Rugby league is not a rubbish game, it doesn’t know what it is

Matt Cleary Columnist

By Matt Cleary, Matt Cleary is a Roar Expert


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    Rugby league craves – but has never known nor will ever know – absolute consistency. The game involves human beings and not four-legged robots that can open doors.

    And each weekend, human beings – referees, coaches, players, pundits, the whole roiling mad mess of us – make mistakes.

    Referees can adjudicate similar incidents in different ways. And that’s individuals. The game is refereed by dozens of different people, on-field and off, who’ll see the same incident in different ways.

    Ultimately, in the old frothy heat of money-ball battle, referees make 50-50 calls, pick a side, and do their best.

    And rugby league has been okay with that.

    Until now, and this funny play-the-ball-with-the-feet thing that the NRL’s rules dudes have decided should be a thing.

    And it is. And it’s consistently applied – except when it isn’t.

    And rugby league hates that. Hates, hates, hates it. Because rugby league hates the grey. Hates ambiguous, messy. Things should be black and white. There can be no grey. The hell with grey! Right or wrong. Goodies, baddies.

    Admirable, perhaps. But in the game’s efforts to combat the messy, grey and ambiguous, rugby league has, to an extent, taken out the spontaneous, unscripted man-action that comes from competition for the ball in the grey areas.

    No longer can the oval-shaped Steeden bounce about in the random fashion that would so excite old mate the late great Darrell Eastlake – ho ho! Ho!

    Today the ball hits the deck and that’s it, done and done. It’s a knock-on. Touch footy rules, okay?

    It is not okay. The knock-back is a rule. For a dropped ball to be called knock-on it must be propelled towards the opponent’s try-line. That is the rule. I have written this 839 times. I have given up.

    No I haven’t! The knock-back is a thing! It’s in the rules! Poor knock-back. Please, ghost of Greg Hartley, get in these people’s ears.

    Last night Aaron Woods was upright in the tackle and trying to offload as defenders looked to wrap him up. The ball bobbled about and Woods was adjudged to have knocked-on, which you could perhaps make a case for… except that Woods was facing his own try-line.

    Repeat: He was facing his own try-line.

    Top of that, the ball didn’t hit the ground.

    Riddle me that, ref-heads.

    Aaron Woods

    (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

    Scrums? Don’t start me. Or do and see what happens.

    Yes, I know, scrums are dead as fried chicken. Too messy. And you could make a case that they were. They were once a bad dog’s breakfast.

    But rather than tighten them up and police them under the, you know, rules, rugby league took the soft option and brushed them. Killed them. Killed scrums, killed one of the last – if not the last – method the defending side had for getting the ball back outside of waiting for the other mob to give it to them.

    Killed ’em. Scrums today are a joke, a dud bit of détente in an otherwise fierce 80 minutes.

    Brush ’em. Or make them scrums. The game should hold no truck with their ritualised softness.

    And the play-the-ball thing?

    Look, I dunno.

    In the fifth minute of last night’s fixture Woods was 100 per cent correctly pinged for incorrect play-the-ball, the rule that’s eliminated “tunnel ball”, or at least tried to, and slowed down play-the-ball just a tad.

    It still happens, of course. The Roosters had a set in the 2second minute, four of the five attackers didn’t touch the ball. Looked enough like they did. And that was enough.

    But of all the things to tinker with in the off-season, surely play-the-ball was one for the pedants (of which I ironically admit to being given this thing about scrums and the knock-back being a thing, and so on).

    Now! One supposes the NRL’s rules officials – never afraid to tinker with the game-play in the off-season lest it appear that coaches and players get ahead of the very game, somehow, and turn it into something that’s not rugby league – knew what they were doing when they clamped down on the play-the-ball.

    And perhaps the NRL can point to the rule doing something good for the game, and I’d like to hear what it is.

    Yet, for mine, it does rather beg the question: why? Why should the attacker have to play the ball with his foot?

    Yes, I know it’s in the rules. But why is it in the rules? For what philosophical reason is that that the attacker must play the ball with his feet? Was tunnel ball so bad?

