Penalty crackdown should be encouraged, on one condition

If the NRL wishes to cure the penalty disease currently plaguing the game, referees mustn’t be afraid to use the sin-bin.

I applaud Matt Cecchin for sending Cameron Smith off for ten minutes on Friday night following the tirade of verbal abuse levelled at him and his assistant by the Melbourne Storm.

It was also pleasing to see James Tamou sent for a sit down on Thursday when the Penrith penalty count was beginning to get out of hand.

If the referees wish to continue blowing regular penalties they must persist with using the sin bin as a deterrent. Hopefully this will send a message to players and coaches that any slight infringement will not be tolerated.

For too many years now players have been coached to slow down the play-the-ball or give away a penalty close to the line to avoid conceding four points. This has led to several unattractive games and an increase in teams electing to kick a penalty goal rather than attempt a try-scoring play.

The catch-22 situation here is that the crackdown on these negative tactics by the referees has in itself stymied the natural flow of the game.

Anyone watching Friday night’s clash between Melbourne and Cronulla, whether at the ground or in front of their television sets, would’ve been left frustrated by the constant blowing of penalties.

They detracted from the spectacle and caused the game to become disjointed and unwatchable. There was no flow, no rhythm, and if you’re a casual fan of rugby league, I don’t blame you for changing the channel.

The NRL will know that it faces an uphill battle competing with the AFL, which continues to expand its reach into the eastern states.

The players are also aware that they are all members of the entertainment industry and that their performances – which influence the quality of the product they produce each weekend – determines whether fans will invest time and energy in supporting it.

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The NRL is not just competing with rival codes, of which there are many at this time of year, they are competing with the entire entertainment industry.

With the advent of streaming services such as Netflix, there are now several choices where there was once few and the battle for attention has heightened.

More and more fans will be lost to these alternative forms of entertainment if the game continues down the path it is headed.

But that doesn’t mean the referees should stop blowing penalties to avoid momentum-restricting stoppages, because if they are there to be given, they have no other choice.

It is important, however, the referees continue to show discretion in their decision-making, as fans will be turned away by the kind of nitpicking that gifts teams field position and, ultimately, victory.

This is the cause of as much frustration as the stoppages created by penalties. No fan wants to watch a game that is heavily influenced by the referees.

And yet the crackdown on negative play should be encouraged. If allowed to continue, it will, quite ironically, lead to a more polished and free-flowing game.

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Defensive units will stay back the required ten meters and allow the playmakers to run. Teams will abandon the wrestle tactic. The ruck will improve. Games will speed up and fatigue will start to play a factor again.

The NRL will look less like Super Rugby, with penalty goals kicked at will, and more like the game ardent followers fell in love with.

But if the increase in penalties is not met with an appropriate punishment, such as a stint in the sin bin for a member of a team that commits several offences, the NRL is in for a mass exodus led by disgruntled fans.

Another option is implementing a 5-minute sin-bin for any player that deliberately gives away a penalty close to their own line. This way referees will be more inclined to send a player off and teams will cease employing tactics that are likely to incur a penalty.

The risk in this method concerns that well discussed Rugby League phenomenon – the grey area – because it relies on referee discretion.

But if it helps rub out what is a blight on the game, even while raising the ire of coaches, then the NRL must consider it.

My guess is the referees will buckle under the weight of public opinion and the current crackdown will cease.

But if it does continue, is it too much to ask for the NRL to be proactive in managing it?

NRL must bring hammer down on salary cap cheats

Australian sport has been shaken to its very core this week. Much of this is due to the despicable actions of our cricketers in South Africa. As has been reported heavily over the past few days, Australian captain Steve Smith will miss the fourth and final test match of the series after being found guilty of contrary conduct by the ICC.

What is most jarring about this story is that the plan to change the condition of the ball was concocted behind closed doors, and involved the most sacred members of the playing group: its leaders.

During his time as Prime Minister, John Howard quipped that he had the second most important job in Australia. In the last week, this has proven to be the case. The Australian captain, it seems, is expected to uphold the standards and ideals we hold dear as a nation – even more so than those running the country. Fail us in any way and the emotional firestorm that follows will hit you like a ton of bricks.

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The pitchforks have come out for Smith faster than they might have done had Turnbull committed the political equivalent of ball tampering. But is all the hoo-hah warranted? After all, this isn’t the first time a cricketer has used a foreign object to change the condition of the ball. And if you listen to the game’s leading voices, the prevalence of ball tampering across all levels of the sport is higher than first thought. Even South African skipper Faf du Plessis has had a crack at scuffing up the ball to make it reverse swing.

The reason the Australians are being placed under heavy scrutiny from the public is partly because they expect more of their national heroes, and partly because it was a premeditated act.

