In the 48th minute of last Saturday’s match Gold Coast very briefly had 14 players on the field. There was no advantage whatsoever to the Titans from the incident and it was clearly as accidental as it was brief.
Fortunately, NRL HQ also saw it that way with NRL general manager of football operations Nathan McGuirk announcing on Sunday that the Titans would only be fined a clearly token amount of $5000 over the incident.
This is an excellent piece of common sense as the Titans deserved their win, especially after Raider Frank Paul Nuuausala shoulder charged Ryan James by surprise in the back well off the ball.
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While the rules for carrying out interchanges – as well as the strict requirement that no team has more than 13 players on the field at any time – are clearly set out in the NRL’s game day operations manual, the Titans interchange breach was just an accident and had no impact on the play whatsoever.
Further, the NRL official on the sideline was also complicit in the stuff up. Yet, a token fine was still deemed appropriate.
However, another incident from the weekend’s games has gone totally unpunished because it was seemingly unnoticed.
In the 82nd minute of play between the Brisbane and North Queensland, the Broncos blue shirt trainer, Allan Langer, ran over to the sideline from his position within the field of play, and demanded that the ball boy give him the ball. The ball boy obliged by throwing it to him and Langer took the ball and ran back to give it to Ben Hunt.
He did it deliberately. It wasn’t an accident.
“Why the hell should I care?” I hear many of you ask.
I tell you why you should care: Alfie – and any other trainer for that matter – is specifically forbidden from doing it under the rules. And not just any rules.
The same rules that don’t allow more than 13 players on the field per team. The same rules that say what the dimensions of the field must be, how long the games go for and how extra-time works.
These are the core rules of the game. They are the rules that mean game day is an organised affair and not just a chaotic free-for-all. They are very clear on what the role of the blue shirt trainer is – and isn’t.
Today it might be demanding a ball from a kid, tomorrow it could be kicking a ball away to stop a quick restart by the opposition or trash talking one of the opposition players to put them off their game. It is a very slippery slope.
The blue shirt trainer is allowed to be there to run messages. He is not allowed to coach the players. He definitely can’t interact with the ball boys or touch the ball.
I examined the Broncos breaking of this rule last year. I’ve been paying close attention to the blue shirt trainers ever since this point and I’ve noted that most teams flout the rules in regards to the blue shirt trainers to varying degrees. But the king of flouting those rules is Alfie.
As I’ve made clear before, I’m a very big Wayne Bennett fan. One of the reasons that Bennett is so good is that he has managed to stay on the cutting edge of coaching his whole career. A man of his abilities will always try and push the edge of the rules. Fair play to him. It is the job of the officials to decide what they are going to allow under the rules.
I’m guessing that Uncle Wayne is betting that him having Langer – one of the best halfbacks to have played the game, a veteran of 375 top-grade games for Brisbane, Warrington, Queensland and Australia, and a premiership-winning captain – as his blue shirt trainer will have a blind eye turned to it even if he is commonly alleged to be performing on-field coaching.
And it has had a blind eye turned to it. No one seems to care, in spite of him constantly running just behind the play of a side that boasts one of the most inexperienced halves combination in the NRL.
The basis of training in the armed services is getting the service people to automatically follow orders without question. These service people will be fit, strong and physically gifted. If they are lucky enough to be under a good general they can take on the world. He or she can mould that clay.
It takes a while to be a great playmaker. Peter Sterling, Steve Mortimer, Langer, Ricky Stuart, Andrew Johns, Darren Lockyer, Brad Fittler, Laurie Daley, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk all were talented from the start but it took years of hard-earned experience for them to develop the instincts that made them great. By the time they get all that experience they are older, slower, more prone to injury. It’s a trade off.
No one needs to tell Thurston what to do. No one needs to tell Cronk what to do. However, what if the average age of your halves was 23 and, while they were loaded with natural talent, they didn’t have all the football nous of the Thurstons and Cronks that can only be developed through long experience? It is a safe bet they’ll lose a few games through bad choices or panic.
But what if running behind them they had a mentor guiding their actions the whole time and they had full confidence just to do exactly what he said?
It’d be almost like playing a computer game with all the cheat codes.
All of a sudden a kid with great talent can be a world beater well before his time.
That is why the NRL Operations Manual forbids on-field coaching and puts strict limitations on what the on-field trainers can and can’t do.
Here’s a fair bit of what it says on the subject:
• 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 enter and leave the playing field without interfering with play.
• 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.
Even the most cursory examination of most of the NRL blue shirt trainers would show most of these rules being broken to varying degrees in every game.
However, Langer is a bad offender. His actions in the 82nd minute suggest that while he may not even be aware of the rules, he is intent on keeping his side focused and on point – even if he has to drag them.
There will be those who will claim that Alfie is just delivering messages and he isn’t providing on field coaching to the team. There is a simple way to check. Let’s mic up all the trainers and review what they say after the game. Easy.
Frankly, while the rules aren’t being enforced there effectively aren’t any.
The NRL will levy a fine for a non-event breach like the five seconds the Titans had 14 men on the field or for Ricky Stuart not talking to the media, but they don’t seem care about the clear abuse of the trainer positions.
I asked the NRL their position on the Langer incident from Friday night and whether any action would be taken. At the time of publishing they had provided no response on those matters. I’ll let you know if they do.
A stand must be taken one way or another on this issue by the NRL. On one hand they can crack down it by punishing Langer and the Broncos for clearly overstepping the rules on Friday night, and through that draw a line in the sand.
Alternatively they can do nothing and allow the trainers to keep pushing the boundaries. I bet Ricky Stuart would just love to be running directly behind his charges. And if Alfie can, why can’t Ricky?
If the NRL just maintains the status quo – and I suspect that is what they will do – any coach who doesn’t go out and pay top dollar to recruit a Fittler, Johns, Brett Kimmorley, Matt Orford or Craig Gower to be their blue shirt trainer is an idiot.