Opinion: the problem with the obstruction rule

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Last Thursday’s Leeds Rhinos match against Hull FC at Headingley throw up the old problem of the rugby league obstruction rule.

The visitors saw one of their tries chalked off for one instance where Leeds’ Carl Ablett was blocked while Tom Briscoe was able to score earlier in the piece for the hosts despite arguable interference from Kallum Watkins as the ball was passed – both instances, by the way, were referred to the video referee Phil Bentham by on field referee Robert Hicks.

Firstly, let’s look at Briscoe’s score which helped Leeds build upon a strong start to the match. After gaining field position through a strong set, Leeds passed the ball out towards their right edge and, in the hands of Richie Myler, the dummy runs started; this is where the suggestion of obstruction came in. Kallum Watkins, already on the score sheet after scoring the game’s opening try, crashed through as a decoy and, as a result, centre Carlos Tuimavave and Marc Sneyd made contact and were out of the game. Meanwhile, Myler had released the ball over the top to an unmarked Tom Briscoe who, after Fetuli Talanoa had been drawn infield, had a simple path to cross. In that instance, it could be argued that the ball had been passed out to Briscoe before contact was made and that it was a bad read by the Airlie Birds’ defenders. The try was given and Leeds had a 10-0 lead to defend.

Towards the end of the half, Hull FC had built up some pressure and were arguably on top as the game approached half time; Dean Hadley had already scored for the visitors to make it 10-6 and Josh Griffin shortly followed suit – or so he thought.

Hull played the ball on their left wing and worked the ball out wide; three passes later, the self-confessed wind up merchant Jake Connor had the ball in hand and delivered the killer pass to Josh Griffin who crashed over under pressure from a handful of Rhinos. However, Hicks again referred the decision to Bentham who found Hadley guilty of obstruction. As the pass was played out to Connor, the second rower had gone through as a dummy runner and made clear contact with Leeds’ Carl Ablett. Unlike the incident at the other end, Ablett wasn’t making a tackle and was part of his team’s sliding defence. He was visibly knocked backwards but, as he was about 10 metres from the man with the ball, many have argued that he wouldn’t have been able to influence the play anyway. By the letter of the law, it is indeed obstruction – while he himself wouldn’t have been able to get to the ball, his being out of position would in turn lead to the other defenders outside of him having to compensate.

It is clearly a rule that needs more work or commonsense; there are incidents in every single play where dummy runners go through the line, often making contact with defenders en route. They, however, aren’t penalised and it is invariably only try scoring incidents which are looked into. Why? If an obstruction which allows a team to make 50 yards up field on the second tackle is not penalised yet the team in question go through to score on the next play, is that break less valuable that one where the team score a try following an obstruction which, in turn, is chalked off?

Another instance is where a player is obstructed challenging for the ball. When the kick is hoiked into the air, attackers en masse charge for the challenge and, en route, have to navigate the minefield of defenders. Defenders, of course, are able to hold their line but must not deviate with intention to impede opponents. Again, this is something which seems to be given sometimes but not always and incidents which are blatant are overlooked while others that don’t seem to exist are penalised. Josh Griffin of Hull FC did such an act upon Ryan Hall twice and, while the second was given – by the touch judge, not the on field official – the first, which was arguably more blatant, was not.

There was an argument made on Sky Sports during one of the recent televised games – I’m not sure which – where the commentators suggested that a player took a tackle after breaking through as they believed an opponent was obstructed. The reasoning was that, if the player in question scored, the try would be sent to the video official who would disallow it. However, if he was to take the tackle and his team then scored on the next play, that is then a perfectly legal try.

That, in my opinion, is something the game needs to look at – as is consistency of decisions. There are strange calls in every game, including obstruction, and in a time where rugby league is supposedly in limbo on many fronts, recruiting new fans and retaining those who are ‘on the fence’ is going to be increasingly difficult if puzzling refereeing decisions blight the spectacle of rugby league.

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