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Opinion

The cheekiest rule in rugby league

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Expert
17th December, 2019
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What do you do, as a governing body, if there’s a rule you need but you don’t have the resources to enforce it?

In Super League, coaches have been taking the Mick with late changes to their starting teams for years.

If a guy is coming back from injury, you don’t name him in your 19-man squad and just dump him into your 17 on game day. Happens every few weeks.

Of course, you do have to come up with cockamamie story about a last-minute injury but no-one seems to bother with the plain fact that – to make a change justifiably – you actually need three genuine injuries.

The rules are there to protect the integrity of the competition against insiders taking bookies to the cleaners, after a controversy at St Helens years ago. The way it was being abused means it served no such purpose.

But rugby league in England doesn’t have an integrity unit – the staff of the NRL’s integrity unit is probably comparable the entire office of Super League.

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So, how to enforce the spirit of this rule without actually sending independent doctors into 12 dressing rooms a weekend?

In all three divisions, the RFL has extended the squad sizes from 19 to 21 – give with one hand – and any team that brings in someone from outside for game day is stripped of an interchange – take with the other!

It’s kinda brilliant, right? We’re not going to try to establish if you’ve done something shifty, we don’t have the staff or time for that. Whatever. If you want to be shifty you can – with one less interchange!

All those coaches trying to be clever have been told they can be as clever as they like. Regardless of their motivations – one less interchange.

But it’s not perfect.

Let’s say you’re planning to field an understrength team and only the groundsman and the guy who delivers the Dencorub to training knows. You name your four best players in the 21-man squad but actually you intend to rest them and two others.

It’s not clear to me if you lose an interchange for each additional player brought in or you just lose one if you bring in any number of additional players.

It should definitely be the former.

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If you’re fielding a weakened team anyway, losing one interchange is hardly a huge punishment when you’ve taken it upon yourself, for whatever reason, to risk defeat.

In fact, the only time you’d risk losing an interchange is if you wanted to send out a reserve grade side and didn’t want the opposition to know. Would you do it anymore with a player coming back from injury?

I think not.

Let’s say Toronto have Sonny Bill Williams coming back from a stint on the sidelines. Would Brian McDermott knowingly cost himself an interchange in exchange for the element of surprise? No, not even in a grand final.

But playing in the Challenge Cup against lower division opposition? Perhaps he’d like to toughen up the boys he does use by giving them longer spells. In that circumstance, he could bring in a lesser player or two from outside the 21 (Toronto a bad example here as they have a small squad) and cop the consequences.

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So even though it’s one of the cheekiest operational rules we can remember from officialdom, it still doesn’t achieve its purpose of protecting the integrity of the competition in an era when sports betting is a reality.

A clever workaround, but it doesn’t take the place of real policing. Whenever you mix operational rules – those around the periphery of match day – with the laws of the actual game, there are unforeseen circumstances.

We shall watch with interest.