    Is it a nod to the “ruck” that this particular piece of game-play once was?

    League has long loosened any pretention to contest at the play-the-ball. There was a time the marker could strike at the ball and hook it back. There were hookers made an art form of it. Ray Price used to strike out with his great big high-ankled steel-capped Adidas boots with the six-inch studs, and take out the footy or a shin bone, or both, and charge off after it, the great mad bearded bastard.

    But Price’s action could be messy, ambiguous. So rugby league brushed it. And the attacker could play the ball with impunity.

    But he still has to use his feet. And there’s no sort of… reason for it.

    Is there?

    There is a slow down the play-the-ball reason. You can cop that, one supposes.

    But in philosophical terms, if you like, why does the attacker have to use his boot?

    Any sort of league reason for that?

    Bueller? Anyone?

    Matt Cleary
    Matt Cleary

    Matt Cleary is a sports writer from Sydney. He enjoys golf, footy and Four Pines Pale Ale, and spends as much time as conscience allows at Long Reef GC. Tweet him @journomatcleary, or read him at his website. You can find more of his golf columns over at Patreon.

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    The Crowd Says (46)

    • April 20th 2018 @ 7:56am
      bear54 said | April 20th 2018 @ 7:56am | ! Report

      Touch football has infected league with it’s version of the sport rolling between the legs and not permitting drops of any direction. Some Cayenne-driving-pony-tail-wearing-Calvin-Klein-smelling marketing guru convinced the Super League then the NRL administrators to adopt these rules to make the game faster and less complicated.

      It’s still a better sport than AFL but it’s not as good as it used to be.

      • April 20th 2018 @ 9:19am
        Petratos said | April 20th 2018 @ 9:19am | ! Report

        It’s still better then afl but not as good as it use to be

        Sounds pretty accurate

    • Roar Guru

      April 20th 2018 @ 8:00am
      BA Sports said | April 20th 2018 @ 8:00am | ! Report

      Make sure you get to the ground early between rounds 11-20 so you can watch people legally playing the ball without their feet – see if it makes that game any cleaner..

    • April 20th 2018 @ 8:08am
      Jeffrey Dun said | April 20th 2018 @ 8:08am | ! Report

      Matt says: “Scrums? Don’t start me. Or do and see what happens.”

      Hope you’r not proposing we turn them into contests again, like in Rugby, with their endless resets and penalties.

      Some time ago the Guardian published a report on the amount of time the ball was in play in Rugby.

      It reported that the 20 scrums during a match between Ireland and Scotland in Dublin turned into eight collapses, seven resets and seven penalties, a process that took up more than one-quarter of the total playing time; 21 minutes.

      The report suggested that the scrum was far less a means of restarting play than re-stopping it.

      I’m happy with the “lean-to” we call a scrum in the NRL. It has the virtue of restarting the game quickly, with minimum time lost and no controversial penalties that can turn a game.

      • Roar Guru

        April 20th 2018 @ 8:37am
        BA Sports said | April 20th 2018 @ 8:37am | ! Report

        I have just got used to the ‘lean-to’ we call a scrum.

        What irritates me about scrums now – We have the scrum clock to penalise teams for being too slow. But f the clock gets inside 5 seconds and it looks like the scrum won’t be packed you will hear the referee call ‘stop the scrum clock”. Remind me why the clock was brought in?

      • Roar Guru

        April 20th 2018 @ 9:45am
        Con Scortis said | April 20th 2018 @ 9:45am | ! Report

        Rugby Union is referred to as “The Game They Play In Heaven”.

        I always thought the reason they call it that is because only an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent being stands any chance of being able to understand all the rules.

      • April 20th 2018 @ 11:07am
        BBA said | April 20th 2018 @ 11:07am | ! Report

        I think the point is that if it is not a contest why have them?

        Instead of a non-contest scrum you could just have a hand over that cant be taken quickly.