So why then are we not applying the same heat to those at the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, who also engaged in premeditated cheating? Is it because they aren’t held in as high regard as Smith and his brigade of Baggy Green crusaders? Do Howard’s words – that Australian captaincy is the pinnacle of national leadership and those bestowed with this honour are the bearers of an unblemished moral compass – actually hold true?

There are many parallels that can be drawn between the two cases. Both were premeditated acts and both were committed with the intention of gaining an edge over their opposition. Both, quite stupidly I might add, were done under the watchful eye of each code’s respective governing bodies; one in front of the television cameras and the other under the constant surveillance of the integrity unit.

Where the cases begin to differ is on the severity of the punishments handed down and the outpouring of public disgust. Steve Smith has been given a one-match ban by the ICC but may never captain Australia again. Two Manly officials, Neil Bare and Joe Kelly, have received 12-month suspensions, yet the player managers, the players themselves, and the club at large, got off relatively scot-free.

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They are very different cases but at their core lies the same motivation. The Australian cricketers changed the condition of the ball to cheat their way to victory; Manly used undeclared TPA’s to lure players to the club with the aim of assembling a superior roster, therefore allowing them to win more games.

A statement NRL CEO Todd Greenberg made during yesterday’s press conference, where he detailed the findings of a nine-month-long salary cap investigation, sums up this point well: “Manly had a financial advantage in securing the services of players who may otherwise have gone to other clubs”.

Right, so why have competition points not been docked? Why have they only been fined $750,000, $250,000 of which will be suspended if the club makes appropriate governance changes, when the subjects of the two previous salary cap scandals had points stripped?

Sure, they’re currently cap compliant. That’s fine. But, as Greenberg himself acknowledges, other clubs “missed the opportunity to secure players because of Manly’s undisclosed deals”. Nothing can reverse this and a small fine isn’t going to provide any closure for opposition clubs. The Gold Coast certainly aren’t about to forgive them for missing out on signing Daly Cherry-Evans because they are playing with a reduced cap. The biggest backflip in NRL history occurred because Manly used third-party deals to cheat – that is the bottom line.

Clearly, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I feel like a broken record writing something like this in a rugby league article because it seems to happen every second week, no matter the topic. Two salary cap scandals in three seasons shows that the NRL needs to take a hard line on those cheating the system.

If Steve Smith – a man many were comparing to Bradman not three months ago – is at risk of losing his spot in the national team over something like ball tampering, a harsher punishment should be handed down to those NRL clubs who choose to dance with the salary cap devil.

Both are blatant acts of cheating. And both should be treated accordingly to prevent future cases.

Why the NRL’s image is in a bind

We can now safely assume the NRL has learnt nothing from the events of last week.

Yet again on the weekend, a blatant act of thuggery went unpunished. This time Kenny Edwards was the perpetrator; Jonus Pearson the victim.

Seriously, how far does it need to go before the NRL steps in and puts a stop to the violence that is driving young fans – and perhaps more importantly, their parents – away from the game in their droves.

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Last week I wrote two articles outlining what needs to change if the NRL are to get on top of this issue and repair the game’s image. The crux of my argument was that any forceful contact to the head that results in injury, be it a deliberate act like Edwards’ or a late high shot like Soliola’s, should be made a send-off offence, with the player receiving a lengthy stint on the sideline as further punishment.

This is the only way we’ll bear witness to change and stamp out what is an ugly look for our game.

The fact remains, though, that the NRL have let another one slip through their grasp this week.

Where is Archer’s confession of the referee’s mistake?

Unless they are content with the laughable $1500 dollar fine handed out to Kenny Edwards, the referee’s boss must set the record straight for the second time in two weeks.

Without sounding like a broken record, his job is to make clear to the public in layman’s terms what they see to be a send-off offence and how they are going to deal with players who cross the line on the field.

The silence from the critics who slammed Soliola’s hit on Slater but have opted out of commenting on Edwards’ pathetic display is deafening. There are differences in the two cases, but both caused harm to the opposition player and have brought the game into disrepute. Those who heaped blame on Soliola last week, but have gone into hiding this week, are part of the problem. We need consistency in order to achieve a cleaner image.

This starts with Archer; he must set the tone. Nothing will get done if we continue to treat each case using a different set of rules. Edwards’ cowardly hit on Pearson and Soliola’s late hit on Slater are one and the same – both could have resulted in serious injury. Yet Soliola gets suspended for five weeks and Edwards receives a minor blow to the bank balance and is allowed to take the field next weekend?

I’ll say it again: what image does this game want to uphold? One of thuggery and violence where cowardly acts are rife and accepted? Or one that takes a tough stance on contact that puts the players in harm’s way?

Outside of reform, consistency and standardising the rulings around high contact is required. If a player gets banned for a high shot one week, a swinging arm or a deliberate elbow to the head after a tackle is completed should receive the same penalty the next.

