The NRL must throw the book at the Rabbitohs or risk losing control of the game

Tim Gore Columnist

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    You could be forgiven for thinking that you were watching a WWF free for all when the Penrith Panthers took on the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Pepper Stadium on Friday night.

    The exciting clash was marred when the Rabbitohs trainer deliberately manhandled an injured Penrith player in flagrant violation of the rules.

    The NRL has stubbornly ignored the warnings about controlling the ever growing influence of trainers on the game and now it has come back to bite them. The NRL must draw a line in the sand in relation to the ever creeping influence of on-field trainers or risk losing control of the game.

    In the 20th minute of the match the Panthers were attacking the northern end of the ground and Panthers five-eighth Bryce Cartwright put a grubber into the in goal. Panthers centre Tyrone Peachey chased it through and tried to bat the ball back into the in goal. However, he only managed to knock it into himself and then went clattering into the advertising hoarding at speed.

    Probably aware that the Rabbitohs would try and take a quick restart, Panthers winger Josh Mansour tried to pull Peachey to his feet so he could get back in position – noting the fate that had befallen Kirisome Auva’a in round 11 when he helped Dragon Jason Nightingale to his feet instead of getting back into position, only to see Tim Lafai score by taking advantage of Auva’a’s absence from the defensive line.

    However, Peachey was hurt and stayed down on all fours, the ball underneath him, and Mansour hurried back to his position. Debutant Rabbitoh Ed Murphy then tried to get the ball, presumably to enact the quick restart. However, after a very small effort – in which Peachey undoubtedly did not make it easy for him to get the ball – Murphy’s actions quickly turned to concern for Peachey’s welfare.

    However, not so the Rabbitohs assistant coach and blue shirt trainer, former Cronulla, St George and Adelaide Rams player Kurt Wrigley. Wrigley flew in and, with no concern whatsoever for the probably injured Peachey, violently reefed the ball out from under him.

    A few weeks ago I bought to the NRL’s attention that in the 82nd minute of the Broncos versus Cowboys match in Round 4 that Alan Langer – the Broncos blue shirt trainer – had demanded a ball boy give him the ball and then had taken the ball to his halfback.

    Not only did this incident not get included in the NRL Ground Managers report, the powers that be in the NRL did not even reprimand the Broncos for this blatant breach of the Blue Shirt trainer rules – even after the vision of the incident was brought to their attention. I warned at the time that these breaches were a very slippery slope for the NRL and if they didn’t enforce the rules that there effectively weren’t any.

    Let’s remind ourselves of the NRL’s own rules concerning trainers:
    • Each team may use a maximum of three trainers during matches. In no case shall the coach of a club act as a trainer in any match.
    • In all cases when trainers enter the field of play to either; attend to an injured player, carry water, or deliver individual messages, they must immediately leave the field once their assigned task has been completed and return to the player’s bench.
    • At all times trainers must enter and leave the field as quickly as possible (i.e. running) without interfering with play.
    • Blue Trainer – (Messages) is allowed access to the playing field:
    i) When his team is in possession
    ii) When a try has been scored
    iii) While waiting for a video referee decision in relation to a try
    iv) During a time-out called by the referee for an injury.

    • The Blue Trainer’s (Messages) duties are limited to:
    i) interchange of players
    ii) provision of water
    iii) carrying messages to individual team members

    • Must not give general messages to the team or otherwise assist in the task of coaching (save for the carrying of messages to individual team members) while play is in progress.
    • C7. Limitation of Role
    a) Trainers must not become involved in any match, including approaching or having contact with players, other than in strict compliance with their specific role and responsibilities as detailed in section C of this manual.

    There it is in black and white. It is not ambiguous in any way.

    I’d suggest that the NRLs huge blind eye to on-field coaching, touching the ball and interacting with officials has led to Blue Shirt trainers taking more and more liberties and that Wrigley’s actions are a prime example of this. If the NRL turns a blind eye to what Wrigley did, or hands out a slap on the wrist penalty, then the Blue Shirt trainers are only one little step away from tackling players.

    The NRL must be unequivocal on this matter. They must enforce the rules. The NRL clearly doesn’t care about on-field coaching but trainers can under no circumstances be tolerated touching opposition players.

    The NRL also needs to take a stand on this matter because if they don’t they’ll look like complete hypocrites in regard to their hard line on players touching officials.

    We have seen a number of examples this season of players getting suspended for accidently brushing an official. In Sam McKendry’s case the reason given was that, although they recognised it was an accident, as he wasn’t captain he shouldn’t have even been there to accidentally touch the ref.

    Wrigley isn’t even a player and he touched a Penrith player. It is clearly a worse offence. It’s one step away from a punter jumping the fence. Yet the match officials Gavin Badger, Chris Sutton, Tim Roby and Phil Henderson didn’t even send Wrigley from the field.

    Had Peachey so much as brushed one of them he’d be sitting out a week but they didn’t blink when a third party manhandled him – very possibly when injured – in flagrant violation of the rules. These are rules they are paid a lot of money to know and enforce. I guarantee you that Gavin Badger knows that he could have sent Wrigley from the field and refused his return. Why he didn’t is as much as a mystery as it is a failure on his part.

    The NRL must also take a stand on this matter as a clear example to all levels of the game that illegal involvement with the game will not be tolerated. Last season David and Andrew Fifita were suspended for inappropriately dealing with a referee during a junior league game in which they were acting as trainers.

    To the best of my knowledge they didn’t touch an opposition player or the official either.

    Further, just over a week ago a junior referee was struck by the on-field trainer of an under 12 side. That moron must never be allowed near organised sport or children again. If we are to be genuinely outraged by that shameful event then Wrigley’s actions must be dealt with ruthlessly. A consistent example must be set.

    Look at the replay of the Peachey incident. Look at the kids watching on. Now let’s think about what message a soft penalty or inaction on the part of NRL HQ will send.

    Jim Coman’s famously said when suspending Bob Cooper for 15 months in 1982, “Acts such as these must be obliterated from the game, and I’ll begin by obliterating you.”

    The NRL must now go absolutely Comans on Kurt Wrigley. Wrigley should be deregistered as an NRL coach and the Rabbitohs should get a fine that makes Ricky Stuart’s $20,000 for simply leaving a press conference look like a gentle caress. In comparison Wrigley’s offence is 100 times worse.

    If the Rabbitohs had won the Game, I would be suggesting that the points also be deducted.

    Fortunately the NRL has informed me that the Wrigley incident, unlike the Langer incident, actually was included in the Ground Managers report and that the NRL will be addressing the issue this week. Let’s hope that they act decisively.

    There can be no grey area or the next thing we know we’ll have a Blue Shirt trainer tackling or punching a player.

    Tim Gore
    Tim Gore

    Tim has been an NRL statistician for ABC Radio Grandstand since 1999, primarily as part of their Canberra coverage. Tim has loved rugby league since Sterlo was a kid with lots of hair but was cursed with having no personal sporting ability whatsoever. He couldn't take a hit in footy, was a third division soccer player making up numbers, plays off 41 in golf and is possibly the world's worst cricketer ever. He has always been good at arguing the point though and he has a great memory of what happened. Follow Tim on Twitter.