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Opinion

The ARLC doesn’t need to change NRL rules, just enforce them!

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10th December, 2019
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The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) board seemingly don’t know that rules are already in place to prevent an incident like the one in the 2019 NRL grand final, where Roosters trainer Travis Touma interfered with the play.

The problem is that the rules that specifically limit the time trainers can be on the field aren’t being enforced and that lack of enforcement created the risk that directly led to the incident.

The big issue is not in the way the play was restarted, although that was patently unjust.

NRL CEO Todd Greenberg, operations manager Nathan McGuirk and head of football elite competitions Graham Annesley failed to enforce the rules that were put in place to control the trainers’ access to the field of play.

The buck must stop with them.

Gold Coast Titans CEO Graham Annesley

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

However, the press statement that came out of NRL HQ included the following statement: “the Commission agreed that further limitations should be placed on the time orange and blue shirt trainers could spend on the field. The specific constraints will be finalised prior to the February Commission meeting.”

What exactly are they talking about? The NRL operations manual clearly states that the trainers are only permitted fleeting and specific access to the field. The restrictions are already clearly there.

They don’t need enhancing, they need enforcing.

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That the ARLC could make the above statement raises the pertinent question of whether they actually even know the rules of the game.

The rules already say trainers can’t be out there the whole time and that they can’t coach players or call the play. However, they have been flouting those rules for at least a decade.

I’ve been railing against this dereliction of duty for half a decade, warning that exactly this sort of incident could occur. Again, and again, and again, and again I have pointed out the clear risks and the simple remedy.

It is bleedingly obvious that if you allow third parties on the field, you run the risk of them interfering with the play. The more they are on the field, the higher the chance of that happening becomes.

We’re not talking about brain surgery. It’s common sense. It is an obvious risk.

And it is a totally unnecessary risk. What does anyone gain from that risk being tolerated? While the coaches may like having the extra guidance on the field directly behind their players, there is no other upside to allowing the trainers on the field. There is only risk.

That the NRL has continued to allow it to happen beggars belief.

Annesley came out with absolute rubbish like this about trainer interference, in regard to the new rule to restart play by replaying the previous play the ball: “[it’s] a way to restart the game after an incident happens, that really happens unexpectedly through no one’s fault in particular.”

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It astounds me that he has the nerve to utter those words.

The incident didn’t happen unexpectedly. NRL HQ has been warned for years and you should have understood the risk posed by allowing the trainers virtually unfettered access. You should have known the importance of the rules in the NRL’s own operations manual and made sure they were enforced.

But you didn’t. McGuirk didn’t. Greenberg didn’t either.

So when the ball cannoned into the Roosters’ orange-shirt trainer – robbing the Raiders of advantage, stopping the play and handing the Tricolours another set of six – the responsibility for that situation happening belongs entirely to you three. It was your job to limit the access of trainers to the field of play and you failed.

Joseph Leilua

Raiders fans still can’t get over the incident with the Roosters trainer in this year’s grand final. (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

That you have the audacity to try and gloss over your clear failure to do your job just insults the fans of the game.

I’ve only seen two tangible actions the NRL has taken in regard to the steadily rising criticism of trainers being allowed such huge access to the field of play.

The first was that the NRL removed the operations manual from public sight. I guess people can’t complain about the rules not being enforced if they don’t know what they are. Go on, try and find the 2019 NRL operations manual.

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The second action I’ve seen is that back in March 2017, McGuirk sent out an edict to his ground managers to tell the trainers that they had to come off the field after the fourth tackle. I personally witnessed Andrew Webster – the Wests Tigers blue-shirt trainer at the time – being given this instruction.

The instruction almost certainly recognised that the final tackle was a time far more prone to quick and unpredictable changes in possession, and therefore far more likely to see trainers impact the play.

For a fair while it was actually enforced too. However, in the 2019 grand final it wasn’t.

The Sia Soliola chargedown of the Luke Keary kick happened on the fifth tackle and Touma was standing directly behind the play, making no effort to leave the field. Further, the vision also shows Touma being on the field from right from kick off.

So on the NRL’s biggest day of the year, those charged with running the game were being even more loose with the rules than usual.

Despite all of this evidence, Annesley has the gall to say that the incident happened “unexpectedly through no one’s fault in particular.”

While I don’t want to hang the same amount of blame on them, the referees and touch judges can also act to get the trainers off the field at any time, yet they don’t.

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They should be reminded of their powers. This vision from the 2008 under-20s comp not only shows ex-NRL first-grade official Luke Potter taking control of a game by sorting out a heated incident, it also shows just how officials can – and should – deal with trainers who are on the field outside of the rules.

Potter just tells him to get off. No mucking around at all. There should be more of it. Lots more.

The subsequent rule change – that referees will replay the previous play-the-ball instead of resetting with a scrum in favour of the attacking team – does not address the fact the advantage has been robbed from the opposition team and it in no way punishes the team with the miscreant trainer.

It is an ineffectual change that does not address the root problem.

What will it take for the NRL to actually deal with this scourge properly? Does a trainer need to charge down a field goal? Make a covering tackle?

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The rule change is only acceptable if the interference involves a referee or touch judge, or if the interference involves a trainer who is attending to a badly injured player – especially as this should have prompted the officials to halt play anyway.

Any other interference in the play involving a trainer must be dealt with harshly.

