Rugby league fans often speak glowingly about the state of the game and the manner in which it is played; a fair and sporting affair where, no matter what, people shake hands afterwards. However, despite referees’ performances being called into question on a weekly basis, players seem to be moving away from these values at this time. Whether or not it is at the order of their coaches or simply their own on-field decisions, it is something which is getting on fans’ nerves and affecting the enjoyment of matches; while the referees are the ones who make the decisions, are their jobs being made even more difficult due to on-field antics of players?
It was acknowledged recently by Luke Robinson on Rugby League Backchat that players play the matches differently whether the game is televised or not. What seems to be creeping into the game now is players staying down injured after being released to play the ball in an effort to halt the game. As a result, that incident invariably gets looked at by the video referee and, in many instances, has resulted in a yellow card, often for a ‘crusher’ tackle. One tackle that comes to mind is when Sam Powell stayed down claiming an injury in the closing stages of Wigan’s victory over Leeds at Headingley earlier this season. After a tackle from Brett Delaney, the referee on the night allowed the game to be played on and was expecting Powell to play the ball. He, however, stayed down and, after the video official reviewed the incident, a penalty was given and converted by Sam Tomkins. This is something which is infuriating fans currently – the overuse of the video official. When it was first brought into rugby league, video footage was used almost exclusively for try confirmations – groundings, offsides and whether or not the player was in touch. Anything else that went on on the field of play was at the referee and his assistants’ discretion – some calls would have been wrong, some will have been right but it allowed the game to flow, something which is vital for the sport of rugby league to be entertaining.
Feigning injury or flailing on the ground is something which is also creeping into the game increasingly. Fans often compare the sport to football and praise the players for not throwing themselves to the ground but, again, that seems to be an increasingly common occurrence in rugby league. A similar aspect of football that wasn’t that evident in the thirteen man sport is the surrounding or abuse of match officials – until now. Just today in Wigan Warriors’ cup tie with Warrington, referee Robert Hicks gave a penalty against the Warriors for dissent – in that instance, it was for Sam Tomkins kicking the ball away in frustration. There have been incidents today where players have been penalised and, in some cases, sin binned or sent off for saying something out of turn – Josh McCrone of Toronto at Warrington and Matty Dawson-Jones of Leigh Centurions last night against Leeds Rhinos are just two recent examples. Both of those were penalised for very different reasons; McCrone simply kept answering Ben Thaler back when a decision was being explained that didn’t go his way while it is believed that Dawson-Jones issued a foul mouthed outburst to Chris Kendall. Both were correctly penalised and there have been many more which have either seen a penalty go against their team or nothing at all – either way, it should be rather simple to clamp down on; sin bin or send off anybody who answers back inappropriately to the officials and, within weeks, coaches would be seething at their players and would demand a stop be put to it.
Something else which hasn’t impressed fans of late – and it is one incident and one player in particular – was the behaviour of Chris Hill in Warrington’s recent win over Hull FC. The Wolves club captain and England international was involved in a tackle with Hakim Miloudi and, while the Frenchman was on the floor in the tackle, Hill was shown to be forcing his forearm into the face of the Hull winger. Now, it is a known fact that Miloudi, for some reason, doesn’t wear a gumshield but, either way, it shouldn’t be acceptable. What then followed, however, was a minor scuffle which resulted in Hill complaining to the referee that Miloudi had actually bitten him – something which wasn’t at all evident on the Sky Sports coverage of the match. Now, if you are forcing your arm into the face of a man without a gumshield on, there is a chance – in fact, a strong chance – of teeth marks ending up on your arm. That, however, doesn’t mean there was a bite and, in this instance, Hill could be accused of calling the game into disrepute by alleging something serious which was found to be false. This wasn’t Hill’s finest hour – he is, as a player, a fierce and impressive competitor – but it also certainly wasn’t good for the sport. I am surprised that no sanction was issued to Hill for essentially falsely alleging something of Miloudi, especially with him being in the wrong for forcing an arm into his opponent’s face in the tackle but perhaps there will be if incidents like this appear in the future.
Speaking of incidents in the tackle, it immediately brings up the issue which fans aplenty get strongly wound up with – interference at the tackle, something which referees seem to struggle with calling consistently. Numerous times a game a ball comes loose in the tackle and it is frustrating for fans to see a call made only for the video footage – which, by the way, is shown instantly on a big screen if the match is televised – to show it was the wrong call. Invariably, defenders seek to get their hands on the ball while it is in their opponents’ possession. Yes, this is a guard against that player getting an offload away but there are now many players who do this while making action to dislodge the ball in the hope that the officials deem it as a knock on by the ball carrier. These are infuriating decisions which seriously affect the game as a spectacle and something needs to be done around this – nobody expects referees to get everything correct, it is almost impossible to do so in a sport where there is so much going on at any one moment. What they do expect, however, is consistency. That should be the bare minimum but it seems to be something which officials struggle with currently but players aren’t helping due to their efforts to gain an unfair advantage with the aforementioned actions.
Coaches aplenty have suggested that players seeking to buy cheap penalties in defence when making yardage away from their line is affecting the game negatively – and it is. A team who feel they can dominate a team and keep them close to their own line with a strong defensive set are often undone by teams buying penalties – wriggling around at the play the ball, flailing their limbs and, sometimes, simply throwing themselves to the floor as they suggest interference at the restart. Coaches like Lee Radford and Brian McDermott suggested that such incidents were a blight on the game last season and referees should be wiser to it – there needs to be the intelligence from officials that a team trying to make their way away from their line will do anything they can – fairly or unfairly – to get away from their line and, on the same token – the defending team will be doing whatever they can fairly to keep them there. There are certain teams who do this practice more often than others, yes, but that will be left for you to decide. What fans can agree on, though, is that players are certainly getting more creative with how to impact officials and it is something which, if the sport isn’t careful, could damage its’ credibility long term while also seriously affecting the quality and enjoyment of the on-field product.