NRL Round 4 Rubdown

I’m not sure what it is about Friday night NRL. Whether it’s poor scheduing, high tackles and sin bins, or significant penalty anomalies, it is gaining notoriety for its ability to generate controversy. Then again, maybe that’s just rugby league! There is no shortage of it, that’s for sure, and part of me thinks that a large reason we pine for each new season to begin is to allow us an excuse to be justifiably outraged once again. Talkback radio can only fill the gap for so long …

I’m not sure either how I can continue to be so derelict in my time management that a very early Rubdown recapping Friday night’s events remains unwritten even up until now. As far as disgraces go, I’m right up there in the rarified air of NRL broadcasters and referees … Not really, it is April Fool’s after all 🙂 (well, almost)

But to begin on a personal high point, the early rounds of 2014 have been notable for the return of the chip kick in general play – a thrill that has been missing from the overly engineered attacking structures of recent years. Luke Brooks in particular has formed a remarkable partnership with James Tedesco, and it’s a real crowd pleaser.

Memo NRL: I, for one, would like to see a LOT more of James Tedesco, so if you could make sure he isn’t belted out of the game a la Adam Ritson, that would be very much appreciated. He has already suffered more than his fair share of high tackles and knees (no citing on the weekend, I see …).

As a digression, I can see why the chip became a tale of legend, like the Jedi. I mean, control of the ball is key, and the chip kick does carry risk of turning over possession. An old coach used to refer to loose ball as the enemy, so I understand the preoccupation with dominating possession as if it’s a nervous tic.

So, watching the chip kick variations on Friday night was exhilarating. Whether it was the Dragons against the Broncos, or the Daly Cherry-Evans version that I wish had bounced better for him, or the encore by Chris Sandow against the Penny Panthers on the weekend, I look forward to seeing more of it through the season.

Unfortunately, there are a few issues that keep cropping up, and Friday night’s Roosters/Manly match was yet another example. So let’s continue last week’s theme of obstruction.

Obstruction – for catchers

Last week’s Rubdown noted the increasing prevalence of defenders protecting their catchers under the high ball by running overt interference on chasers. It is becoming an ugly blight on the game that is against the rules, and against the spirit of competition. Fortunately, it is easily fixed (with a penalty, or series of them that will easily eradicate it from the game). Unfortunately, this was also the case for the cannonball tackle, and we know how long that took!

Manly’s ‘Wolfman’ had argued during the week that it made sense to target him on the wing with the high ball given his putrid performance against the Polynesian Avatar, Daniel Tupou, in last year’s Grand Final. He was saying that in the full knowledge that part of Friday night’s game plan was to scatter players in Daniel Tupou’s path like rogue bullets in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Jamie Lyon, in particular, saw and raised Beau Champion’s previous mastery of this tactic, and didn’t seem to even look at the ball at all – only Tupou, who was unable to get near the ball.

This is obstruction. Were these players making an attempt at the ball, then it’s an entirely different situation. As the law states:

NRL Escorts

It’s worth noting that this type of blocking has reached epidemic proportions across the NRL, and Friday night’s match was simply another step in its evolution. Once you’re allowed to get away with something, it becomes part of the game, a nasty ingrained habit that makes an ingrown toenail look like Cindy Crawford, and very much like the hand-between-legs lifting tackle that ended so tragically the week before.

The Roosters might have had more success bombing the right wing, where the Manly training drills would not have been so concentrated, and therefore less effective. They will need to think better on their feet, as well as work on their discipline if they are to repeat last year’s performance.

Regardless, by allowing (all) teams the ability to obstruct without sanction, the NRL is implicitly saying they would prefer less bombs, or kicks with ‘long hang-time’. I, for one, hope this isn’t the case. It is one of the great sights and contests in rugby league.

