Going back to the idea from the initial post that rugby league succeeds despite itself, let’s get some meat on them bones to begin the new year. What does that even mean?
It is not a comment directed at the standard of play, to be sure. The quality of the on-field product is its clear strong point. I’ll watch and appreciate the competitiveness and skill of a 10th v 14th on Super Saturday over a Bledisloe any day (it wasn’t always that way, but that that is rugby’s problem to solve, and boy is it a big one! And I’m sure I’ll write about that at some point too …). League is a game played by warriors, whose athleticism seems to grow exponentially on a yearly basis, and whose skill and toughness continues to amaze (even if some of the players’ behaviour does not). So it should be clear that the subject matter of blogs here comes from a good place. It is about how to most effectively advance what is simply an awesome product, but this doesn’t mean to imply there isn’t significant room for improvement …
Simply, if the game really wants to be considered (or be worthy of the phrase) the greatest game of all, it has to be able to not only move with the times (demographics, sponsorships and media, player access, rival competition for the sporting dollar including merchandising, and so on), it should strive to be a leader. Rugby league administrators and fans alike spend far too much time taking offence at other sports encroaching upon sacred rugby league territory in a classic them vs us mentality, and not enough on the positives of the game or pathways to improvement. The game tends to become overly insular which is a terribly negative framework from which to analyse, administer and improve the end-product. Perhaps this tribal approach is the real glue that binds, but still, there is an under-appreciation of how positive ideas from rival sports can be expressed in rugby league, and therefore a reactive approach to administrative policy.
Significant, even quite simple, changes that might well globalise the game and send it into the stratosphere are eschewed either because advancement may require following the lead of another sport (Oh the horror of falling on the McIntyre sword in favour of the AFL’s much more sensible model … how long did that take?!), or that the problem is misdiagnosed (such as banning the shoulder charge when the actual problem is attacking the head of an opponent)?
I say, stuff ‘em. Clearly that isn’t my best bedside manner, but our collective objective is to grow the sport to heights hitherto unimagined. Therefore, what rugby league should be doing is be shrewd, to take the best of the best from all codes from tiddlywinks to AFL if that is what it takes. Head in the sand won’t be a prescription on this site!
One of those rules that requires urgent change, and which will be an import from rugby, concerns attacking kicks that go dead in goal. Clearly, some kicks don’t deserve the epithet “attacking”, and teams are increasingly using the 20m restart as a defensive tactic to play field position, as well as to slow the game. This is not against the rules as they stand, but is a cynical approach to play. It is against the spirit of the game (I assume that still matters), and should therefore see a restart from the point where the kick was taken, or the 20m line, whichever is greatest. This is mindnumbingly simple. Some commentators like the idea of restarting at the 30m line. But why? It’s the same problem, just 10m upfield, and completely devoid of deterrent value. Time to rectify this game buster – no more kicks from half way restarting at the 20m line. They should restart from half way (or wherever the kick was taken).
While we’re at it, take time off for conversion kicks at goal. The moment a try is awarded, time stops until the resumption in play – ie. The next kick off. Players get a rest, but more importantly, we end the opportunity for a team to waste time, wandering back to the half way line like they’ve just limped out of the Simpson desert, and oh, just happen to have a small lead into the dying minutes of the game … It’s just unnecessary. Too much of the clock is chewed up this way already. There are several tries scored per game. This isn’t rugby! I’m also partial to stopping the clock when the ball has crossed the sideline in any capacity.
What about the try that results in said conversion? Surely there must be a ‘burden of proof” on scoring a try. Well, shouldn’t there? No more duds like Manly scoring controversially (and more than once) against the Cowboys in an elimination final. No more fingers somewhere near the ball in a stop-frame replay being rewarded with a try. There just has to be control – has to be. Scoring tries is not easy, but that doesn’t mean you need a reward just for getting close. And the defensive team should be rewarded for defending to the point where the try does not pass the reasonable doubt test. Grounding with the torso is a case in point. That’s not control, it’s circumstantial. You cannot claim possession in general play this way, and so it should be in a try-scoring situation. Why on earth is the super slow-mo not used for all tries referred to the video ref? There’s no guarantee they’ll get it right as 2012 so aptly demonstrated, but stop-frame? Seriously?
But there’s more …
The draw, the draw, the draw … The Dr. shares Craig Bellamy’s frustration. The draw has been sub-optimal for many years (just like the semi final system). It’s hysterical that the announcement of a locked-in draw for most of the home-and-away season was greeted as something major. But why should the NRL pay an offshore company good money to produce that draw, then proceed to have teams play each other twice within the first handful of rounds each season? Seriously, the Dr. could riff it out with his mates at the local pub over a few lagers and some air guitar. C’monn!
What about the travelling clown show that is refereeing? Clearly the refs do not feel empowered because the rules and media tell them to question every decision. I cannot speak authoritatively about developments behind the scenes and the ability of Harrrigan et al to make changes last year, so the jury is out on the change in leadership personnel (though it really did give every appearance of being ineffective, insipid and clueless ).
There will surely be countless opportunities to revisit this topic during 2013, so I won’t belabour the point, suffice it to add that there is no good reason for the game to be “slower” than a decade ago. It’s easy to relegate 4-man tackles and wrestling holds to the dustbins of history – penalise, penalise, penalise. It won’t last long! Why is there no official stomach to address this? Or to proactively empower referees to penalise tackles involving a new & improved version of a chicken wing/crusher/grapple/whatever? Maybe it’s time for yellow cards …
Oh, and touchies … What do they do? So many points to note, but the biggie is this – ever picked up the paper to see a picture of a sideline try from a game on the weekend? Where is the touchie? 10 yards behind the play, that’s where, with zero view of anything. When an attacking team is close to the line, there is absolutely no excuse for a touchie to be behind the play. Chasing Ben Barba for 100m is a different story, but touchies being behind the play is a systemic disease. They need to be accountable, and at least try to get it right. It they’re not going to add some sort of value, we may as well get the lingerie football players to run the lines.
ARLC and CEO issues will have to wait until another day, so just to round up a couple of other major issues …
Outlawing the shoulder charge is a bad decision. The sentiment is right given it is a direct response to punishing head contacts during the 2012 season. But there’s the issue right there – head contact is the problem, not shoulder charges (which are a miniscule part of the game). This is a classic misdiagnosis of the problem leading to an ineffective policy response, and will prove difficult to administer to boot! Significant controversy awaits. What constitutes a shoulder charge? That is, what part of the circumference of the body must the tackler’s arms envelope before the tackle becomes legitimate, and is therefore not a shoulder charge? Or is it sufficient to have one hand on the ball carriers’ body, or two? Can’t wait to see this! It will be a dog’s breakfast. If only the NRL would get tough on head contacts, the shoulder charge becomes a non issue … because it is a non issue. Head contact is the issue … a serious issue.
It seems pretty clear why the head has featured increasingly in shoulder charges – the only place that players cannot increase body mass is the head, and body mass has increased as the pace of play has slowed, and as interchanges have made their way into the game. A shoulder charge in the old days was almost always aimed at the torso, but with a larger opponent, the effect on the ball carrier is reduced, and the risk to the tackler is increased. Path of least resistance leads to the head. It’s pretty simple. Get tough on head contact, and there’s no problem.
But back to the interchange mentioned above (or as I like to say, a blue ribbon example of the law of unintended consequences). In this case, the idea that more interchange = less injury has turned out to be quite the opposite. As players become increasingly used as defensive or attacking weapons in shorter bursts, their size has predictably increased. Endurance and natural attrition play a much reduced role in the modern game, to its detriment. Collisions amongst fresher, larger players are phenomenal, so not only are injuries more prevalent, but players’ shelf lives are arguably shortened too.
This post is way too long already, and there will be ample opportunity to examine all these issues in more detail as the season approaches and begins. Hopefully there is some food for thought here.