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.

Is the hype surrounding Newcastle justified?

When you think of the Newcastle Knights, what comes to mind? If you’ve been following the team for any length of time, you’d probably be inclined to talk about the premiership the club won back in 1997, when Rugby League in Australia was in the grips of war, and again four years later, when one of the game’s greatest halfbacks helped the Knights defeat a highly fancied Parramatta side. If not these, you’d reminisce about the champion players that passed through the club during its glory days, Sunday afternoons spent at Hunter Stadium, the grand final parades, and the turbulence of the Tinkler era that brought with it so much uncertainty.

Things of late have begun to distort the image Newcastle once worked hard to build. Instead of talking about the supreme skills of Johns and Buderus, fans are lamenting the sorry state of a once famous and highly successful club that has lost its aura. Over the last five years Newcastle have won three spoons and failed to qualify for finals. Add to this that all three were won across the seasons of 2015, 2016 and 2017, and you begin to gauge exactly where the club currently stands.

2018 is filled with hope, though. For the first time in the last few years the Knights have a realistic chance of making the top eight. Mitchell Pearce, one of the most polarizing figures in NSW rugby league, joins the club from the Roosters – a side that knows what it takes to play finals football and does so routinely.

Even more exciting for Knights fans is the arrival of Kalyn Ponga. The young fullback may only have a handful of first-grade games under his belt, but he showed signs of great skill and maturity during his time at the Cowboys. The only question that remains now is whether he can deliver on the potential that the Knights saw in him when they sat down to table a deal. A contract worth in excess of a million dollars can often be more of a curse than a blessing for young players who arrive at a club with the expectation of helping deliver a premiership.

The Knights have also improved their depth through the signings of Tautau Moga, Connor Watson, Aidan Guerra, Chris Heighington, Slade Griffin, Jacob Lillyman and Herman Ese’ese. All are quality players who have been a part of highly successful clubs previously. And all will bring a bit of extra experience to the club that will help in the development of rising stars like the Saifiti brothers, Sione Mata’utia, Danny Levi and the powerful Mitch Barnett.

Take Heighington for example. Not two years ago he was a part of the Cronulla side that won the premiership. At the end of last year he came off the bench in the Rugby League World Cup final for England. Playing wise, Heighington’s days are numbered. But you sense he has been brought to the club for more than just what he can deliver on the playing field; his role is to nurture the young Knights forwards and help them realize what it takes to win a premiership.

This won’t be the season Newcastle go all the way – let’s get this straight. It mightn’t even be the year they make the top eight. But it is the beginning of a new era for the Knights. Their premiership window has been brought forward considerably thanks to the work of the management and coaching staff behind a successful off-season recruitment drive.

No longer is Newcastle merely there to make up the numbers. They’re a genuine threat. And I dare say a number of teams this season will fear coming up against them. Forget about easy beats. The Knights are an unknown quantity with a point to prove and for that reason they will cause a number of upsets this season.

This new look side can restore faith in the long-time fans that have begun to drift away from the Hunter and forget about the joy football can bring. They can rediscover the style of football that saw the Newcastle Knights become one of the most popular Australian sporting brands during the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Johns and Buderus are now nothing more than a distant memory, but the mark they left on the club will withstand the test of time. We may never see the Knights return to the lofty heights set by these two ever again – certainly not for some time yet, anyway. But they, and many others, will be forever known as the architects of a club that inspired an entire generation of rugby league fans from a working-class town.

Growing up during the mid 2000’s, receiving my Rugby League education from Channel 9, much was said about the Newcastle Knights. They were the poster boys of the NRL and the most discussed side on television and in the newspapers. As a Dragons supporter, they were the one side you respected. That respect began to fade away shortly after Johns, Buderus, Gidley, Harragon and MacDougall retired.

I feel the club is on the cusp of returning to those good old days. If they do, the competition, and rugby league in general, will be better for it.

For the first time in a long time, Newcastle fans have a right to feel excited about the future.