One man who is valiantly forming a one-man rearguard action against doing away with the bomb, however, is Lote Tuquiri. In so doing, he is also putting the ‘retro’ back into rugby league (a la the increasing frequency of the chip kick). I haven’t seen a catcher attempt to catch so many high balls with his shoulder since the 70s and 80s. It didn’t work then either, but it’s tremendous theatre, and encourages the attacking team to keep giving it a whirl, obstruction or not. I watched Resurrection last night, and I can’t help thinking we’re seeing Steve Mavin all over again.

I should add (late, and a benefit of procrastination) that the Monday night game between the Titans and Cowboys had a wonderful example of a (Titans) player legally blocking in a kick situation late in the game (by arriving early and holding his ground).

Further, the Titans’ 2nd try came from a high ball too. Had the blocking been as effective (illegal) as Friday night, they may well have stopped it completely. Or they may have been penalised, who the hell knows!

Obstruction – in attack

When I see NRL guidelines that say:

“If, in the opinion of the referee/video, the play had no effect on the scoring of the try, the try will be awarded”

… my heart glows like ET’s (the alien, not Ettingshausen), because it implies that there is a spirit to the law, and that it is not purely rules-based.

Its almost too painful to recollect the state the obstruction law was in this time last year after Daniel Anderson, the coach in referees boss’ clothing, made a nonsense of it. Infamously, tries were disallowed because a breath of air from a decoy brushed against a defender in a neighbouring galaxy light years away.

Obstruction cannot be rules-based. It has to adhere to the spirit noted above of whether a defender was realistically impeded from stopping a try, and not just making a bad defensive read, by commission or omission – ie. tackling a decoy or positioning his weight to do so, or standing there like a deer in the headlights without committing to anything or anyone!

In that regard, I thought the Chooks were a bit hard done by late in Friday night’s loss. But they’re not the first, nor will they be the last.

Judging obstruction on the above metric will still inevitably lead to disagreeable decisions, but within a narrower margin of error – ie. On a net basis, more good decisions will be made.

What is the referee’s game plan?

Looking across the weekend’s action so far, fans are well within their rights to question what the referees are trying to achieve out there on the field. Let’s look at just a few of standouts.

Only the true diehard Roosters-haters will fail to recognise the difference with which both teams in Friday’s Grand Final rematch were treated. It is the same for those who dislike Manly (after Toovey’s famous outburst last year), or Parramatta (witness Jarryd Hayne’s displeasure last week) or the Tigers this weekend, or any other team that have had a poor night with the officials. It’s sour grapes and all evens out, say the ‘wise ones’. Well, it doesn’t really. Unless I missed one of Newton’s laws somewhere along the line, or a specific law of thermodynamics has equally escaped me, I know of no law of nature that decrees bad decisions even out.

Context matters, always.

The Roosters have a minor discipline problem that seems to guarantee a lopsided penalty count at the best of times. I thought they’d have eradicated that by now. Alas … Even so, the 9-penalty differential on Friday night was an abomination. A more more neutral reading would have had it 3-4. Still in deficit, but a game-changing difference. When marginal calls are made in favour of one team, and even more obvious ones let go for the other, then there is a problem.

The irony of that match is that the Roosters will have gained a lot of heart from their bravery. It’s not something the Roosters were particularly known for until last year, and Manly would have beaten most by 30+ points with nearly 60% possession.

No one disputes good and bad decisions will be made. Referees are human, after all. But they should conduct themselves like a government department in my opinion (public servants, not poilticians, obviously), by holding themselves to the highest levels of probity – ie. do everything possible to mitigate claims of incompetence, or worse, bias, by focussing intensely on consistency.

Moving on to the spear tackle in the Storm/Bulldogs match that was not even penalised. Apparently not one of the two referees or touch judges or video referees saw this, which looked even worse in real-time:Storm Bulldogs spear tackle

A week after a tragic accident, referees do nothing?

So I wonder aloud again – do referees endeavour to enforce dangerous tackle rules, such as:

Dangerous Throw

… Or was last week a distant memory?

