Is that a light at the end of the tunnel … Or a train?

It is heartening to see Daniel Anderson offering NRL coaches a seat at the table to discuss rules changes for the 2013 season. At the same time, it is easy to be disheartened when thinking back to the false starts that have accompanied such lofty ambitions.

Some of the possible rules changes were covered in a previous blog, and it is hoped some or all of these will have some independent traction at next week’s meeting. This isn’t a sterile debate, and is one of some import. The game can no longer afford to rely on the game’s positive features without regard to the negative. After all, any sport has elements in its favour, whether they be on-field or off-field in nature. And failing to rise to the challenge of simultaneously bettering the code, and responding to developments in other codes, effectively means standing still. This is untenable when you consider not only the sturm and drag about AFL franchise GWS in the battle for western Sydney (or, more correctly, it’s wallet), but the more pressing questions being asked by the A-League (and the Wanderers pose a much more formidable challenge than GWS).

One of the agenda items not covered in the blog mentioned above was obstruction. This rule, or the interpretation of it, has been a free-for-all for some time, culminating in a wave of impenetrable logic leading to a litany of inexplicable decisions offered during 2012. It is also an example of initial high hopes falling flat.

Notwithstanding the spectacular lack of success so far, this is a rule that cannot be rules-based. There has to be some room for interpretation based on the flow of play and angles generated by the attacking team and, of course, whether anyone was actually impeded! Of course, not having behemoths thundering into the defensive line like wildebeest is one way of eliminating doubt. The fact remains, however, that rugby league is a game of angles where an attacking player can literally brush past a defender who, even if they are the best defender in the game, cannot respond effectively if he is even slightly off the plane of a ball carrier moving at speed – ie. is moving in another direction and/or is off balance. There are some brilliant angle runners in the game (like Manly’s Anthony Watmough, amongst others) who slice through gaps a dentist couldn’t find. And why? Because they exploit the angle, whether by explicit design or intuition. Sweeping backline set plays are actually based on this very premise.

The interpretation of the rule thus far suggests referees do not understand this. It would help if they actually had some playing experience that would make this readily apparent, or just a simple appreciation of human movement. The point is this: Decoy X running ahead of the ball does not necessarily impede Defender Y, despite their proximity to each other. You cannot say my cat has 4 legs, my dog has 4 legs, therefore my dog is a cat! I’m going to have to get better at this technology and offer up some explanatory video contrasts, but robotic, deterministic rules-based obstruction laws do not work, cannot work, and therefore have to be crafted to appreciate this, and applied thoughtfully in practice (no mean feat, despite some former players being sought to adjudicate such matters).

It won’t stop the bleating, but ultimately there will be more correct decisions made.


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