with these techniques. They don’t know any different.
There is a lot more to the wrestling technique than first meets the eye. Not all of it is the scourge it’s made out to be. Much of it protects the defending player from incurring serious injuries when tackling the big, mobile players we have in the game today. A lot of it has been forced upon the game in reaction to rule changes and interpretations over the years.
So, how did we get here?
That’s a long story. A long, long story.
Study the history of tackling techniques from the 1960s to the present day. There have been many rule changes over the years aimed at finding a balance between the attacking and defensive aspects of the game.
Once our game entered full-time professionalism, with big-money contracts, where the difference between winning and losing could make or break careers, the rules of the game were always going to come under extreme pressure from smart coaches and physically enhanced footballers.
When coaches decided the speed of the play-the-ball was the most significant factor in a team’s ability to attack or defend, the game changed forever.
In a constant battle of action and reaction, rule changes were seen as the primary weapon against having one part of the game adversely dominating the other.
Many rule changes were influenced by the premier coaches of the day. Rarely were they concerned with the best interests of the game; self-interest and personal agendas were the strongest motivating factors.
I remember when we started to have head coaches’ meetings. Rules committees were dominated by head coaches. Yes, I was a part of the process. But I made it known, I didn’t like it.
Coaches should be nowhere near the rule book. Experienced leaders at head office, independent of the influence of modern-day coaches, need to be making these important decisions. The game must, at all times, be in control of its own product.
The heated reaction
Following these announcements, NRL coaches (except wily old Wayne Bennett) blew up, declaring they hadn’t voted for these changes and they didn’t want them.
Great! Exactly how it should be.
Giving coaches influence over the rules and interpretations is like putting the foxes in charge of the hen house.
Coaches are there to help their teams adapt to the rules, exploit the rules, benefit from the rules, bend the rules, test the rules, even cheat the rules. It is not their job to make or change the rules.
The coaching methods used to exploit the rules may eventually lead to new rules or interpretations, but should be the responsibility of the game’s management.
Next on the list were the NRL referees, saying: “We weren’t consulted. We didn’t vote for these changes.”
Great! Exactly how it should be.
Referees are not there to make the rules. They are there to administer the rules fairly and evenly, using their game knowledge, experience and discretion. They should act without favour or bias, without preconceived ideas, without a predetermined game plan. They are not there to favour one style of play over another.
They are there to protect players from violence and foul play.
Fans want to watch players play football. They don’t tune in to watch the referees referee.
Referees are a vital part of the game. They must be respected at all times. But they are not meant to be the showpiece of the game.
We accept they will make mistakes from time to time. They need to accept that as well.
All in all, I’m excited to see how these new rules work. I applaud the commission for having a crack.
If everyone plays their part, the footy will be terrific.
Stay safe and healthy everyone.
Phil Gould is a League Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald