NRL Referee Criticism – What it ‘Shouldn’t’ Be

We are now a quarter of the way into the season, and commentary on the standard of refereeing has moved from appropriately appalled to unhinged. (Mostly biased) Fans are rebelling against any decision that costs their team a penalty or a game, without any apparent consideration of whether it was actually correct, or a decision that a reasonable man (neutral fan) would deem to be, on balance, correct.

Now, you know that I love getting on the referees’ back as much as anyone about poor decision-making, knowledge of the rules, and inconsistency. Probably more! Generally speaking, the former is reserved for the video referee, the latter for the on-field referee, and the middle one for both. It’s great sport, but comes from a desire to eliminate headwinds to the progress of rugby league. And yes, the standard of refereeing counts as one of those. But I fear we are now seeing a serious bubble being formed in referee bashing, where random outrage is increasingly taking the place of cold, hard reason. Granted, rugby league fans aren’t known for their neutrality (forward, Sirrrr!), but there is a point where we collectively need to step back from howling at every decision and reconnect not only with the game and teams we love, but with the spirit of fair play and competition.

We need to (collectively) return to the roots of accepting the result, come what may, rather than wallow in the trough of recrimination (though some may argue “why change?”). The debate needs to land more squarely at the foot of League Headquarters when it comes to refereeing standards. The needle on what is acceptable, reasonable or contributory criticism has moved so far to an extreme that what would once have been regarded as rambling, unsubstantiated (even embarrassing) nonsense is now being served up as reasoned and acceptable analysis. Controversial decisions have been so ubiquitous this year that now all matches apparently need to have their own controversial officially-generated game-changing moments. The headlines demand it! And surely our teams could not possibly lose a game unless through the incompetence of the match officials! What drivel. The Broncos-Rabbitohs match last night is regrettably being described as being remembered not for Greg Inglis’ mesmerising performance in beating six defenders to score a near length of the field try, all of whom seemed to have him well in their sights. Nor is it being celebrated for the pulsating, lead-swapping examination of rugby league that it was. Instead, the focus is on events that aggrieved fans want to be controversial, but which are nothing of the sort. The strip on Sam Burgess came at a very sensitive point in the match, granted (allowing the Bunnies to win it), but the reality is that the penalty would have been given in the second minute of the match or the second last. Penalties should not discriminate for clock time (which is what happens in Golden Point, and hence my disdain for that concept). The merits of the stripping law can be debated separately and by people who are unbiased, well-informed, and who have regard for the ramifications any change can make. Some will say we’re still waiting! But we have the rule we have, and last’s night’s strip call was correct in that context. The try that only moments earlier had allowed the Bunnies to draw level with the Broncos was similarly uncontroversial to my mind, despite being sent for review for obstruction. It was gratifying to see one of the Dr’s core principles adhered to

– ie. Was anyone actually obstructed?

In this case, the answer was no because Ben Hunt made a poor defensive read and ran the wrong line (unless he has Matrix-like capabilities), even though an almost identical play last week saw Parramatta denied a try.

Both were tries under the principle that asks if the spirit of the law was upheld. That’s the way it should be with this rule, and with any luck, this is a step in the right direction. The inside/outside shoulder malarkey only serves to muddy the waters, as I’ve outlined repeatedly. It should be pretty easy – determine who the defender was targeting, and therefore the line they were were running. If it’s not on the same plane as the ball, then its goodnight Irene. The sort of extrapolating criticism is actually the same dynamic that causes financial bubbles crises by the way, where demand curves slope the ‘wrong’ way, and where common sense generally leaves the building. I get it that it’s human nature to be swept up in the wide arc that swings from euphoria to crisis and back again.

As if passionate, blinkered rugby league fans ever stood a chance of avoiding the traps of human emotion and behaviour that affect us all! Well, we’re not immune, so it’s far better to reboot the direction and voracity of the criticism (at the door of NRL headquarters), while remaining true to the idea of constructively criticising when applicable. We’ll all live longer!

Last night was not an occasion to go over the top with referee criticism, and the (losing) Broncos’ coach Anthony Griffin said as much.

General themes regarding referee (and laws of the game) criticism that should be adhere to principles that include: – Offering solutions, as this blog makes a lifestyle of doing – Determining what the rule is trying to achieve (the spirit of the law) – Then asking what would a neutral fan say? Bursting a bubble in the financial world is usually a calamitous event. Popping a referee-bashing bubble, on the other hand, strikes me as being quite virtuous.

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Should NRL Referees provide more transparency into their ‘process”?

Well I suppose it had to come to this. The furore over refereeing standards that have not so much steadily deteriorated as BASE jumped off the International Space Station has finally reached boiling point. We had better hope the NRL has some form of parachute to break the fall and avoid a hard landing.

The importance of this cannot be overstated – it is seriously undermining fans’ enjoyment of the great game, and as I’ve said before, refereeing brings the game into disrepute more regularly and effectively than any coach’s tirade or a player’s off field incident. Des Hasler was quite correct when intoning last year that the game is professional, but the referees are not.

The controversy is now not only affecting the rusted-on, lifelong, easy-dollar fan, but the marginal spectator. Losing the latter is a missed opportunity to expand the game. Losing the former is a tragedy.

