Let me start off by saying I love rugby league. Love it so much that it leaves me wanting to tear out another handful of hair or kick the nearest small child sometimes. This week, it’s the judiciary that needs our help.
Like many things these days, the NRL judiciary system has become over-complicated to the point where it seems almost to be potluck when it comes to the penalties handed out to the players. Whilst rugby league has been built on what feels like a million grudges, we like to think officials bear no resentment towards individual players or the clubs they play for, but this week’s case regarding Travis Burns highlights a couple of the issues regarding inconsistency that really need looking at.
Firstly, it needs to be said that in no way did Burns not deserve to front up, because both offences were well and truly deserving of punishment. The first problem is the erratic penalties handed out. Recently, we had eight guys go to the judiciary. Almost all of these offences were related to high tackles with varying degrees of severity. Others included dangerous contact and unnecessary pressure on the arm/shoulder. By the end of the process though, there were several different penalties. Some missed a few games, some none at all.
Many will say that each instance was judged independently, that accidents happen or that we need to send a message to both players and clubs. The judiciary sends out mixed messages with different penalties, will then hammer a guy through the year to ‘take a stand’ and then finally falls back into the same old bad habit. It’s got fans confused, and teams looking for the next loophole.
If the ARLC is serious about wiping out cheap shots, if they are sincere about eradicating the blight caused by some wrestling moves (chicken wing, grapple tackle and crippler to name a few), then the system needs an overhaul. If it were me:
* A player who commits a foul like mentioned above needs to spend a considerable amount of time on the sidelines. Regardless of severity, a long time out of the game will force players (and coaches) to re-think and adopt safer tackling technique. If everyone knows that they will receive a definite and unchallengeable penalty, hopefully, this will begin to curb the number of fouls committed. Get rid of carry over points. Get rid of lawyers declaring that it was possible that the ball runner might possibly have contributed to the mess. Get rid of the confusion!
In no way should this be construed as ‘going soft’. I love the shoulder charge, but if you’re going to use it, don’t make contact with the head. Learn to time it well, learn to use it in certain circumstances. I also love when a player gets bent back in a tackle and ends up on his back. That’s great, but don’t help turn him by grabbing on to limbs that aren’t yours. Reg Regan used to say “play hard, but play fair”. I’m pretty sure the commission could find a spot in their rulebook for that. Eventually, you hope anyway, it starts to sink in for all involved.
This hard line stance will upset many people. Yes, it will be hard to introduce. Yes, it might initially be hard to police, but if we care about player safety, as well as ensuring good, clean, hard contests, then it should be imperative that something like this happens soon.
* Referees need to be better educated. They need to be ‘coached’ as well by some of these wrestling teachers assisting NRL teams. They need to be able to identify when someone is committing a foul. They also need to learn to be brave enough to use the sin bin or send off a player. The sin bin and sending off are under-utilised tools that the referees could use to better control a game and ensure fair contests. If players (and coaches, always coming back to the coach) knew that attempted poor sportsmanship was always dealt with one of the above actions, I believe it would go some way to curbing some of the on-field problems.
* Finally, reporting of incidents is another area of inconsistency that grates on supporters across the code. If every serious incident was reported to the judiciary, then that would go a long way to alleviating many perceived issues. But at this stage, they are not.
With the use of video referee replays, pausing and rewinding of live T.V. and social media such as YouTube and Twitter, nothing is left on the field. The technology at hand means we can keep a better eye on games and all that happens in them. Therefore, it should make sense that nothing serious goes unnoticed. But it does, and supporters pick up on that and share it with the world. You don’t even need to be at the ground to know Player A has got away with numerous chicken wings, or Player B loves a sneaky ankle lock. It’s there for all to see.
Now, I don’t think referees cheat. But certain players have gotten away with particular actions that have landed others in trouble. You don’t have to go far know to hear fans talk about favoured teams or ‘untouchable’ players. I admit, as a Panthers fan, there have been numerous times over the years where the word ‘conspiracy’ entered my head. But as time has gone on, I’ve realised it’s not just me and my Panthers. It’s passionate fans from all across the code with grievances. Look at Origin and some of the tries given. The best thing the ARLC could do is try and take out a lot by-laws and exceptions to rules. Bring back some simplicity to the whole game.
The ARLC needs to draw a line in the sand here. Really, truly do it this time. Not just say it and have it fade away a month or two later. Get some easy to understand rules to discourage unfair sportsmanship, educate and empower referees to act bravely on the field and bring back a little of what makes this game the greatest on Earth.
Are these ideas perfect? Probably not. Do they cover the wide range of things that probably need attention? No way. But I’ve got to a point (and I am sure many of you have too) where people at all levels need to start talking about it and then acting upon it. With the arrival of the ARLC, there has never been a better time to start looking at improving our already fantastic game.