But this game has long struggled with getting consecutive rulings right, both on and off the field.

Melbourne Storm were stripped of their premierships back in 2010 and forced to play close to an entire season without accruing points. Yet the Parramatta Eels are told in 2016 that if they cut a few players and become cap compliant, they can continue earning premiership points and potentially make the top eight.

Seems fair enough.

And what about Todd Carney being ousted from the NRL over his boozy antics at a pub, while Mitchell Pearce simulates a lude act with a dog and is banned for just eight weeks.

Sure, Todd Carney was on his third and final chance, but when you put the two acts into context it is clear that there are many similarities; foremost, that they both caused irreparable damage to the game’s image.

Then there are the disparities in the length of bans between codes for the use of both recreational and performance enhancing substances over the past few years.

In 2014, a few Cronulla players received backdated suspensions that saw them miss just three matches following an investigation by WADA into an illegal supplement regime implemented at the club in 2011. Meanwhile, in the AFL, Essendon were made to play the entire 2016 season with the majority of their squad missing for the same offence.

Again, there are differences in the two cases, but how can the NRL come up with such a different ruling to the AFL?

All of this smacks of double standards. And a game cannot clean up its image if it continues to treat similar cases differently.

Todd Greenberg is doing a fine job in charge of the NRL, but his biggest problem, after reading his responses to the questions posed by journalist Phil Rothfield on Tuesday, is that he cannot accept there are problems with the game.

Allow me to let you in on a secret, Todd: the game is completely lost at the moment. Not only are we incapable of getting something as simple as a ruling on high shots correct, but crowd numbers have decreased dramatically across the last five years and refereeing has hit an all-time low despite the millions of dollars that have been poured into improving the way the game is officiated.

The game’s image is as scrambled as your morning eggs. One day it’s a sport filled with skill and heroism, unrivalled by anything else on this planet – think the 2015 Grand Final. The next it has a drug problem, can’t control what its players are doing, and is allowing acts that belong in the UFC pentagon to take place without punishment – think rep round, NSW Origin camp and either Soliola’s or Edwards’ brutal and cowardly displays of violence.

Other sports are sitting back in their cane chairs and waiting for the NRL to implode so they can take up its share of the market.

The way it’s going, this could happen within the next two decades.

Who’d let their son or daughter play a game as poorly managed and seemingly dangerous as rugby league when there are safer alternatives that aren’t likely to cause their child’s face to be sprawled over the front page of the newspaper for drug possession in 10 years’ time?

Who’d even bother attending when the NRL are making decisions that are quite obviously causing the competition to become less attractive for viewers and harder to follow?

The proof is in the pudding – crowds are down 2% on last year and participation rates are declining at an alarming rate.

Some will say bring back the good old days of suburban venues, mid-game brawls and contested scrums.

Those days are sadly behind us. But with the game as out of whack as it is, it could do worse than to follow the old-school mantra – with a modern twist, of course.

The NRL have got it wrong…again

It’s hard to believe the NRL match review committee could compound the issue regarding Sia Soliola’s hit on Billy Slater. But they’ve done exactly that by giving the Canberra prop just a five-match suspension as opposed to the six that certain parties were pushing for. If they were interested in taking a tough stance on careless tackles, be they intentional or not, Sia Soliola had to be given the maximum penalty available.

That means he shouldn’t be returning in round 26 against, you guessed it, the Melbourne Storm. He should’ve been banned for the rest of the season without pay and received a reprimand from the club and the NRL.

This was the NRL’s only option after the on-field referees, and those reviewing the decision from the bunker, decided to allow Sia Soliola to remain on the field despite clear-cut evidence he deserved to be sent off.

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Billy Slater was stretchered from the ground on Saturday. Image Source: Pacific – Epeak

Many have argued that the referees are either scared to make this decision because they fear being dropped over poor decisions, or are totally lost as to what does and doesn’t constitute a send-off.

Either way, the NRL had the opportunity to put the argument to bed on Tuesday night but squandered the opportunity much like they did at Canberra stadium on Saturday.

The issue for me, as the match review panel currently stands, is that players are being given lighter sentences when they plead guilty. This simply doesn’t make sense.

‘Sia, because you’ve accepted that you are in fact guilty, we have decided to reduce your charge by one week.’

We are not dealing with convicted murderers here; we are dealing with footballers. As a result, charges should not be downgraded because they have accepted that their actions were not befitting of the NRL’s rules and regulations. What message does that send to the rest of the competition – you can hit a player late and high but still get away with a lighter sentence because you’ve acknowledged that your actions were wrong?

It’s no wonder the NRL has an image problem.

This isn’t the first time they’ve botched a sentence this year. When Tim Simona was found to be fixing matches and committing heinous crimes, Todd Greenberg didn’t mark him down on the no fly list, leaving the door ajar for corruption to creep back into the game at some point in the future.

