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And just like that, the war is over.
‘Crackdown 2018′ lasted a bit longer than previous rule enforcing sprees, but yesterday NRL CEO Todd Greenberg and ARLC Chair Peter Beattie conceded defeat.
It was a strange time for the NRL to pull the ripcord on its previously rock-solid commitment to rule adherence.
What the announcement makes clear is that the NRL has been spooked by the constant ‘fans are hating the game’ narrative being pushed around the place, even though the data doesn’t back it up.
Overall, crowds are up a little and the NRL is beating the AFL handsomely in the TV ratings.
What makes it even stranger is that as fans, we’d all pretty much become accustomed to how things were. We grizzled about it at times, but we understood the bigger picture.
And we understood this bigger picture because Greenberg himself went to great lengths to explain the crackdown, so even those who hated the direction couldn’t say they didn’t know about it.
The NRL’s spin on things now is that issues around the play the ball have largely been solved, but referees were nitpicking penalties above and beyond their preseason directives to police the defensive line and the play the ball.
So they’ve told the refs to back off. Again.
You can guarantee within weeks that we’re going to be back to the sprawling, spoiling tactics which somehow generate the mythical ‘flow’ everyone talks about, but can’t properly explain.
“I don’t want referees looking for penalties, what I want is referees to police those areas we have tasked them to do and allow the game to flow,” Greenberg said.
Once again, it appears the referees get publicly hung for doing their jobs as instructed.
In the lead-up to last week’s Origin series opener, the appointment of Ashley Klein and Gerard Sutton was almost universally panned. No matter where you looked, here were two undeserving, incompetent pretenders who shouldn’t have been in the same galaxy as a State of Origin game.
Now, their handling of Origin 1 is apparently the gold standard for how rugby league matches should be curated.
No consideration is given to the fact Origin brings together 34 of the best players in the league, playing in a three-game series where the impact of a penalty means much, much more than one given away in week 13 of 26.
No consideration, either, for the fact that this grouping of elite players only made a combined 13 errors.
Last Friday night against Penrith, Canberra made 16 errors of their own. That game was panned for taking too long because apparently the referees were blowing too many penalties, not because the Raiders were straight out garbage with their ball handling (they completed just 65% of their sets).
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The crackdown split the NRL community down the middle. You were either 100 per cent for it, or 100 per cent against it. There was no middle ground.
For each person who complained about the flood of penalties, there was another who fully supported the approach and wanted the game to move away from the greco-roman game style of recent years.
But there was one area where we all agreed, and that was wanting consistent decision making. If you think this new direction for referees is going to bring more consistency, prepare for disappointment.
Because, as Greenberg himself says, “Don’t over-referee, don’t look for things. Simply referee the play that’s in front of you.”
Nearly 18 penalties per game are conceded on average across the league. Now that number could easily be six, or it could easily be 30. That’s the nature of the game.
So don’t complain when the referee turns a blind eye to a transgression, because they’re just ‘allowing the game to flow’.
If there’s a major sporting league anywhere in the world that shows less respect for its officials than the NRL, I’m yet to encounter it.
Bashing refs is great fodder for broadcasters and fans but its long-term impact will be significant, with massive ramifications for the sport of rugby league.
On the victors’ side of the battlefield stand the Daily Telegraph, Channel Nine and some pockets of Fox League, who have vehemently campaigned against the direction since Week 1. They see this announcement as the NRL once again backing down when things get a bit too hot.
If the NRL thought they’d get credit from their opponents for this decision they’re sorely mistaken – these outlets have already pivoted to asking what the league is going to do when the spoiling tactics inevitably return.
I can’t wait for the opinion pieces complaining about referees letting things slide and not penalising teams. But there’s no doubt now everyone is on the same page: the flow must keep flowing – not even the rules of the game will stand in its way!
On the field, this news is manna from heaven for teams who love to spoil in the ruck like the Storm, Roosters and Sharks.
It’s amazing during this whole debacle that the coaches and players effectively escaped any serious scrutiny for the inflated penalty counts and record sin bins.
But why would they change? Their lived experience told them that all they needed to do was stick it out, keep infringing, keep complaining, and they’d get their way.
It’s not the first time the NRL squibbed a contest, and it most definitely won’t be the last. In fact, if this ‘crackdown’ couldn’t work with all the publicity, goodwill and support it was getting from fans, why on Earth would any future administration tempt fate by even thinking about doing something similar?