NRL CEO Todd Greenberg has a huge problem on his hands.
His Director of Football Operations isn’t doing his job properly and is risking the welfare of both officials and players.
It was incredibly fortunate that there were no dire ramifications from South Sydney Rabbitohs trainer and Assistant Coach, Kurt Wrigley, roughly manhandling Penrith player Tyrone Peachey to get the match ball out from under him in Round 16.
There so easily could have been ramifications and they could have been horrific.
However, rather than realising how close they had come to disaster and severely punishing South Sydney and Wrigley as an unequivocal deterrent, the NRL gave Wrigley a paltry suspension and swept the matter under the carpet.
The NRL Integrity Unit suspended Wrigley for one solitary week. And there was no monetary fine whatsoever. Nor was any announcement or release made on the matter. It was a punishment akin to being attacked by wet lettuce.
The only reason any of you know Wrigley faced any consequences of his actions is because I’m telling you, and that’s because I’ve been on their case.
It took the best part of three weeks for the NRL to answer my questions about Wrigley’s punishment.
Nathan McGuirk is the NRL’s Director of Football Operations.
His key responsibility in this role is to ensure that the rules of the NRL Operations Manual are meticulously followed at every game.
However, we have witnessed the rules in regards to trainers on the field being flouted continually on his watch and he has done nothing about it whatsoever.
The Operations Manual that he is meant to enforce includes rules about the the Video Referee, match day time schedules, jerseys, ground marking, interchange, timekeeping, among others. And, yes, trainers roles.
These are the unsexy yet essential parts of every game day. These rules are in place to ensure that each game is a professional, organised affair and not a free for all.
Every match involves hundreds of different people converging upon the ground, all with their own vested interests and responsibilities.
The NRL Operations Manual sets out the rules under which everyone must operate. It stops chaos. But more than that, it also protects those involved with the game.
Some rules may seem like no-brainers. However, they must be written down to ensure that people with no brains don’t break them.
For example there are a set of rules about announcements over the PA – mostly regarding saying nothing derogatory, and not interfering with kicks at goal. They exist to stop people getting too excited and doing dumb things.
In regards to trainers, I’ve covered what the NRL Operations Manual says on the subject previously when pleading to get Alfie and all the blue shirt trainers roaming the park off the field.
The support staff of every sporting team are heavily invested in their team’s fortunes and they’ll work hard to help them succeed. Rugby League, being a heavily testosterone-fuelled sport, features trainers that are fervent in their efforts to motivate and drive on their charges.
Most trainers would try to do pretty much anything they can to help their side win. The NRL has increasingly turned a blind eye to them coaching on field, and in doing so, trainers have started to take even more ownership for the fortunes of the team.
And why not? No one has been stopping them. It was inevitable that they would continue to push the boundaries further. Wrigley’s determined and illegal effort to get the ball from Peachey clearly demonstrates this.
Blue Shirt trainers may soon start thinking they have a right to question and abuse the referees like David and Andrew Fifita did. Even worse, they might get really upset about a ruling and belt a 16 year old referee.
Here is the thing about both of those ugly incidents: if the trainers weren’t on the field, neither of them happen.
The NRL has a duty of care to the players and officials to minimise the risks of third parties impacting on the game. Further, it also has to set the standard for all tiers of rugby league beneath the first grade premiership, right down to the under 7s.
I have never met Kurt Wrigley but by all accounts he is a very good man. He is committed to helping his South Sydney side succeed. His side had only had five wins over the first 14 games when they came into the game on Friday June 24 and the season was quickly slipping away.
In Kurt’s mind, his actions to seek the ball from Peachey for his team was fair enough in the heat of the moment. But it was anything but a reasonable or safe action.
That’s why the rules say trainers are only allowed on the field under very strict circumstances.
Here are two very plausible scenarios that could have occurred:
1. Wrigley’s actions caused Peachey to be injured or exacerbated an existing injury; or
2. Peachey or his teammates take exception to Wrigley’s actions and start a physical altercation with him.
What unthinkable occurrences they would be. What a dreadful look it would be for the NRL. What an appalling example that incident – which you can guarantee would garner massive coverage – would set to every level of rugby league in this country.
If Wrigley isn’t on the field it can’t happen.
I raised the matter three weeks ago and called for the NRL to deregister Wrigley and heavily fine the Rabbitohs as a way of discouraging other trainers from over-stepping their boundaries.
The NRL could have used the incident to make a stand, deterring any trainers from overstepping their role in such a dangerous manner in the future, but instead they went with a slap on the wrist and a sweep under the carpet.
What will a Blue Shirt trainer do when faced with a similar situation to Kurt Wrigley, with five minutes to go and a need to score to make the Grand Final? Do you really think that the threat of a one week suspension will be enough of a deterrent?
By failing to enforce the rules they are meant to uphold and tolerating the blatant on field coaching of blue shirt trainers, the NRL haven’t done a thing to address this major risk for the game.
The NRL must strictly enforce the rules and set the standard when it comes to trainers’ involvement, before it’s too late.