Without putting too fine a point on it or (hopefully) being too dramatic, it’s an emergency for the game.

The topic of referees and rules such as obstruction have been a staple of this blog since inception last year, and a small selection of examples can be seen below:

Some Common Sense Ideas to Drive the Game Forward

Is that a Light at the End of the Tunnel or a Train?

Anderson’s Messianic Status Downgraded to Interested Party

The Round 26 Rubdown

NRL Competition Committee – Lots of Rocks, No Diamonds

The Dr NRL Referees’ Rules Primer

The problem now for the NRL, as I see it, is that while they are making great strides in areas such as reducing violence, beginning to address concussion more seriously, and appear to have a new found love of tinkering with statistics in order to make better-informed decisions (which I’m pumped about), they are being suffocated by refereeing blunders of apocalyptic proportions. This needs to be addressed with single-mindedness so that the good (and more interesting) news is the focus of discussion.

Years of neglect have led to the position the code now finds itself in – that is, on the wrong side of the 8th wonder of the world, compound interest. Standards have dropped without correction, and then failed to meet that lower bar the next. Fans, players, coaches and commentators are confused, and just a tad concerned too as to where we’re headed.

In the space of a week alone, two teams have missed out on the 2pts they deserved for a win (the Dragons vs Storm, and Cowboys vs Manly), which may well jeopardise their chances of squeaking into the Top 8 when the tallies are counted after Round 26. Instead, the points were given to two teams who will almost surely figure in the Top 8 anyway.

 

Think about that for a moment. Finals football is worth more than just a sense of achievement these days. It’s about money – visibility, marketability, sponsorships and memberships. It’s about attracting marquee players who see an opportunity to win a Premiership (and yes, make money), and further increase the value and brand of the club. Missing out because of something avoidable and extraneous to on-field performance is not the direction in which a professional organisation should desire to move.

Are there any solutions?

Given the low point to which refereeing has sunk (and a solid proportion of it applies to the video referee), it’s probably now a good idea for Tony Archer to heed the Dr’s advice and agree to a Tuesday night presser where he can discuss the weekend’s decisions, explain away contentious calls, and even offer a mea culpa in the case of a glaring error. Nobody doubts that refereeing is a tough job, and I’m probably not alone in suggesting that mistakes can be acceptable as long as consistency is applied. However, less sympathy is given to the video referee who has time and technology on his side.

 

What the game requires now is some transparency into how rigorously the referees are trained, drilled and prepared. We want to know what their process is. We (I) want to re-humanise them. This sounds like a job for the Sterlo show on Thursday, quite frankly.

We (at least, ‘I’) want to know:

a)      What is the NRL referees’ Mission Statement? Ie. What do they regard as their objectives?

b)      Are there comprehensive post-match/post-weekend meetings designed to review and critique performance? How many?

c)      I would expect that to be the case, so … what is the typical agenda and points of focus?

d)      How are differing decisions for similar circumstances debated and resolved, then enacted?

e)      Is there a specific game plan established for each upcoming weekend based on observed trends and/or previous shortcomings?

f)       How do they ensure that all referees understand, and then deliver, any specific interpretation reached during the meeting?

g)      What ongoing training and testing to the referees undertake each season – off season and intra-season?

h)      What types of game-style simulation do they use, if any, to improve performance and fine tune decision-making under pressure?

i)        What do the referees regard as acceptable input from (or limitations of) the video referee? Why?

j)        What are the video referees’ explicit instructions when adjudicating referrals, particularly relating to obstruction

k)      What specific additional training is required and provided to video referees, what group testing and simulations are undertaken, and what variance in interpretation/decision is deemed acceptable?

Fans, players and coaches are passionate enough to want to know the answers to questions like these, and more. And if they can’t be answered, or if some of the points above aren’t currently part of the program as I suspect, then we would respectfully like to know why.

 

One solution to inconsistency is to go back to the single on-field referee, and I have a lot of sympathy with that. Quite often we experience different interpretations between the main and pocket referees, with added input then from the video referee. At least this way, interpretation error will be reduced.

The new solution according to the media (which I’m less excited about) is spending huge wads of money on US-centric technology like the ‘bunker‘. The idea is simple enough – if the same group of video referees operate for each match rather than different teams being allocated, interpretation risk will also be minimised.

I can imagine the 3rd game on Super Saturday being subject to some fatigue and possible error (or howler of a decision), and what happens with concurrent games wanting quick decisions at the same time? The bunker concept has the potential to prolong the decision-making process, possibly with even more people than now having input into a decision, while delivering very little additional benefit. And God help us all if, under such circumstances, an incorrect decision is made.

The reality is that all the system needs is a set of professional, well-trained, and therefore, similarly-minded video referees that are not only well schooled in the rules, but who have a real sense of the game and the motivations of attackers and defenders. That’s what the ‘former player’ was supposed to achieve, though it hasn’t worked out that way.

In this respect, Gus Gould’s pessimistic article yesterday was disappointing (IMO):

Trying to ascertain what a player might be thinking, or how he might have acted, or whether or not an opportunity was denied, or whether or not this opportunity was real, perceived or imagined, should not be the job of a video referee sitting high in the grandstands inspecting flat screen television.”

