For a game which has introduced a no-fighting edict, there seems to have been an awful lot of fighting in and around rugby league lately.
The NRL’s announcement that it would be cracking down on violence has appeared as much like fighting words as the statement which sparked it all: Nate Myles’ ”let’s go” to Paul Gallen.
The temperature has risen off the field as well as on it. In the blue corner, NRL chief executive Dave Smith, fellow administrators, school principals, mothers with school-aged children, rugby union supporters, naysayers and doomsayers. In the red corner, footballers, wannabe footballers, league purists, boxers, mug punters and thugs. Debate around the NRL’s decision to ban the biff has been just about split down the middle between those who enjoy the biff and those who detest it.
But while debate about whether the edict should have been introduced in the first place rages on, it might be time to start looking at this question: has it worked?
It’s early days, of course, and the NRL was looking at the bigger picture, more so than the quick fix. But still, it should be acknowledged that what fighting we have seen on the field (and it is difficult to mount an argument that there is less of it) has been bolded, highlighted and underlined by the crackdown which has accompanied it.
In reality, little changed in the rule book. The referees were told to sin-bin players for fighting, which they could do before. Players have been sin-binned before for fighting, and in extreme cases sent off. But as a result of the officials’ refusal to punish Gallen on the field in the first Origin, when he responded to Myles’ taunt, they felt they needed to act.
But the players kept fighting – a handful of under-20 youngsters, Trent Merrin and Justin Hodges in Origin II, Mitchell Allgood on Monday night. And something very peculiar has happened along the way. Many footballers have decided they have every right to punch on.
Merrin declared he’d do it again in the decider, while plenty of others have mourned the inability to raise their fists and clock an opponent on the chin without being punished. How peculiar. Tempers flare, and fights happen in rugby league, but to suggest they should not go unpunished is lunacy.
Of course, some common sense needs to be applied by the on-field officials, and hopefully, when the dust settled, it will be. They blundered by sending four to the sin-bin at Suncorp Stadium when only two had clearly thrown punches, clearly feeling the pressure to act. It all begs the question: has any part of this been handled well?
Had the on-field referees sin-binned Gallen in game one, we might have all moved on, without the need for heavy-handed but ham-fisted reactions. But under pressure from, among others, school principals, Smith and other NRL officials decided to act on the run, even though they could have simply told the referees discreetly to do what they should be doing, enforcing the rules. One consequence is that, five weeks on, we are still talking about fighting.
But there are more subtle consequences. Coaches and players both privately and publicly fear that niggling and baiting tactics will increase, knowing the reaction – a punch in the head – will be more likely to be punished. So the scourge of wrestling continues, as well as the proliferation of players diving in at the legs of opponents to slow down the play-the-ball.
Last Friday night, Brisbane’s Corey Parker lifted his leg at the last moment to avoid forceful contact from Melbourne’s Bryan Norrie, who speared into his legs. Manly’s George Rose suffered an ankle injury on Monday night as a result of a similar tackle. A serious knee injury is surely a matter of time; outlawing those tackles would be quite literally a knee-jerk reaction, but surely a positive one. Brad Fittler, the former Sydney Roosters five-eighth, and now a Blues assistant coach, was helping the NSW squad in an opposed session recently when he was tackled, and the third man came spearing in.
”It’s scary, man,” Fittler said. ”Frightening.” Corey Parker looked like he wanted to, well, belt someone, after being subjected to two such tackles against Melbourne. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to see how the referees reacted if he did?
In the meantime, as we approach Origin III, we wait with bated breath to see whether Merrin, or someone else, chooses to do it all again for his team, damning the consequences … and wonder whether the crackdown on fighting will lead to more fighting.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.