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A scrum that won’t bind, block runners and the footless play-the-ball

Articulating frustrations with officialdom in the NRL is as pointless as trying to identify facts in a Donald Trump speech.

 

However well the point is made, as cleverly as it might be presented and in spite of the mountains of stats and data used to prove the incompetence and inconsistencies, nothing appears to change.

 

There is a real case of ‘blind freddy’ syndrome going on at referee central and the head scratching will continue for as long as the denial and single bloody mindedness goes on.

 

Forget some of the subtleties of the obstruction rule or tight fifty-fifty calls were no evidence exists to overthrow the on-field decision, I am talking about the complete and utter refusal of the whistle-blowers to enforce the most basic of rules that lie at the roots of the game.

 

Rules that, if enforced, make for a better contest.

 

The most obvious of these is the rule that demands the use of the foot in the play-the-ball.

 

There is only one thing more ridiculous than the complete disinterest shown by the officials around this rule, that being, hearing a referee say, ‘with the foot’ every now and again.

 

Is the official joking? Are we expected to believe that this is even remotely on their radar?

 

A game of NRL consists of roughly seventy or eighty sets and somewhere around four hundred play the balls where the infringement is ignored. The players continue to roll the ball back – touch football style – and launch themselves forward over the ruck without any attempt to contact the ball.

 

As the players strive for momentum in the set at all costs, the officials assist in the entire farce.

 

Grappling and wrestling are designed to counter. What is often ignored is the fact that they are inter-related. The perfection of martial arts tackling has its genesis in coaches beginning to understand the true value of an unnaturally quick play the ball in the modern game.

 

Avoiding the use of the foot, led to wrestling, which led to faster roll backs, which led to more wrestling. I think I see a pattern emerging here.

 

Perhaps policing the use of the foot and keeping control in the ruck might have been a better idea than doing anything under the sun to speed up an already fast game.

 

Sadly, this is not an isolated phenomena. One of the most hideous sights in the game is the breaking from the modern scrum. Now before anyone moans, this is not a clarion call for the return of a competitive scrum which subsequently turns into a masculine and erotic game of twister.

 

What is more of a concern is the bizarre pantomime that occurs as the ball exits the area. Players bound with nothing more than a hand on a mates back are instructed to ‘break’ by an official, despite the fact many already have and those that haven’t, are hunch-backed, chin up and ready to pounce on tackle one.

 

The absurdity of second rowers making the first tackle in a set is commonplace and mind boggling.

 

This blunts the attacking potential of the backline from the set piece, which was previously a golden opportunity to attack. Creating genuine one on one contests is rare in the modern game and only achievable when the ball can be moved swiftly through hands in the backline.

The scrum once provided that opportunity.

 

Seeing big men standing at five-eighth in both attack and defence, along with a swarming back row whose escape is made easy due to no expectations from the officials for them to actually bind, is just a frustrating and stifling part of the game.

 

If officialdom insisted on a correct binding, ceased telling the players when to break, heaven forbid, requiring them to do it themselves, the ball would shift to the backs without three loose forwards hot on its heels and provide genuine attacking opportunities.

 

As a result, teams would be more inclined to have players with speed awaiting, keen to expose the extra space available to them. This automatically returns forwards to the scrum, where they belong, both attacking and defensive forwards.

 

Just imagine a bound back row, a quick pass to a centre with room to step and weave and a Sam Kasiano type standing before him, as is often the case in the modern game. It just wouldn’t happen, the big defender would have to return to the scrum and a speedier back used to combat the footwork of the attacker.

 

Another ugly part of the game created by the reluctance of officials to enforce basic rules, either via incompetence or instruction, is the fiasco around defensive blockers shielding wingers under pressure from outside attackers.

 

As defensive lines have become more disciplined and structured, the kick has become one of the most vital attacking weapons in the arsenal of many teams.

 

In turn, teams have conjured ways to relieve pressure from their back three who are often at the mercy of tall, athletic and mobile wingers. The mobile attackers are in the box seat as they launch above stationary defenders standing under the high ball.

 

As those attackers fly through on the hapless defenders, other players block their paths and run them of their natural line towards the contest. Their eyes are firmly focused on the attacker, certainly not the ball and an effortless catch is often the result.

 

Once in a blue moon, an inconsistent official will award a penalty. What astounds me the most is the absolute transparency of the offence, as well the fact that kicks are often angled towards the corners, where, standing nearby, is a silent touch judge with the authority, but not the will, to rule on quite an obvious action.

 

The byproduct of the referee’s reluctance to police this area is dull ends to sets without real competition for the ball. It also leads to many sets starting from within five metres of the line as the kicker has less incentive to launch the kick into the in goal.

 

The protection given to the back three means that the chances of a repeat set are slim, unless the ball is kicked along the carpet through myriad of feet and bodies.

 

Therefore, kicks are pinpointed to land a couple of metres out from the line, deep in a corner and boring sets without flair or invention are required in order to work the ball out from dangerous territory. A kick from somewhere near halfway and an effective chase sees the opponent inside their own twenty and the process continues.

 

Sadly, the variation to this theme doesn’t come from the players. It stems from poor decisions and penalties that effectively decide the fate of most matches. The Bulldogs versus Roosters clash on Sunday afternoon was another case in point.

 

In an effort to create a ‘product’ that is quick, flowing and exciting, someone has instructed whistleblowers to ignore certain things. Short term, fans cheer and speed is of the essence.

 

However, the knock on effects of the silent whistles of officialdom are significant.

 

Unrealistic you might say? The interchange rule and the number allowed was rolled back. People thought interchange would be great, faster game they said. In reality, the NRL became purely collision based and the fatigue factor cheapened.

 

Common sense prevailed. If only that same sense could be applied to play-the-balls, scrums and blockers. Perhaps a whole array of subsequent issues could also be eliminated as a result.

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