        • April 20th 2018 @ 1:15pm
          Jeffrey Dun said | April 20th 2018 @ 1:15pm | ! Report

          “I think the point is that if it is not a contest why have them?”

          The justification for the scrum is that it gets 12 players out of the attacking / defensive line. Once upon a time the two back lines faced off against each other one-on-one and would often put on some sharp attacking plays. That doesn’t happen so much these days, but the justification still exists – it cuts down the number of players that can be involved in the next play.

          • April 20th 2018 @ 5:11pm
            Ozinsa said | April 20th 2018 @ 5:11pm | ! Report

            Why is that? Why don’t teams practice sophisticated moves off scrums when there are less defenders immediately before them? Real question. I assume there’s a logic to it

          • Roar Pro

            April 20th 2018 @ 5:57pm
            Kurt S said | April 20th 2018 @ 5:57pm | ! Report

            The scrum still offer the winner of the play an attacking option Jeffery. For that reason alone they should stay in.

            They look messy from time to time and it would be good to see the half position the ball at least somewhere in the middle of the tunnel instead of in front of the second row. That might offer more incentive to have the opposition make a push to win the ball a little more often.

    • April 20th 2018 @ 8:16am
      Paul said | April 20th 2018 @ 8:16am | ! Report

      Matt, I’m not sure where you’re going with this article because you’ve raised so many issues.

      I wrote to the NRL earlier this year and received a reply about play the ball and offside play. The impression I took was Greenberg and co want to clean up the game by applying the rules more strictly than they have been in the past. I also get the impression they don’t necessarily want to stir the pot too much by enforcing ALL the rules that have been neglected and given the uproar from so called experts in the first 6 rounds, they’ve probably gone down the right path.

      I too miss the competition in the play the ball and the scrum, but don’t for a second miss the 50:50 calls that went with these. By the time they were killed off, it was almost inevitable they’d result in a penalty. The public though didn’t know which side would get it or why. Ditto with stripping a player in a tackle, till that rule was cleaned up.

      Knock ons and forward passes became so hard to get right, refs decided as soon as the ball hit the ground it was a knock on, but any pass was okay unless it as thrown forward like a gridiron pass. I know this is an exaggeration but not by much and again, this was a response to outcries over the 50:50 calls.

      My point is, the rule book is full of grey areas, but the public wants consistent, black & white interpretations which is never going to happen in such a dynamic game. Administrators though, can make small steps to adjust things which is what is happening this season. Hopefully Greenburg and co will keep going next year and maybe, we might see knock backs and competitive scrums again.

    • April 20th 2018 @ 8:43am
      Quite Lucrative said | April 20th 2018 @ 8:43am | ! Report

      We need scrums, because that is where the play is set and it takes out 6 blokes from the defensive line. Say no scrums, some set play from the tap, then all those forwards are available to tackle. Not as much scoring= dull, dull, dull.

      The knock on rule needs to be time warped back to when the ball had to hit the ground, knock on’s in mid air are for mine, total BS.I would like a count per game of how many knock on’s there are now, seems a ridiculous amount.

      I would agree- this years version of RL is not as good as any of the past 10 years at least. Bring back the optional cheating and selective rule application by the refs. It was way more exciting. I actually turned off the 2nd half of the Dogs v Roosters last night (snoozefest) and watched a 2009 re-run of Law and Order SVU.
      That should be a concern for NRL authorities. But hey, let’s just pretend and talk the game up instead.

      • Roar Guru

        April 20th 2018 @ 11:21am
        spruce moose said | April 20th 2018 @ 11:21am | ! Report

        We need scrums, because that is where the play is set and it takes out 6 blokes from the defensive line. Say no scrums, some set play from the tap, then all those forwards are available to tackle. Not as much scoring= dull, dull, dull.

        Challenge – name me one time this year a try was scored in the same play as the scrum? Even still, name me one time the ball went through the hands instead of a centre/winger taking a lazy hit up.

        If scrums served your purpose they would be good – but they don’t.