As a former player and commentator of some note, he should understand quite clearly that defenders make decisions on whether to tackle decoy ball-runners all the time. In fact, he points it out on every obstruction sent for referral. They do so because they are fooled into making the wrong choice by the quality of the subterfuge of the play-maker (and decoy). This is what we, and he, refer to as being committed. With particular reference to the ultimate hole-runner, the defender who misread the play is therefore often off-balance or moving on a different plane. Watch any hole runner straighten the angle of attack and brush past defenders still moving ever so slightly laterally and you get the same effect without decoys complicating the issue.

No, obstruction is not an overly difficult concept to grasp – we just need video referees who understand what is actually going on. You can’t make a mistake such as the Jamie Buhrer try against the Cowboys if you did. The current officials clearly need more intensive training. It is a business, after all, not park footy.

When we go back to the highly topical obstruction ruling, the simple question that needs to be asked is: Was anyone obstructed by a decoy runner? After all, that is what the rule exists for.

The NRL Round 6 Rubdown

I don’t know about you, but the Dr needs a rubdown. Bad. Longer runs means a sorer back, and while my Runkeeper is effusive in its praise, it’s hardly likely to turn into a 6ft blonde. More’s the pity. Still, there’s plenty to talk about from NRL left field (where this blog resides, along with the pixies). Having had the opportunity to read the Guardian’s Things We Learned and Le Mascord’s Set of Six, we’ll take a typical detour and approach from a different angle.

The Competition is very even – deal with it

The Dr has swum against the tide of the bombastically propounded idea that the competition is uneven throughout the life of this blog. Even when the Tigers were beating Melbourne last year (15th v 2nd, which wasn’t the only example in 2013), the drums were still beating about the haves and have nots. It didn’t make sense then, it doesn’t make sense now, and this season’s results prove it. And for the same reasons … The physical attributes of the modern player are astounding and fairly uniform across the NRL. Fitness levels are high, and players are even directed what to eat or drink, and when, right up until kick-off (though probably not on the night after a game when there’s more trippin’ than a Bunnies-Panthers game).

Mental preparation is by far the biggest contributor to the success or otherwise of a team. We’ve seen it countless times, most notably every round this year so far, and it was quite obvious to Peter Sharp on the weekend from very early in the match that his charges just ‘weren’t there’. When you’re playing a team like Manly, who are always ‘there’, a half-time 0-20 scoreline was very fortunate indeed.

Compare recent Sharks’ performances with last year, where the absence of Paul Gallen had players putting their hands up faster than a schoolgirl in the front row of class. Back then they were unfashionable, but were always close to the top. This year, they will almost certainly miss the finals (sorry, Sharks fans – it saddens me too). The salary cap has taken the place of the (now outlawed) draft to equalise playing talent. Sure, there will be instances where a group of special and influential players group together within a team in important positions (think Storm Big 3), but by and large, it’s pretty even, and it’s amazing how many of the game’s top players sit out the semi finals because their team hasn’t squeezed in.

What’s not amazing is how the absence of key players proves detrimental to performance. See last year’s Round 19 Rubdown for more on that topic! Always remember – if a club can’t afford to pay the cap, then it can’t exist. At the other end of the spectrum, clubs can’t pay more than the salary cap. So, the ends of the spectrum are the same point! It is therefore irrelevant to talk about rich and poor clubs in this sense – we’re talking about the same salary pool, available to every club, who are all limited by it.

So, what does a modern coach need to be?

Clearly, coaches need to be part analyst, part strategist, part old hand with horse sense, part man manager, and partly an authority figure who commands respect. But mostly these days, they need to be an effective motivator. This carries on from the above idea that teams are relatively even in the cattle department. If he can’t be a motivator, get someone who can – eg. The Wests Tigers and Blocker. This particular example is fascinating given Matt Elliot’s recent departure, and the well known problems with Mick Potter and the dotty Wests Tigers board last year. Look, it doesn’t make it right, but playing group wields a lot of power in the success vs failure equation. In a real world workplace, mutinous behaviour or consistent lack of 100% effort would have them being quietly shown the door. Rugby league (and team sports) are different as pointed out here repeatedly due to contracts rather than open-ended tenure, the importance of combinations and a hyper-competitive competition. As pointed out above, teams don’t win in this environment unless they have full commitment. And even then there’s no guarantee! So coaches need to win the team over early and maintain it. They have to be both hunter AND gatherer. They cannot lose the opportunity when it presents itself. Mick Potter seems to have somehow managed this feat this year, and there’s no better way to solidify any relationship than success. It’s possibly a leaf many other coaches can take from his book. And if they can work it out the secret set of ingredients, it may just save them their job, even when facing the sack as Potter was.

What do warriors need as a game plan?

The most prolific opinion on the Warriors is that they cannot play structured football. They don’t like it, it bores them, and their performance is affected as a result. That’s true to an extent, but it will NEVER deliver them a premiership. If the weekend’s match against the Bulldogs can’t teach them this lesson (finally, and after many other opportunities), then it was another wasted game.

