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.
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.
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?