When an NRL player commits an act deemed, reckless, dangerous or intentional and it results in injury or potential harm to a player, they are sanctioned. Well, usually. Sometimes.
The inconsistencies in the system are plain for all to see and the ensuing frustration among fans immense. Jack De Belin’s one match suspension raised the antennae of many in the rugby league fraternity.
The crusher tackle is ugly for two reasons. Firstly, it is low act to commit as second or third man in to a contest with the ball player effectively disarmed and secondly, any actions that threaten the structural nature of the neck and spine need to be outlawed from the game immediately and permanently.
In saying that, De Belin might feel aggrieved. The actual position in which the ball carrier ended up was unsightly and reeked of a ‘crusher’ yet there was also a clear twisting motion that made the tackle morph into something that was perhaps not the initial intention.
Whatever your view, it was a messy one and certainly not a clear cut case. Hence the debate. NRL 360 on Fox often pits the minds of journos, ex and current players and other rugby league identities against each other in something of a devil’s advocate scenario.
Host Ben Ikin, lays out the issue and gives each member of the panel a particular line to argue. The complexity of the De Belin tackle was never more than clear than hearing Andrew Webster argue categorically for a suspension based on the simple fact that the player had ended up in a ‘crusher’ position and force was applied to the neck.
Open and shut case according to the Herald journalist. Paul Kent from the Daily Telegraph saw things very differently. He cited the twisting in the tackle and suggested that it was indeed De Belin who had created the dangerous situation in which he found himself.
Webster scoffed and Kent retorted, it was all respectfully done. It did however, highlight the complexities in the game created by new terms, rules and expectations of players that make the task of adjudicating and punishing with certainty and precision increasingly difficult.
The introduction of the dominant and surrender tackles, apart from being aurally annoying, confuse the game, officials and in turn the fans. The dreaded grapple or wrestle has probably done more harm to the modern game than any other coached tactic.
Allowing more or less time for the tacklers to ‘turtle’ their way around the prostrate ball carrier, based on the definition given to the tackle, is finicky, cynical and a waste of the officials’ time and energy.
Jujitsu techniques have added enormous shades of grey to tackles and De Belin is something of a victim in terms of these complexities.
The officials focus on the ruck needs to be simplified. Labelling tackles by name on the run, watching arms, necks and legs checking for illegal techniques, places absurd pressure on the referees and logically leads to inconsistency and error.
If only all that effort was used in other areas.
Rather than Gavin Badger sprinting in at the back of every ruck, pointing furiously and barking instructions and ‘coaching’ players through the entire tackle, wouldn’t it be nice to see a fresher mind pick up on dubious passes, blockers in kicking contests and only call knock-ons where the ball actually travels forward.
At times, it seems once a kick is launched, the officials almost take a little breather. A few seconds to reset and get back into the arduous task of monitoring four men in some sort of Greco-Roman wrestling meets martial arts contest, where over four hundred kilos may be leveraged and the end result potentially a penalty for a hand in the ruck.
In defence of the referees and their video sidekicks, they didn’t make the rules. Sure, their boss Tony Archer doesn’t appear to make their job any easier. Defending the indefensible and continually befuddling fans with support for a system that appears somewhat broken, doesn’t do wonders for public perception of the whistleblowers or screen watchers.
However, in some ways they are being sent up a highway to a very dark place or up that proverbial creek without the proverbial instrument. Therefore, they need some help and a dose of reality.
I am calling for a judiciary to be established, where inept refereeing decisions are analysed, scrutinised and punished.
Referees appear before a level headed, three prong panel with extensive knowledge of the game and justify their thinking and actions around decisions they have made.
Once given fair opportunity to present their case, they are excused while the panel discusses their punishment or acquittal (can’t see many acquittals really!)
The composition of the panel needs to be well considered and sensible people with no history of bias or run-ins with referees should be selected.
In the current climate, Steve Roach, Mark Geyer and Wally Lewis would be suitable appointments. All three are Origin players, legends of the game and supportive of referees in general. I cannot recall any altercations with, or outbursts of frustration at, officialdom emanating from any of them.
The proceedings would obviously rely heavily on video, as is the modern game. Each allegation would be replayed ad nauseam , just as it was on game day and the panel would ask questions like, ‘what were you thinking here?’, ‘can you see his foot on the touch line sir?’ or ‘does that air between the ball and the grass look like a grounding to you?’
Grading infringements and ineptitude would bring the referees into line with the players. A simple structure with three broad descriptors. 1) Visually impaired 2) Incompetent and 3) Corrupt. Within each descriptor there would then be four grading levels.
In the case of Origin 2, the failure to penalise the impeding of kick chasers would have probably been a grade three visually impaired whereas the atrocious decision against the Knights that saw Akuila Uate awarded a try while ‘dribbling’ the ball across the line, looked like a grade two corrupt.
The idea of carryover points keeping an official out of a key match appointment makes me, and I’m sure many others, smile.
Punishments would range from eye tests for minor infringements to stints in the NYC. In extreme cases, a Saturday morning at a local park officiating little tackers might be the best method to install some much needed confidence.
Hopefully the refs see these structures as positive and not punitive. The system is there to identify errors and guide them through their thought processes, thus, improving their performance.
The game needs its officials to be confident about their duties and decisions, clear about expectations and well aware of the ramifications of error.
After all, if referees get to the point where they are unclear about their responsibilities and decisions and start questioning the system put in place, one supposedly designed to assist them, then they will have become… well, just like the players really.