Posted on August 25, 2012

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published Dec 2010 on The Roar]

The NRL’s new referees bosses Bill Harrigan and Staurt Raper have put forward their recipe of rule interpretations for 2011. “Harrigan’s Master-ref class cooks up changes” tells us that they have in mind:

“to make several changes to the way NRL games are officiated – tightening up scrums, cracking down on tackled players walking off the mark, and giving more latitude to the attacking side on decoy moves.”

Of course, most will applaud the scrum and play-the-ball crack-down after years of players and officials letting these key parts of the game slide, but the cynics amongst us are doubtful how far into the season it will last.

That it may not last is not because of will and desire of officials, not even because fans, media and coaches will complain of too much whistle, but because what the referees will be endeavouring to do is act against the tide of direction the game is evolving.

The third item is worthy of more discussion – decoy plays.

It’s ironic – the first two reforms for 2011 (hauling back laxness given at the play-the-ball and scrum) are the direct result of an attitude and actions mirrored in the proposal to adopt the third reform (ie. give more latitude to attackers to knock over and obstruct defenders).

Looking back at the rule changes of the game since 1895, if there’s one constant I can point to it is this – what sometimes begin as innocuous changes and interpretations to address an issue, can lead to the game evolving in a completely different, unintended and unexpected way.

The game takes what appears to be a sensible and sane small step, but fails to realise that same small step can be walking through a doorway from one form of rugby league into a completely new one.

By the early 1990s the NSWRL was pushing the 5m rule to 7-8m on the field – the 1993 proposal (from the RFL) to change the international laws from 5m to 10m seemed to the ARL (NSWRL & QRL) a change of absolutely no detrimental impact. In hindsight, it was a seismic change that shifted the game entirely at all levels and all ages across the globe.

A seemingly innocent change to remove the mess/debate of the marker striking for the ball has led us to today where at the non-contested play-the-ball the attacking team has run amok and has all the advantages.

A seemingly innocent change to give the scrum feed and loose head to the non-offending team has seen the scrum decay to the point that forwards aren’t even binding anymore, and are just short of being two NFL-style huddles.

Bill Harrigan is quoted (in the article linked to above):

The former referee also said he would like to see more latitude given to attacking sides. Put simply, if a defender is no chance to prevent a try, the play would be given the green light.

“Even if a defender gets knocked on his bum … if a try was always going to be scored, if they had a three-man overlap and it was never going to be prevented, it will be a try,” Harrigan said.

Maybe we shouldn’t read Harrigan’s comment so out of context…but on first glance it implies that an attacker is free to knock over a defender, to run behind a team mate, provided it is outside the zone of influence on the try being scored.

Putting aside the inconsistency of what the ruling might be if no try is scored, by a seemingly innocent and well-intended change designed to bring clarity and to make the life of a video referee a bit easier, is in fact the first step in legitimizing the introduction of blocking and obstruction plays into rugby league.

Now, maybe that’s a good evolution – the Americans made that change from the core principles of rugby in the late 1800s – but that’s a wider debate (and I think we know which way most will vote on that anyway).

We know from experience that when it comes to changes and interpretations in the rules that coaches will seize upon any opportunity for advantage it gives them. They will analyze the proposed reform, and design means to exploit it to the fullest extent (and probably a little beyond that).

The legitimacy of decoy runners and ‘sweep plays’ was debated at the NRL rules conference I attended in 2007. It was there that it was explained with videos how it was important to look at the decoy runner, if he came into contact with a defender to look at what side/shoulder was used, how deep the pass and run of a ‘sweeper’ run was. To me, putting a fan’s hat on, it was too much to take in.

I simply pointed out that if an understanding of the game’s rules required fans to ensure they are seated alongside a NRL referee to understand and decipher what they had seen, then the game would very quickly lose its fans.

I’ve tired of the “line in the sand” idiom long ago, but in this case it is appropriate – any decision to authorise obstruction and blocking in any form will take us one step closer to the next seemingly innocent change.

Do we want to take that step?

[originally published Dec 2010 on The Roar]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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