The Bulldogs were clinical, patient and relentless – just the type of performance we’ve come to expect from any Des Hasler-led team. The Warriors led the entire match aside the last few minutes, but at no time did they look like they had the game won. In fact, I had the feeling watching it that it was only the set of circumstances that would lead to the Bulldogs winning that were unknown. The fact that it turned out to be contentious adds to the theatre, but not really the result. The truth for the Warriors seems to be somewhere in the middle, a combination of structure and ad lib. Free wheeling alright within the overall context of a simple game plan, but they simply MUST have discipline and formation in the opposition’s 20-metre zone. They were found seriously wanting when close to the Bulldogs’ line. As soon as Ben Matulino went off late on the first half (a game changing event), plans A thru Z were exhausted. In fact, there was not plan B, let alone Z.

Shaun Johnson could have touched the ball and run to the line a hell of a lot more in this match, but he also needs the runners knowing their lines. Like any good actor, this needs practice and time. Seriously, can you imagine a Warriors side running you off your feet as well as being clinical in the red zone? The mind boggles at the possibilities. If they can hold the ball, that is …

Revisiting the idea of upsets – and who are the big dogs of 2014?

After Round 2 it was a reasonable question – just what will qualify as an upset? Sure, the bookies will have fairly clear favourites, but in reality (where the money-changers aren’t around, there don’t seem to be any! This competition is going to get a whole lot whackier before it’s done.

In the meantime, the Titans are on 10pts and lead the competition. It took them until Round 9 last year to reach that number. It seems inconceivable now that they will miss the Top 8.

Big statement? Not really. Given that 8th place last year required 28pts, and the Titans effectively have 14pts on the board (they have two byes coming, along with everybody else), they now require just a further 7 wins from 18 games to reach that level.

But are they a Big Dog? I would hesitate at that description just yet. They’ve lost the solitary match so far and beat the Storm, but they have still leaked too many points to be considered Premiership (Pensky??) material yet. But they’re at least on the way. Let’s wait until they play the true heavyweights like the Roosters (yes, still), Rabbitohs, Manly, Bulldogs and so on.

Parramatta didn’t reach their current 8 points until Round 12 last year, and that was with the assistance of a bye! However, this team reminds the Dr very much of the Roosters at this stage last year. Don’t get too excited – it’s not so much as genuine Premiership material (it’s far too early for that given the ‘relative’ inexperience in the squad), but is in the context of the way they are playing their football. The media, commentators and all sorts didn’t give the Roosters proper credit last year until it was staring them in the face, and the same applies to this year’s Eels. Anything can happen, but I wouldn’t be betting against them for the Top 8 now. I would actually rate their performance as superior to the Titans given their opposition faced so far. Apart from one hiccup, they have been brilliant.

This makes the bottom eight configuration very interesting, and will include some of last year’s Semi Finalists in all likelihood. More about that in coming weeks.

South Western Sydney NRL fans – do you even want a team?

It’s ironic that the Tigers and Cowboys attracted Campbelltown Stadium’s largest ever crowd (20,527 in 2005), yet here we stand with the NRL community up in arms at a paltry 6,000-odd this weekend. Lost in the glow of 2040 and suburban grounds is the fact that Leichhardt Oval attracted even less than this in Round 16 last year (against competition heavyweights the Storm).

Now, clearly too much is happening under the Wests Tigers’ hood at the moment to put it down to bad weather, though that was a distinct reason for the 5,000-strong crowd at Leichhardt. It comes at a bad time for the NRL, too, because crowd numbers are a topic of considerable debate.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, the fallout from boardroom acrimony is being felt on the pitch, and the Wests vs Tigers divide looks almost unsavable.

Let’s hope this doesn’t happen. The best way I can see to show the NRL that a region wants a team, whether it’s a joint venture with the Tigers or anybody else, or even a standalone once again, is to get bums on seats. In case South West Sydney fans haven’t noticed, expansion is another topic on the agenda (isn’t it always?). They would be well advised to show their support or be out of sight, out of mind.

Now, next week is West Tigers fans’ opportunity to show their support. Two months ago I couldnt have said this with a straight face, but the Easter Monday match at ANZ Stadium is nothing less than a blockbuster. Both teams are playing with amazing energy and even more irresistible enthusiasm. Their attack is pulsating, they can score impossible tries from anywhere, and yet their defences have taken on a pride shown by the Roosters and Manly in 2013.

If the Tigers fans can’t show up in numbers then there is an actual problem, not just a Campbelltown one. Anything less than 30,000 for this match must be seen as a disappointment, so both teams need to do whatever is required to get their fans there. Origin will have to wait – I’m late for the pub!

The Bulldogs’ concussion fine, it’s adequacy, and why they’ll appeal

The NRL announced yesterday that it has fined the Bulldogs (a possible) $20,000 under the new concussion rules (half is suspended). Is that a suitable amount? And will the Bulldogs appeal as they are hinting?

First of all, the NRL is to be praised for taking the issue of concussion seriously. In fact, it has shown enough concern to have formulated an entire policy for the recognition and treatment of it (see here for more). Advances in science and technology have tilted the balance of risks in favour of pre-emptive action, even if some of the linkages are unclear at this point.

There are many reasons why the NRL has been active in this area, which centre around the links between head trauma and future brain dysfunction suggested by (admittedly) foreign research, and is very much a nod toward risk management and long term damage mitigation.