And what about their soft approach to salary cap breaches in the past.

By not taking a hardball stance on blatant thuggery at the judiciary earlier this week, the NRL have effectively condoned violence.

Slipping or not, hits like Soliola’s give rugby league a bad name.

If the NRL were to make strides forward in preventing a repeat of the shocking events of Saturday night, Tony Archer, or another NRL representative, needed to make clear the rules around send-offs, sin-bins and general misconduct.

It’s no good leaving it to ‘instinct’ as some sources have suggested. We need black and white rulings.

This means contact to the head of an opposition player is made a send-off offence – whether it was intentional or not. Players must be protected.

If the NRL are truly committed to making the game cleaner than it currently is, then its high time they stopped operating their judiciary hearings like a court of law and removed those outdated and non-functional grading terms like ‘careless, late and reckless’.

The more criteria the NRL use for determining the extent of a penalty, the more decisions they are going to get horribly wrong. And for a game already losing its place amongst the younger population due to acts like Soliola’s, it cannot afford for the NRL to continue going soft on brutal hits.

Send-off farce final straw in sorry tale of refereeing blunders

It’s official – the send off is dead. If ever there was a time for it to come back into play again after six years in hibernation, it was Saturday when Sia Soliola’s sickening hit on Billy Slater left us all seeing stars.

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Referees Boss Tony Archer – Image Source: The Roar

In the Super League, the referee’s red card would have been pulled out sooner than Soliola was able to regain his feet. Yet here in the NRL, the referees have gone soft on late hits and general misconduct, while a soft slap on the cheek will get you sent for a ten minute stint on the sidelines.

Referees boss Tony Archer announced on Sunday that the officials made an error in failing to remove Soliola from the field – further evidence that the referees are lost as to what constitutes a send-off and what doesn’t.

Perhaps this stems from the fact that the backlash from both the media and general rugby league public would be so great in the event a player was sent off when they shouldn’t have been.

Whatever the case, a line in the sand was there to be drawn on Saturday night but the opportunity was sadly missed. Anything less now simply cannot be deemed a sin-binnable offence because the referees will be accused of allowing inconsistency to creep into the game.

It could be argued the precedent was set by Tony Archer just a day later. But actions speak louder than words and the fact of the matter is Soliola was allowed to remain on the field. Fans will cry poor as soon as one of their players is sat down over a similar incident because they can offer clear evidence that it has gone unpunished previously.

Tony Archer must come out and set the record straight through introducing black and white rulings around what constitutes a send-off so he is spared future embarrassment.

If he doesn’t then we can safely assume high shots and blatant thuggery like Sia Soliola’s swinging arm or Papalii’s head-high shoulder charge on Dugan will go without punishment on the field.

Something must be done if for no other reason than to ensure a fair contest is had between the side that loses an injured player and is therefore at a disadvantage for the remainder of the eighty-minutes, but also to avoid an injury that could end a players’ career and leave fans wondering why something wasn’t done to protect them earlier.

Archer must also address the clear inconsistencies plaguing the NRL’s million dollar Bunker.

When Daniel Tupou’s try was allowed despite clear evidence of a knock on from Latrell Mitchell in the lead up play on Friday night against the Knights, the Bunker lost all credibility (if it hadn’t already) in the eyes of those supporters whose sides have been robbed of two premiership points by the failings of what was designed to be an infallible system.

If this was the one and only time an error had been made, we wouldn’t be complaining. But it happens on a week to week basis.

Why have they also stopped intervening when the on-field referee blows a penalty that wasn’t there despite having done so previously?

The Bunker was designed to bring more consistency to the game yet we are witnessing an increase in poor decisions and a sudden reduction in the overruling of incorrect penalties.

Then there are the stories that suggest the Bunker are missing out on crucial camera angles because the operators are too busy filming the empty ANZ Stadium seats, and the odd fan who rolls up to the game.

I come back to this question quite often, but what happens if any of these errors occur in the Grand Final?

Ricky Stuart spoke about accountability after the Raiders clash on Saturday, which was a little bizarre given he was very lucky to avoid playing with 12 men, but there was some truth to his fiery rant.

Instead of Tony Archer releasing a media statement full of clichés that has been perfectly scripted to hit the right chords with the clubs, why doesn’t he promote post-season reform or outline the areas the referees are failing in and come up with the appropriate policies to address these issues?

It’s all well and good admitting that an error was made but until this is met with action nothing will change.

The number of refereeing blunders made next year must decrease or Archer should be given his marching orders. If more than half of those made originate in the Bunker, it too must be removed because clearly it is failing to uphold the standards expected by the public and clubs, but also what it was designed for.

The time has come. Enough is enough. Get it right now or be shown the door.