And why can Johnathan Thurston be allowed to score from a quick tap in Round 1 when the defence had a post-penalty nap, yet Gareth Widdop be denied the same opportunity on Friday (Round 4)?

The quick tap was always going to be a dog’s breakfast for this very reason. Sadly, nothing appears to have changed. It’s as if there was no rule amendment at all. And worse, it was always going to be this way! Just scrap it.

One Rule to rule them all …

JWH predictably attracted a disproportionate grading in my opinion (Grade 2, 1-2 weeks) for an accidental shoulder clash to Manly’s Glenn Stewart’s head that left him concussed. Given SBW returns next week, I would imagine the Roosters will consider taking the week and moving on. Yet, I’m struck by the apparent unfairness of it all, and they should probably fight it.

In a remarkably similar incident, the Bulldogs’ James Graham was hit in the head by Jordan Maclean’s shoulder in Perth, surely leaving Graham thinking he was back in Bankstown talking to Channel 9 reporters. Yet, not even a penalty was awarded from my recollection, and certainly no citing.

Tonight’s match saw the Cowboys penalised for a high tackle from a late kick off return, yet no citing. To be clear, the first tackle runner after a kick off is usually lined up from 20 metres back. It is odd to me that no report was issued given that context, though there would have been had the Titans player stayed on the ground.

Both tacklers in the JWH and Maclean examples were standing quite upright without shoulders cocked and loaded, which discounts intention. Both events were what I would class as the type of accidental contact that happens in a contact sport, with the key difference being the Maclean-Graham incident was more front on contact.

Judge them all, or judge none.

Tigers licking the wounds of thudding back to earth

Last week’s Rubdown rapped the Tigers, but cautioned against extrapolation. If you don’t know what I mean about extrapolation, it is like when you do something once, and your wife accuses you of doing it all the time! Something like that.

Noting their consistency is not yet worthy of being considered a top 8 side, they have now been flogged twice (average score 43-21), and won twice (average score 34-14).

Their two wins were impressive, but let’s not get hung up on recency bias again.

Like any team so far this year, the ability to play long spells of quality football that last weeks, and are merely cameos of halves here and there, will be the differentiating factor in the end as to who makes the finals.

Funnily enough (given we’re talking about the Tigers and inconsistency), this season has all the hallmarks of 2005. I was happy the Tigers won that year, but I don’t know many people who actually believed they were the standout team of the year. The inconsistency so far this year (by all teams) may just throw up a surprise at the end of the year.

So who’s more important – fullback or hooker?

In the absence of influential fullbacks early in the season, the position has been labeled the  singularly most important on the paddock. Firstly, Greg Inglis was poleaxed early in the Tigers match, and the team floundered without any sense of direction. Whether it was his talismanic properties, or that Souths simply cannot do without him, is debatable.

The absence of James Tedesco under the concussion rule for the Tigers on the weekend (courtesy of Nathan Friend leading with his knees – no citing), was similarly blamed for the Tigers going off the rails.

But look what happens when a team loses a hooker (or Set of Six worker, as I like to call them). Nathan Peats’ absence coincided with Parramatta’s mauling at the hands of the Roosters, Isaac Luke’s injury has seen the Rabbitohs completely lose their way, and the Storm … Well, we all know what happens when Cam Smith doesn’t play.

Moral of the story? Don’t believe fullback is necessarily the most important position in the team. Clearly the ability of individual players matters – a lot. Personally, I feel the halves are the most instrumental positions, but whatever … Tomato, Taumata …

Should Bunnies fans be concerned?

It’s folly to get overly concerned at this point, but something’s not quite right. The absence of Isaac Luke has been documented and John Sutton is nowhere near the answer at dummy half, either. But something is still not right.

And Sam Burgess breaking his own media ban to deny rumours is a bit like the full support of the board line.