Of course, not every contingency can’t be planned for. For example, while some concussions are quite obvious, even to those sitting in the bleachers, some concussions don’t present symptoms for up to 24 to 48 hours. How a sideline test can pick up on this type of injury is anyone’s guess. Well, actually, it’s not – it can’t. This is precisely why the NRL needs to be so strict in enforcing this rule.

It’s also a reason, by the way, why a mandatory sit-out-period is not advisable. All concussions are different, meaning recovery times are different – it could be hours, or several weeks depending on the knock and the individual). This is why we have further testing to assess when full recovery has been made, and only then should a player be allowed to train and compete again. The only mandatory rule I would support at this point is at least one week off subsequent to consecutive concussions (eg. Liam Fulton and Joel Edwards so far this year).

The short history of the rule has been fairly impressive, and many of those not returning to play any further part in the match (13 of 27) would more than likely have been pushed back onto the field in years gone by.

The enforcement of the rule is the important point here, and it must have a strong deterrent as it’s centrepiece. Now, that might also entail a suite of options, all the way from fines, tiered fines for repeat offences, deregistration of medical staff, and loss of competition points (the actual thing past coaches and staff have desired to protect by sending players back onto the field).

Have the NRL achieved this with what appears to be a very light $10,000 fine (with the same to be paid upon another breach)? It’s unfortunate that the only conclusion to that question at his point is no. The good news is that it’s early days and the policy can be strengthened, and the very first thing to be done is to remove the idea of suspending a fine of this nature. That’s ludicrous.

Consider that the fine the Bulldogs are (initially) being asked to pay is the equivalent of that payable for the relatively innocuous charge of criticising a referee’s performance with a little too much vigour. That doesn’t make sense. If this issue is so serious, it needs a far harsher penalty structure.

If the $10,000 was all the Bulldogs were likely to pay, then they would be well advised to take the medicine, keep their traps shut, and do much better next time. But there’s the rub – it’s not all they are likely to pay.

This particular fine applies to an incident late in the match against the Sharks where Josh Jackson’s head knock was inadequately assessed under the NRL concussion policy guidelines. It’s there on video. There’s no disputing it, really. There was no test of five key signs. And the fact it happened so late in the match is more damning than excusable.

The James Graham concussion test?

The James Graham concussion test?

But the sight of James Graham floating about with the pixies against Melbourne after repeated heavy knocks was noticed by everybody except the Bulldogs coaching staff and trainers, and for that they are likely to be found in breach of the guidelines once again. This means the suspended sentence will have to be paid, along with (I presume) the new fine, which I would expect to be $20,000 straight up at a minimum. If the first fine is suspended for a first offence, surely a larger fine might be in order for a repeated offence so quickly?

Instead of $10,000 being deposited into the NRL’s Christmas party fund, it’s going to be more like four times that in my opinion, if not more (if the NRL wants to send a message to clubs, especially repeat offenders who aren’t taking the rules seriously, to get on board).

The Bulldogs are therefore likely to roll the dice and argue abstruse points of the law and attempt to cast reasonable doubt on the process, the level to which the guidelines were adhered to and so on. In other words, use the burden of proof to their advantage (though I don’t see it being successful).

Questions still remain, however, for the operation of the policy.

Why are we seeing this catch-up in the please explain notices? Should these concussion reports not be delivered immediately post-match, and any further investigation be similarly swift?

And why is there not an independent doctor (whether NRL-administered, local hospital staff or other accredited person) present to remove all suspicion from the club and it’s medical staff?

At the end of the day, the spirit of the concussion guidelines is player safety, and cynical attempts to sidestep them not only increase the risk of injury to the player, but to the game itself.

The NRL Round 5 Rubdown

Sportsmanship in the face of competition is one of those niceties most of us have been taught to observe and cherish since childhood, so let’s begin there today. It wasn’t that long ago I felt it necessary to highlight this (From the Round 1 Rubdown):

“Anyone who watched the enthralling chase between Reece Robinson and his shadow Michael Morgan on Saturday night would have seen a gesture that epitomises what rugby league (and sport in general) is really about.

Both gave each other a friendly tap of congratulation, Morgan to Robinson for running the length of the field to score a try, and Robinson to Morgan in recognition of his superb chase.

It sure beats seeing a classless try-scorer dumping the ball on their opponents head.”

There is nothing better than giving your all in any contest, sporting or otherwise, realising you’ve done your absolute best, and being magnanimous in either victory or defeat. The professional age has reduced these types of gestures to the exception rather than the rule, so this dual and unsolicited gesture was wonderful to see.

HodgesI was therefore horrified to see the accompanying picture of Justin Hodges completely ignoring Shris Sandow post-match.

Failure to shake hands with an opponent, whatever the result or level of disappointment, is something we teach our kids to be the height of bad sportsmanship and churlishness (unless, of course, you do the fake shake and immediately move the hand up to scratch the head – that’s just David Brent-like comedic genius). There was a half-hearted ex post attempt to downplay it as some sort of planned joke between the two, but it didn’t look that way, and where on earth did they find the time in such a frantic game to choreograph this extremely non-funny piece of slapstick?

They didn’t. It embarrassed us all.

Elliot boned home

Another unsavoury incident was today’s sacking of Warriors coach Matt Elliot.

