YOU’D have thought the NRL had more pressing issues.
Here we are,pre-season trials already under way and only a few weeks until round one of the competitionkicks off, and suddenly it dawns on those occupying the corridors of power that perhaps it might be time to produce something tojustifytheir lucrativesalaries.
So a new policy is introduced, albeit not quite as momentous as theno-bonking ban Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has imposed onthe contituents of Parliament House.
In a puzzlingdevelopment, the NRL has instructed its referees to crack down on sloppy play-the-balls.
As the Knights and Storm discovered during last week’s trial at AAMI Park, the men with the whistles will no longer tolerate the trend of recent seasons, whereby tackled players simply roll the ball between their legs to the dummy-half, rather than propelling it backwards with their foot, as the laws of the game stipulate.
Newcastleconceded nine penalties, Melbournefive.
After a quick gaze into the crystal ball, Sporting Declaration is going to make the following bold forecast.
During the opening rounds of the season, there will be a rash of penalties as the refs strive to enforce the new directive.
The penalties will occur at the most infuriating of times –when your team is in possession and setting up for a tryscoring opportunity.
Moreover, there will be a procession of fumbles and knock-ons from clumsy front-rowersunaccustomed to the subtle skill of playing the ball with their feet.
Meanwhile,attacking teams, already struggling to make inroads against defenders with ingrained wrestling techniques, will find it even harder to generate any ruck speed.
Inevitably, pressure will mount until a coach erupts at a press conference after a narrow loss, pointing out that for all the penalties awarded for dodgy play-the-balls, the refs missed another dozen infringements that were equally glaring.
The controversywill be fodder for various media outlets duringthe following week before the powers-that-be, licking their wounds, accept discretion is the better part of valour and secretly instructthe referees to back down.
PLEASE EXPLAIN: NRL players, coaches and fans are likely to grow frustrated quickly if the referees proceed with a proposed crackdown on play-the-balls. Picture: AAP
All of which will leave us with a sense of deja vu and serve as a reminder that, while the rules do state that tackled players should use their feet to play the ball, it’s not exactly one of the code’s greatest dilemmas.
When, for example, did you last watch a game and find yourself enthralled and uplifted by the sheer quality of the play-the-balls?
It all strikes me as a waste of time and effort that could easily create more problems thanit solves.
Meanwhile, there are myriad other burning issues that seem perenniallyconsigned to the NRL’s too-hard basket.
Take the game’s finances, for instance.
It was only last week that NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg revealedthe code had posted a $3.7 million loss for 2017. That’s the ruling body, mind you, not the 16 clubs, who lost tens of millions between them.
Greenberg was confident that the new $2 billion, five-yearTV deal would “see the game return to a strong surplus position” within 12 months. But wasn’t that the expectationfive years ago, when they signed a $1 billion broadcasting contract?
Once Greenberg has transformed the NRL from a commercial black hole into a licence to print money, he can perhaps turn his attention to the fiasco known as third-party sponsorships.
At what point will the NRL stop treating fans with contempt by pretending that, because there is a salary cap, all clubs are competing on a level playing field?
The least they can do is to publicise the amount each club reapsin third-party income. That way everyoneknows which clubs are advantaged or disdvantaged, and hopefully there will be less need for brown-paper bags, delivered under the table.
Next on the list of quick fixes would surely be the much-maligned video-refereeing “bunker”.
The bunker will never be perfect, but the secret is surely to minimise its involvement by introducing the captain’s call.
The NRL did, admittedly, trial the captain’s call in the last-round game between St George Illawarra and Newcastle in 2016.
Ten tries were scored, and not one was referred to the bunker. The game flowed, everyone went home happy, yet for whatever reason the experiment was not repeated. Go figure.
Capping off the quandaries the NRL would prefer did not exist is the ticking time bombknown as concussion, which has already had a landmark impact in American football.
When will the NRL show enoughsense to err on the side of caution and introduce mandatory stand-down policies, avoiding instances like last season, when Broncos winger Cory Oates was stretcheredfrom the field unconsciousin the play-off against Penrith, then backed up to play a week later against Melbourne?
If he was a boxer, there is noway he would have been allowed back in the ring so soon.
Addressing any of the aforementioned matterswould have assured this columnist that NRL officials havea strategic plan and the game’s future is in safe hands.
But a clampdown on play-the-balls …is that the best they can come up with?
Clearly they haven’t been paying much attention to the scrums.