Heads have got to roll.
There are few things worse in the sporting pantheon than seeing a totally avoidable situation impact upon a game negatively, especially one that has been warned against for years.
But that’s what happened when the Roosters orange shirt trainer interfered with the play during the 2019 grand final. The referees’ decision to award the scrum to the Roosters was technically correct – but morally wrong.
The blame lies squarely with NRL Operations and their complicity for years in letting the trainers flaunt the rules of the game.
Two sets after a person who shouldn’t have been allowed on the field interfered with the play – albeit not intentionally – the Chooks scored a vital try. In a match won by six points, it was a pivotal moment.
When Sia Soliola charged down the Luke Keary kick, it rebounded directly into the Roosters trainer who was – for some unknown reason – on the field.
This wasn’t a bizarre isolated incident.
This was an accident that had been waiting to happen for years.
They have been warned for years of the risk that a sudden change in possession could see a trainer get caught up in the play.
Yet the NRL Operations Manager – Nathan McGuirk – has been allowing the team trainers to blatantly operate in contravention of the NRL’s own rules that are detailed in their Operations Manual.
Here is the key area of the NRL’s Manual that has only been vaguely enforced since at least the 2015 season:
“In all cases when trainers enter the field of play to either; attend to an injured player, carry water, or deliver individual messages, they must immediately leave the field once their assigned task has been completed and return to the player’s bench.”
That isn’t even sort of what happens.
They are always on the field.
The NRL’s guidelines clearly state that their presence on the field cannot in any way constitute a disadvantage to the opposing team either.
So while the referees’ decision to award the scrum to the Roosters could be argued to be correct – although there is a counter-argument that the charge down changed the attacking team to be the Raiders – there is no question that morally the ball should have gone to the Raiders.
In the AFL if the ball touches a runner it is a free kick and a 50-metre penalty to the opposition team. That really incentivises them to stay the hell away from the play.
In the NRL the orange trainers can’t carry any messages at all. Their role is to attend to injured players, provide water (only when their team is in possession), and they can also be involved in the on-field interchange process.
So what exactly was the Roosters trainer doing directly behind the line in just the third minute of the grand final?
There was no one injured, and as it was the very start of the match there were no interchanges to be made, nor did anyone require water.
Yet there the Roosters orange shirt trainer was. On the field. And in the way.
He was being allowed to be there and when he got in the way of an opposition attacking chance it was his side that directly benefited.
Rather than Elliott Whitehead having the opportunity to scoop up the ball and try to make the try line, the Roosters got the scrum and, two consecutive sets later, scored a vital try instead.
It was a crucial incident and a completely avoidable one. McGuirk’s job is to make sure the games are run in line with the rules set out in the Operations Manual. This incident is a complete failure on his part.
The NRL will fine the hell out of a coach for not speaking at a press conference – another rule in their operations manual – but the orange and blue shirt trainers are constantly on the field, which poses an actual risk to the gameplay. Their priorities are massively out of whack to say the least.
You might not think trainers on the field is a big deal. However, with it comes dangers. Dangers McGuirk has positively been informed of, and should understand.
Firstly, it allows on-field coaching, which blatantly occurs every game but is forbidden.
Secondly, it poses the risk of the trainers illegally getting involved with the match, as Alan Langer did in Round 4, 2016.
Further, Kurt Wrigley did it in Round 16, 2016 when the then Rabbitohs assistant coach and blue shirt trainer, violently reefed the ball out from under a possibly injured Tyrone Peachey.
While Wrigley was suspended for a week, nothing occurred to Langer.
Thirdly, it poses the risk that the trainers will get in the way of the play – just as the Roosters trainer did in the biggest match of 2019.
In the 2016 grand final, Cronulla Sharks blue shirt trainer Steve Price was illegally on the field in the last moments of the grand final. He had been yelling out instructions to the Shark’s defenders from the sideline.
However, he was actually on the field of play during the crucial last moments, and it was widely contended that the Storm’s Ben Hampton may have confused Price for a Sharks defender and chosen not to pass to the actually completely unmarked Chase Blair as a result.
McGuirk has been warned repeatedly about these risks for years. And yet Todd Greenberg now has a massive headache on the very topic.
How McGuirk will try to explain it away is anyone’s guess. Fortunately, Ben Cummins’ almighty six-again blunder has taken some of the blowtorch off his belly.
It’s s good bet that there will be blamestorming happening right now at NRL HQ in Moore Park.
McGuirk should be praying that his scalp isn’t the one his superiors find to be the most convenient to throw to the baying mob.
I see no reason why it shouldn’t be though.
In spite of being repeatedly warned about the risks of non-enforcement, he’s continually failed to enforce the rules in regards to trainers on the field.
And now that’s caused a major issue in a grand final – and it was totally avoidable.
It’s well overdue for Greenberg to call him to account.