With 12 tries and 66 points scored, Friday night’s Roosters versus Bulldogs clash was a cracker. Intense footy, great ball movement, brutal defence, see-sawing momentum and all completed at near-perfect execution rates by both teams.
But three incidents left me feeling uneasy and questioning the direction rugby league is taking.
The good news is it’s nothing to do with the referees!
The first was the bitch-slapping between Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sam Kasiano.
To set the scene, JWH had been brutalising the Bulldogs forwards for the first 30 minutes of the game. Big Sam came off the bench and started fighting fire with fire. This was a great clash of two big men in the greatest traditions of the game and the bedrock that rugby league has been built on. It was exciting to watch.
That it is until they started slapping each other across the face. It’s the most pathetic look for a game that prides itself on its gladiatorial contests. I felt sick to the stomach seeing it.
Either let them punch it out and crack down on the third man in with big suspensions or ban the slapping as well by sin binning players that do it. I don’t care which path the NRL takes, but this slapping cannot be allowed to continue.
Let me be clear that my position isn’t that rugby league is better with punching. My position is that rugby league is infinitely worse with slapping.
Paul Gallen’s punches to Nate Myles’ monolithic melon were the catalyst for the no-punching edict, but the game was hardly a slug fest before that incident. The evidence of that is the public reaction that those punches received. If the NRL was a rolling brawl that incident wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. There are more melees per game now than ever before with players running in from everywhere every time there is even a mild disagreement. Is that the look we want?
After that we had another brilliant confrontation, where young bull Kane Evans pulled off a cracking shoulder charge on Kasiano, as Big Sam returned the ball from the kick off. It’s been a perfectly legal tackle for 110 years. No one was remotely injured – except maybe Kasiano’s pride.
Instead of the tension and drama of the game ratcheting up another notch we get a penalty for a perfectly executed tackle. Kasiano and James Graham respected the hit. Graham even looked like he disagreed with the tackle being penalised!
It was a brilliant rugby league moment ruined by a dumb, unnecessary law. No doubt that hit will be used to promote the game at some stage – particularly if these teams meet again in the semis.
The third incident was the dive taken by Michael Lichaa. No doubt the contact was a little high and brushed his chin or throat, but if we have a set of laws that create a situation where a player thinks diving like that is a viable option then there is something wrong with those rules. At the end of the day the right outcome was reached, with no penalty and Lichaa hopefully told to get up and stop acting like a goose, but it’s another terrible look for the game. This can’t be left to players and coaches to eradicate as they are usually rewarded for taking a dive.
We’ve got to this point off the back of two myths.
Myth one is the old line trotted out about mums not letting their kids play league. The NRL needs to rethink its policy. It’s pointless. Would a mum who doesn’t want their son playing league have watched that game and thought, “That was extremely brutal, but there were no shoulder charges or punches. I’m going to let little Johnny play after all”?
This mythical group of mums is ruining the game.
Myth two is about the NRL trying to appeal to new demographics rather than the ‘rusted on’ fans. That makes sense, but not if it’s done in a manner that alienates lifelong fans of the game.
Player safety is clearly not a myth but the suggestion that these rule changes are somehow enhancing or improving player safety are.