The context is important here, because it is highly unusual for a coach to be shown the door so early in the season. It is usually a sign of far deeper issues than performance. Craig Coleman didn’t make it past the trials in 2003, Ivan Henjak was boned by the Broncos pre-season in 2011, and the Cowboys let Murray Hurst go in Round 3, 2002 (thanks, David Middleton!).

The first two pre-season examples of early exits are far more preferable to the very early rounds because they are at least mature, conscious decisions made away from NRL competition by a proactive leadership team.

On the other hand, being shown the door almost immediately the season has begun is not only a slur on a coach’s ability and personability, but highlights management dysfunction. It heavily implies they have not fostered the right workplace environment, have not established a hierarchy of control and accountability, and have not insisted upon respect for the coach. It is pretty clear Matt Elliot didn’t enjoy the type of non-negotiable support other coaches enjoy (possibly because he wasn’t the first choice), and that creates a fairly shaky base.

The idea that Elliot resigned also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and circumstances, but if he did, I wouldn’t mind seeing the resignation letter …

The Warriors are an habitually underperforming club given the talent pool at their disposal, yet go through coaches like the Italians go through governments. Apart from Ivan Cleary (or Daniel Anderson a little further back), none has been able to harness the power under the hood over a medium to long term period, and even then it was a tough road. At some point where you just have to question the club’s culture and work ethic. It’s all very convenient for management to delegate that to the coach, while abrogating all responsibility for it themsleves. Ironic (and I don’tmean Tony Iro).

There is too much natural ability not to succeed even moderately. That clearly isn’t the problem.

The Shoe doesn’t quite Fifita

A week ago poor old Andrew Fifita was lashing out at the gods in true rugby league style, and now we’re all a bit wiser as to why. There’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned spray, and if you can take down as many people, codes, or even ideas, in collateral damage, then that’s world class. Fifita didn’t miss the game of rugby league or the fans, when really, the focus of his attention might have been better directed out Bankstown way.

Given what we now know, which still isn’t quite everything I’m sure (but possibly more Fifita’s management), there is still a pungent aroma from this deal or no deal. If I were conspiratorial, and I like to think I can tin foil-it-up with the best of them, I would put this entire drama down to Dessie Hasler using this absurdly high offer for Fifita (and I called him a genius for selling the top of a bubble as a result) as a ruse, merely to fire up his under performing pack. Once the rubbery ducky numbers were posted, and looked nothing like what the Fifita camp had imagined, then they could all go their separate ways, and the Bulldogs would have been ignited – and they have been, funnily enough. The problem with this is that there were other offers on the table for the itinerant grass-sign writer, so now we’re in the legal realm for redress (apparently, maybe). Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Clive Cussler, but stranger things have happened each week this year in the NRL!

A more likely scenario, in my opinion, appears to be that the Bulldogs were up to their ears organising 3rd party payments in order to induce Andrew Fifita to switch clubs, knowing full well they couldn’t accommodate such a large yearly number ($850,000) within the salary cap when they still have to pay 24 other players. But they should also have known they couldn’t be seen anywhere near a 3rd party agreement. Here’s the NRL’s stance on this:

Unlimited – Players can earn unlimited amounts from corporate sponsors who are not associated with the club and who do not use the game’s intellectual property (no club logos, jerseys or emblems) provided these are pre-approved. These agreements may not be negotiated by the club as an incentive for a player to sign a contract, nor can they be guaranteed by the club.

(What has my life come to when I start going to NRL.com -> About -> Reference Centre??)

Yet, here’s Fairfax media:

If Fifita rejected more than $700,000 a season to stay at Cronulla, it goes to reason that he expected significantly more from the Bulldogs, but Fairfax Media was told that the full contract tabled to him included payments of just $335,000 under the salary cap and $250,000 in third party deals for 2015.

How can that be? It’s abundantly clear that that the $250,000 worth of 3rd party payments were part of the overall package offered to Fifita. And who were these payments supposed to come from?

And a $335,000 salary? The NRL wouldn’t register that in a fit, because it’s not a true reflection of what he is worth. Sure, it was sailing pretty close to April 1st, but it does look a tad low. No wonder there’s been a breakdown! How could the Fifita camp be led to believe the contract was salary heavy, not 3rd party heavy? I still think Fifita’s management have failed miserably, but that’s another subject altogether.

And what were the other payments? You know, that trifling, iddy biddy $265,000-odd gap to make up the full monte?

How do we get around this type of 3rd party obfuscation?

I would favour listing all player 3rd party deals (as opposed to salaries). After all, if an organisation wants to sponsor a sportsperson, presumably they want visibility. Isn’t that why they do it? Publicity -> positive association -> increased sales? A crazy idea, I know. Unless the entire marketing model has changed, of course, to anonymous donations …

The best part about listing 3rd party payments is that full public knowledge would make the entire payment process transparent. Not only would the selfless souls paying the money be rewarded with good karma and cheap, high visibility advertising, but it would be awfully difficult to renege. Everyone would know! That’s called reputational risk, and not a good look. We would then avoid the problem of players like Darius Boyd and Jarryd Hayne not getting paid (though one of those is slightly amusing).

Who didn’t pay them? We still don’t know. But we should.

Lifting tackles (and reputational risk)

I’ve already written about the habits the NRL has allowed to infiltrate the game. And bad habits are hard to break. When player safety is a consideration, it’s best not to give bad habits oxygen.