        • Roar Guru

          April 20th 2018 @ 11:51am
          Con Scortis said | April 20th 2018 @ 11:51am | ! Report

          Scrums are like the white icing on carrot cake. You think it’s good idea but it tastes like crap. Actually, scrums are like carrot cake.

        • April 20th 2018 @ 1:49pm
          Quite Lucrative said | April 20th 2018 @ 1:49pm | ! Report

          I don’t have to name you any instances. They happen every week. Maybe you should watch a game or two before commenting.

          “ball through the hands to the winger” What century are you living in? Who says that puritan style is the best?
          The game has evolved, we used to try to do that when I was in the under 8’s. Your idealistic yearnings for perfect competitive scrums and the ball through the hands out to the winger and then what? He scoots up the sideline and scores every time?

          I think they played that style in the late 1800’s.

          • April 20th 2018 @ 7:00pm
            Footy Fan said | April 20th 2018 @ 7:00pm | ! Report

            “They happen every week”

            I’ve watched most games this year and can’t recall a single case.

        • Roar Rookie

          April 20th 2018 @ 2:11pm
          Flat White said | April 20th 2018 @ 2:11pm | ! Report

          I think teams should get bonus points for scoring off a set play from a scrum.

          Or get the option to kick from in front.

      • April 20th 2018 @ 12:59pm
        Lovey said | April 20th 2018 @ 12:59pm | ! Report

        But if there was less stoppages the forwards wouldn’t have a rest, which overall would open the game up.

    • Roar Guru

      April 20th 2018 @ 9:34am
      Nat said | April 20th 2018 @ 9:34am | ! Report

      We’ve all got opinions on how they prefer the game to be adjudicated and what rules should be/add too the game and spectacle. I’m a purist, I like the fact the players are being made to adhere to that simple rule. Scrums, I’ll go either way. I was a hooker and striking and winning a scrum against the feed was my MO but as a TV spectacle, I can appreciate how messy it can be (which probably runs into my PTB thoughts as well). I think one of the greatest assets of RL is the willingness to evolve. Who can argue about the goal post rule being changed? Or the intro of the 40/20 rule? We will get the ‘advantage rule as seen in SL’ one day. If it stays still it dies. I use 20/20 cricket as my example, it started as bowl fast, hit hard and now spinners are opening to make the batter play actual cricket shots, it evolved and continues too and you cannot argue with the crowds and TV audience. Past generations will will always be looking back while the next gen want entertainment and that’s what the NRL is – Sports Entertainment, trying to find the equilibrium between the two.

      • Columnist

        April 20th 2018 @ 10:09am
        Matt Cleary said | April 20th 2018 @ 10:09am | ! Report

        Can’t argue.

        Why, though, does the attacker have to play the ball with his feet?

        • April 20th 2018 @ 10:19am
          Ablett s dodgy hamstring said | April 20th 2018 @ 10:19am | ! Report

          Plays it with his feet as per the original contest between the marker and himself.

          The old 5 metre rule is a thought , this rule saw attacking players have to get very deep and expansive in attack , rather than how flat they stand in comparison today

          Also the 5 metre rule , meant that one out running was less and forwards could offload a pass with skill .

          Maybe a compromise of an 8 metre rule would change the game .

          • Columnist

            April 20th 2018 @ 11:05am
            Matt Cleary said | April 20th 2018 @ 11:05am | ! Report

            Yeah there’s the rub, for mine. As per the original “contest” between marker and ball-player. They brushed the contest that was originally between two sets of feet in a “ruck”, so why the need to play it with one’s feet? Tradition?

          • April 20th 2018 @ 12:25pm
            matt h said | April 20th 2018 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

            The reason the five metre rule would not work so well today is simply that forwards are fitter now and faster. So that 5 metre defensive line would be in the face of the first receiver in a split second. at least with the 10 metres the attackers can choose whether to play flat or deep.

            • April 20th 2018 @ 1:27pm
              Jeffrey Dun said | April 20th 2018 @ 1:27pm | ! Report

              Good point Matt. To counter this they could significantly reduce the number of interchanges to introduce fatigue into the game.