No other top-level sport – football, rugby union, cricket, NFL – allows even close to the level of third-party access to the playing field trainers get in the NRL.

In the AFL, if a runner has any impact on the field of play – regardless of where that occurs in relation to the play – it is instantly a 50-metre penalty to the opposition. I can assure you that the runners are motivated to not impact upon the play.

When it comes to the penalties that could be put in place in regard to trainers impacting on the play, I have some suggestions.

First, that the team the trainer belongs to has the player in closest proximity to the trainer at the time of the interference sent to the sin bin for ten minutes.

Second, a penalty is immediately awarded to the opposition side, with the option of an immediate quick tap being available.

Third, if the interference had the potential of stopping a try being scored, a penalty try will be awarded, with only absolute evidence that a try would not have been scored being able to overrule that call.

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Fourth, the trainer’s club should receive a considerable monetary fine, with the trainer suspended from involvement in games for a minimum of two games – more if the incident warrants it.

Gerard Sutton

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Anyone arguing against these penalties needs to answer this question: why do you think trainers being on the field is so important?

What essential value do you think they provide to the game that means they shouldn’t face extreme sanction if they interfere with the play?

All I can see in regards to trainers on the field is a totally unnecessary risk that has been allowed to proliferate for no good reason. That risk needs to be minimised and the best way to minimise that risk is by the teams self-policing because of the real threat of penalties.

It really is that simple.

So, ARLC chairman V’landys, if you actually want to fix this issue properly, I suggest you take out your biggest stick and get rid of the people who have allowed this situation to happen.

In their place, get some people who can actually enforce the rules, and put in place some big, scary penalties for any teams who are still stupid enough to flout the rules.

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Alternatively, you can just talk a big game but actually only tinker around the edges in an ineffectual way.

I’ve heard that you are a man who doesn’t muck and who doesn’t tolerate incompetence. I am hoping that reputation turns out to be true.

Keep reading below for the exact laws around trainers’ roles on the field of play.

The NRL Operations Manual in regards to Trainers roles / treatment of injured players
1.43 TRAINERS ROLES / TREATMENT OF INJURED PLAYERS

1.43.1
Each team may engage and use a maximum of three trainers during matches. In no case shall the Head Coach of a club act as a Trainer in any match.

1.43.2
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. Trainers must remain within the bench area until their team regains possession or until they accompany an interchange player and the interchange official to the touchline in preparation to effect an interchange. There are no other circumstances under which it is permissible for trainers to move away from the bench area.

1.43.3
At all times Trainers must enter and leave the field as quickly as possible (i.e. running) without interfering with play.

1.43.4
Trainers are not permitted on the field during scrums except in the case of a serious injury in which case the Orange Trainer may attend.

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1.43.5
The specific roles and responsibilities of each trainer are as follows:

a. Orange Trainer – (Medical)
i. Is allowed unlimited access to the playing field to attend to injured players.
ii. may provide fluids to Players when his team is in possession of the ball.
ii. Must not carry messages.
iii. Is allowed to be involved in the on-field interchange process whilst his team is in possession of the ball.

b. Yellow Trainer- (Medical assistant)
i. May sit with the Head Trainer but can only enter the field of play as provided in (ii) below and in the following emergencies at the direction of the head trainer;
1. To help the Head Trainer assist an injured Player from the field.
2. To treat an injured Player if there is more than one injured Player and the head trainer is already occupied.
ii. Is not to carry water unless a try (including video referee decisions) has been scored or the two Club doctors of the participating Clubs agree that the extreme weather conditions require each Team to have an additional water carrier. If competing Clubs cannot agree, the NRL Ground Manager will make the final decision on whether additional water carriers are permitted. If agreed, the Yellow trainer’s duties are limited to carrying water when his team is in possession. He cannot carry messages under any circumstances. (See also Extraordinary Weather Conditions 1.10.3.3)
iii. May refill drink containers and offer other assistance off the field of play.
iv. Is allowed to be involved in the off-field interchange process (i.e. to assist the NRL Interchange official).

c. Blue Trainer – (Messages)
i. The Blue (Messages) Trainer’s duties are limited to:-
1. Interchange of Players.
2. Provision of water.
3. Carrying messages to individual Team members.
ii. Is allowed access to the playing field:
1. When his team is in possession.
2. When a try has been scored.
3. While waiting for a Video Referee decision in relation to a try.
4. During a time-out called by the referee for an injury.
5. During a drop out.
iii. Must enter and leave the playing field without interfering with play.
iv. Must not give general messages to the Team or otherwise assist in the task of coaching (save for the carrying of messages to individual Team members) while play is progressing.

1.43.11 On-Field Trainer Communication Equipment
a. No Trainers communication equipment is allowed on-field during any match.

1.43.12 Comply with Instructions
a. Trainers must at all times comply with any direction or instruction from match officials or NRL Ground Managers. Trainers must not at any time while carrying out their duties make argumentative, disparaging, derogatory, or offensive comments to any match officials or NRL Ground Managers.

1.43.13 Limitation of Role
a. Trainers must not become involved in any match, including approaching or having any contact with players, other than in strict compliance with their specific role and responsibilities as detailed in Section 1.43 of this Manual.
b. Under no circumstances are trainers permitted to approach or become involved in an altercation or melee involving players from either competing team. This includes not attempting to separate or restrain players who may be attempting to become involved in the incident.