I’ve been wary ever since Burgess’ move to rugby was announced, on top of the hangover that seems to beset a team that has reached the Preliminary Final consecutively and failed both times. We then had the expose stories of unrest, and specifically Burgess-related.

Now, apparently, some players have issues with the coach! I take a fairly dim view of this, believing it is not for the players to engage in mutiny given they are paid good money to be professional. In the real world, employees either leave if they are unhappy, or they are ‘let go’ if they allow disaffection to allow them to produce a sub-standard performance.

But a clear sign that the warren is edgy comes through in the stats. How does (for example) George Burgess run 3 times in the 1st half for 13 metres, and Sam 8 runs for 59 metres? The second half improved immensely, but the game had been lost already at 0-22.

Completions are low … I could go on … It’s natural to ask why their mind is not on the job. I know the fans would like to know.



5 thoughts on “NRL Round 4 Rubdown

  1. Doctor, taking a few points in order:

    Let’s not overreact. Tedesco isn’t in danger of being belted out of the game (nor was Ritson), but he may end up with the head of a first-grade footballer…

    The spirit of the obstruction guideline is good. I’d like to see it interpreted as:
    – A defender should not be assumed to be out of play (and therefore fair game for the decoy to impede) just because he has started to go for a decoy. Defenders can, and often do, manage to reposition themselves after an initial incorrect read. This must be allowed.

    – Just because a couple of passes are thrown after the potential obstruction is not sufficient to say the obstruction had no significant effect. Outside defenders often reposition themselves in response to an inside obstruction, leaving gaps that would not otherwise be there. The try is then scored some distance from the obstruction but is still a result of the obstruction.

    – Benefit of the doubt should go to the defenders. I like to see clean tries and no reward for sloppy attack.

    These first two points are directly in line with the NRL guideline (and obvious) but I’m not sure they are applied by referees always.

    Presumably you meant the Manly:Easts penalty ratio should have been 3:4 (say 9+12 penalties blown), not actually just 3+4 penalties. As you often point out, the referees are not martinets and sometimes let foul play or minor infringements slide. Two-thirds of the penalties against the Roosters (or any side) were not unwarranted.

    What I’d most like to see the referees abandon is their managing the game. They call some players out of play for being off-side (for example). How can they then penalise another player who wasn’t warned? And they should never caution a player that they’ve committed several infringements and the next will be penalised. The first & second should be penalised. There’s a good chance the third won’t happen at all then. (Again, an obvious point.)

    • Re Roosters-Manly, I was referring to a more appropriate penalty ‘gap’ of 3 to 4, rather than the wildly inappropriate 9-penalty gap. Watching the se offence committed both ways, but only penalized in one direction, actually ruined what was really a tough, pulsating game for me.

      On obstructions, I see Phil Gould has finally brought up the subject today, so I expect other commentators to now ‘discover’ the issue with a sense of revelation.

      On your point, and I think I covered it in the blog, the Titans engaged in a perfect block that was to the exact letter of the law – the blocker was in position extremely early, then stayed there. He didn’t make any further advance toward the catcher, and e’s actually about 10m away from said catcher in the end. I have no problem with the way it was executed. It was expertly done.

      Lyon against the Roosters was an embarrassment and an indictment of the referees. I’d usually lump touch judges in there too, but I’ve truly given up on them as adding any value.

      • 3 or 4 difference in penalties is probably fair – no argument had I read it properly the first time.

        On positioning early for escorting catchers: On the weekend I saw someone do just that, but then hold his arms out like an aeroplane. I guess that’s within the letter of the law but I didn’t like it. (Can’t remember which game though.)

  2. Intent is not relevant for JWH. But carelessness and recklessness is. And how often can one player be so careless and reckless. Appropriate charge.

    • I really can’t argue with that. All players need to exercise more care, I agree, and now more than ever it is widely appreciated.

      The only thing I’d add is that the same bar must exist for all, not just individuals. There were other examples on the same weekend that didn’t attract the same scrutiny (even through James Graham was left concussed – again).


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