So, I look at the dangerous lifting tackles that have followed on from the Alex McKinnon incident and I’m dumbfounded in a sense (that players continue to use them), but understand these habits need to be broken, and that doesn’t happen immediately.

The NRL should have, but didn’t, confront this issue head on, but now they simply have to act. Here are a couple of views of Sam Burgess being driven head first into the SCG turf on Saturday night.

SB2Not only did the referees seem to completely miss it and require prodding from the hot tub referee to even blow a penalty, but there was no report.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Today the tackle was assigned a Grade 1 Dangerous Throw. A one week suspension, in other words. Grade 1.

SB1Sam, or anyone else put into that position, can count themselves lucky if they aren’t seriously hurt (and we’ve seen that end of the spectrum), yet the Dragons’ Jack De Bellin effectively gets a slap on the wrist. Braith Anasta is facing a two week suspension for half a shoulder charge – hardly a potential career-ending tackle, but deemed Grade 2 nonetheless.

The immediate problem is that the NRL isn’t learning from a tragedy. No time like the present, as they say.

The longer term problem is what it means for young kids wanting (or being allowed) to play rugby league. I can’t emphasise how serious this is.

Changing Interchange – an old idea, but a good one

I was very interested to read this article today recommending reducing interchanges in order to address the impact of collisions, to bring smaller, faster players and workhorses back into the contest, and to once again bring back endurance and natural attrition back into the game.

Ok, not all of those were in the article, but they were in the Dr’s from early last year! January 2013 to be precise, and pretty close to the first blog ever on this site.

Here’s the money from the bottom of that blog:

“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.”

Is it too early to begin talking seriously about Origin?

If you read the papers, which suggest the Blues team is pretty much picked, then no, it’s not too early! And besides, every player who ‘s had a good game is seemingly in line for a Blue or Maroon jumper already too.

Over the next week or two we’ll run through the Game 3, 2013 NSW team and endeavour to make improvements for the upcoming 2014 series. I was going to add ‘if any’, but not even I could keep a straight face. Clearly, some changes will be required to wrest the shield back south, and I’m open to ideas. What is not up for discussion is picking a left side player to play right side in the Origin crucible. Players are now specialists, especially centres and wingers, so no matter how good they are (on one side), it doesn’t follow that they are just as effective on the other.

I’m going to begin with Aaron Woods, who played Game 3, but was in no way assured of a position this year. In fact, his performances last year invited some criticism. This is something that cannot be levelled at him so far in 2014. Quite simply, his performances have been stellar – inspired and tough.

Two of the Tigers’ great wins so far this year have been against the fearsome forward packs of South Sydney and Manly, and neither were able to subdue him. He has without doubt put his hand up to be counted for Origin. Not just to be selected, but to make an impact.

How You Doin? Updating Your Team’s Draw Strength

An earlier (pre season) blog on the subject of each team’s draw strength sought to highlight who had the best chance of getting off to a good start in season 2014.

Using last year’s Minor Premiership results and making some allowance for Home and Away matches, it looked like this:Draw Strength 1st 8 rounds adj

Now that we’re one sixth of the way through the 2014 draw, how is it looking? More importantly, given the surprises that have marked the early rounds and the odd look of the NRL ladder, how does the next group of games look?

The Cowboys are the notable failure so far on this metric. They haven’t even left Queensland, and won’t until Round 6, yet have won just the solitary game. They’re off to a slower start than the 40 year old virgin, and that’s with a fantastic draw. I likened their Auckland 9s success to teh US Masters par 3 tournament, but didn’t think they’d fall out of contention this quickly. The only positive thing to say is that there is still 20 games to go … there’s time to resurrect this abomination of a start.

Of course, based on any metric at all, favourable draw or not, the Bunnies have stunk up the joint, and are beginning to resemble the North Sydney Bears and the 2007 Dragons all in one. The former couldn’t win finals matches and were boring with boring jerseys (yes, I choose my wine based on the label), and the latter began to drop off the face of the earth after failing in two consecutive Preliminary Finals. What you will see below won’t give their fans any cheer whatsoever!

The Dragons and Bulldogs have managed to overcome what appeared to be a fairly tough draw for the first two months of the season, though it must be said, of that eight week span, the Dragons’ first half was monumentally easier than what they are about to face in the next four weeks. Put it this way, if they are on top of the table after the Roosters match in Round 8, I’ll do a lap of Coogee beach in my birthday suit! The Bulldogs’ performance is far more meritorious, and for that matter, so is that of the Titans.

Using the same approach to measuring draw strength, here is how the adjusted period from Round 5 through 8 looks:Draw Strength Rounds 5 to 8 adj

As if the Melbourne Storm needed a good run, right? Along with the Sea Eagles, they have been the best performing of last year’s Top 4, and now both appear to have a rails run into Anzac Day. At the other end of teh spectrum, the Dragons (as noted) and Bulldogs will find it tough to maintain their positions on the ladder, as will the Broncos.

