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Proposed NRL rule changes fail to address the real problem

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Expert
16th July, 2019
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At Monday’s Round 17 weekly review, NRL Head of Elite Football Competitions Graham Annesley tested the winds and launched a kite high into the air.

“At the end of the year we have got the Competition Committee meeting again and one of things that I think we need to spend a fair bit of time on is examining our current rules and whether we can actually make the game easier to officiate,” Annesley said.

Far as thought bubbles go, it’s a doozy. The NRL’s ‘Laws and Interpretations 2019’ document runs only 19 pages and a bunch of those pages are only half filled with text.

The AFL’s rules of the game document is 70 pages long. Rugby Australia’s is 168 pages long. The point here is that calling a rugby league game is already a pretty straightforward outing for referees.

The examples Annesley raised were whether knock ons in aerial contests should be called or let go as a ‘bobble’, and double movements in scoring a try.

These are supposedly pedantic rules that make the game harder to referee. I would have thought that knock ons were kind of non-negotiable, either the ball is knocked forward or it isn’t. Right?

Why stop at letting knock ons go in aerial contests? Let it happen around the ground. Plenty of times the ball is lost in a tackle and regathered before hitting the ground, but knock-on is called.

On the other hand, I can live without the double movement rule. There’s been some borderline comedic situations where a player is trying to defy the laws of physics and gravity to stop himself doing a double movement.

Gold Coast Titans CEO Graham Annesley

Graham Annesley. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

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If it’s good enough for union to let a player fight to the line, it’s good enough for league.

But if players can now crawl themselves to the line to score, will they be penalised for trying to score a few extra metres in general play? And if the plan is to make things easier, why limit changes to try scoring?

Part of this thinking is to cut back on time spent making decisions. It’s been mentioned a few times throughout the year that the NRL want less ‘dead time’, with faster bunker decisions and general cleanups in timekeeping. The ball is in play for around 55 of the 80 minutes on the clock.

There’s a simple way to bump that number up. Stop the clock for penalties. Don’t run the clock down for conversions or penalty kicks. In fact, stop the clock whenever the ball goes out of bounds.

But I’m getting off topic.

Simplicity of the rules is an honourable enough goal, but it still doesn’t tackle one of rugby league’s biggest problems – the #refsfault culture and disrespect for match officials that the NRL have well and truly let spiral out of control.

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I’ve asked this quite a few times now, and I’ll ask it again. Is there a sporting league on earth that treats its referees with such little respect as rugby league does?

From junior league crowds all the way to the NRL CEO, scapegoating the referee is second nature. It really is an unedifying feature of a great game.

NRL commentators regularly spend their broadcasts complaining about referees and decisions, whether the broadcaster is right or not. A lot of the time the complaint is from a former player who either doesn’t know the rules, or just doesn’t like them being enforced.

For them, it’s all about the mythical, magical ‘flow’ to a game that is so, so important to the Channel Nine commentary team, but has still never actually been explained to anyone.

Ref bashing is endemic in the game’s culture and for the most part NRL head office stands pat, doing bugger all to stand up for their employees as people rip in from all angles.

To be fair, Annesley has stood up for the referees compared to most in the last few years. Previous referee’s boss Tony Archer seemed to relish highlighting errors for the media. I can’t remember one instance of him protecting his crew of defending a referee – for him, they were human shields.

Head office should be publicly standing by their officials no matter what. Support or defend, it doesn’t matter. It just needs to happen more to send the message that referees are being looked after.

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George Burgess being placed on report.

George Burgess being replaced on report. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The NRL are still willing to publicly hang their match officials to appease the loudest voices, because they’re terrified Phil Gould and Buzz Rothfield will say mean things about them.

Ref’s faulting has come back into vogue over the last month or so. And if the NRL briefing for referees was that they can pick and choose what rules to apply to protect the ‘flow’, what did they think was going to happen?

Imagine Ashley Klein goes to his weekly review and is questioned on a non-call. If he says “I didn’t think it was worth calling, it would have stopped the flow,” what’s the discipline? Klein’s acted in line wth his instructions.

For the good Annesley is doing with his weekly briefings, he pretty much forfeited the right to talk about ‘sloppy’ refereeing performances the instant he and Greenberg told the crew that some rules were more important than others.

It would appear the mooted rule change discussion is going to happen, because Annesley doesn’t go out and float an idea that big without telling anyone.

Is it really necessary though?