But here’s the thing – the 2014 form guide is so different to last year’s, even the latter half ot the season, that it makes sense to recalculate the strength of draws basd on this year’s form. Looking at it this way, the next four weeks looks like this:

Draw Strength Rounds 5 to 8 2014 form adj

If you thought the Rabbitohs were up against it, check out their draw! It’s the most difficult of any team for the next month, much of it due to having three of their four games away from home, but also in recognition of the form of their upcoming opponents. Sitting 13th now might not be getting a whole lot better in a hurry.

The Warriors didn’t take full advantage of their early draw (surprise, surprise(, and now face a difficult task to tread water if 2014 form continues across the NRL field.

The Titans have done what was asked of them in the first four rounds, and if they can remain in the Top 8 after Round 8, then they are well on the way to securing a finals spot (Origin period notwithstanding).

The bolter here could be the Panthers. Sitting mid-pack and faced with a relatively kind draw (it’s never easy, it’s NRL after all!), it’s not inconceivable that these pokie-playing mountain men will be a Top 4 proposition, and won’t that set the cat amongst the media pigeons. Phil Gould might even go to a game!

When all is said and done, though, I’d expect Manly to be leading after Round 8 from the Storm and Roosters, with a remaining Top 8 that no one would have picked pre-season.

After the bloodletting, some lessons need to be learned

This blog wasn’t supposed to happen, so it won’t be long. I was hoping to get stuck into something more like a concussion roadmap, or at least an examination of the progress of the new policy (hint: it has more hairs on it than a barber’s shop floor).

Or a quick discussion of recent contract announcements (and dis-announcements!) and what they imply (hint: 3rd party)

Or maybe even just settle into the weekend and limber up for another Rubdown, where the issues to be discussed in the media in two weeks time are always to be found (check the brouhaha about to erupt with kick obstructions …).

Instead, I’ve been waylaid having just watched the Sterlo program. Now, I usually enjoy it immensely. Maybe because they dress seriously, and take the game even more seriously. It’s not the Cambridge debates, more the put-your-feet-up rugby league version of pub chat before you’ve hit the cans (the Footy Show being the ‘after’). And even though they won’t part with any of the data used to compile infographics because … because … well, I truly don’t know, national security, perhaps, there is usually enough sensible discussion and analysis to make me glad I invested the time.

Tonight, however, it meandered, nay bolted, into the very sensitive Jordan Maclean judiciary hearing debate. As if the scale of intemperate and emotional remarks by a wide variety of people haven’t flown off the chart already, we all bore witness to the propagation of the same sort of misguided comments within the confines of four minutes of rigorous analysis that:

a) seem oblivious to the sequence of events that led to this horrific event in the first place; and

b) have been scattergunned through the media all day by those who might be better off sitting in a corner and taking inventory of their chromosomes.

My thoughts pre-hearing went like this:Maclean

… which I thought were entirely reasonable, and therefore wasn’t surprised by the outcome.

I take particular issue, however, with the idea espoused on Sterlo that Maclean’s sentence was excessive because ‘hundreds and hundreds of tackles’ … have been … ‘worse than that one, where the man got up and played the football, and there was nothing like seven weeks (suspension)’.

They shouldn’t have been made.

The misunderstanding of the underlying issue is breathtaking (not Matty Johns, I stress to point out, who has it right). In fact, it is the ultimate irony that the NRL has handed down a penalty of enough substance to cause complaint in some areas, but which, had such a penalty been imposed much earlier to reflect the act of illegal tackles (that reflect risk of significant injury) rather the result (a massive bugbear of the Dr!), would have narrowed the range of injury possibilities to the point where this would likely never have happened.

Why? Because the nasty habit of lifting in gang tackles would have been expunged from the game very early. Unfortunately, lifting has been around for far too long and has become an unpoliced habit, and has not materialised since the cannonball tackle was outlawed (as some commentators impervious to embarrassment seem to be suggesting).

Now, I have it on impeccable authority that Jordan Maclean is just the nicest guy you’ll meet, and I believe it. There is no question that the tackle was accidental on his behalf. As I see it, he is the victim of a system that instructed him to tackle in a certain way to bring the ball carrier down. What early-20’s footballer doesn’t do as he’s told as he attempts to forge a career?

Each new cynical version of tackles created and designed to incapacitate or pin an opponent has been allowed to linger by the NRL, who have not empowered the referees to take charge of the situation on the field (or thought to, by the looks of it), nor directed the judiciary or MRC to impose sufficient sanction off it that recognises the enormous tail risk of such tackles. Add three 100kg-plus defenders and the force and weight-bearing is enormous. The ‘she’ll be right, mate’ approach just doesn’t work in the modern world.

The only way to proceed from this terrible incident is to show that something quite profound has been learned. I already believe the NRL is culpable and open to legal recourse which is likely to be tested, but it now must take the time to shape the contours of a sensible, watertight enforcement program that enshrines the safety of players above all else.

Rugby league is a contact sport and accidents happen, but the NRL must do all in its power to minimise the range of those accidents. I don’t want to see 100 guys dropped on their head and commentators say it’s fine because they are unhurt. I don’t want to see what happens to no. 101.

A simple law is not enough – it must be enforced stringently enough to discourage any single event, and even more so, to discourage nasty habits like lifting tackles to creep in, which increase risk of injury. They must be snuffed out hard, and those seeking to take the cynical road be held to account.

I’ll be so happy to get back to the mundane nature of draw strength!