This article was first written for and published by The Roar.
‘With great power comes great responsibility’; Uncle Ben from the first Spiderman film had it right.
Unfortunately, when it comes to rugby league, those with the greatest power and those who are charged with educating people and fans about the game are instead looking to create sensationalist headlines, push their own agendas and hurt the game which they say they love the most.
This has been exceptionally clear to me over the last couple of days as the controversy around refereeing and penalties continues.
It’s also becoming increasingly clear that those with the loudest voices are not hearing the voices of the fans.
Penalties has been the buzzword of this season so far and for good reason. According to Fox Sports, before this round, 17.82 penalties were being blown per game. This number is almost four more than were blown during this same period last season.
This increase in penalties has come off the back of directions from Todd Greenberg, who has said that over the offseason he asked the referees to focus on two things during this season. First that ‘the play of the ball was cleaned up’ and ‘to make sure the players are staying back onside’.
I applaud Todd for coming out and taking ownership of this issue and protecting the referees. I also applaud him for having the courage to ask referees to be strong in these two areas in particular.
The reality is that this clean up, particularly on offside, is long overdue. And unfortunately, because some teams and players have been able to get away with pushing the boundaries for so long, it means that the first couple of weeks are going to be difficult to watch because of the crackdown in penalties.
What fans have been able to appreciate (and what some people with loud voices have not been able to appreciate) is that a couple of weeks of pain is worth it in the context of a game which will be markedly better when players abide by the rules.
Let’s look at what has happened this weekend.
On Thursday night in the game between the Penrith Panthers and the North Queensland Cowboys, 21 penalties were blown. James Tamou was sent to the sin bin for the Panthers continued infringements around the ruck.
On Friday night, there were two games of footy. The first between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Canterbury Bulldogs and the second between the Cronulla Sharks and the Melbourne Storm. 54 penalties were blown in 160 minutes of footy.
Most of those (33 in fact), were blown in the game between the Sharks and the Storm. It comes as no surprise to me that two teams that have benefited from pushing the boundaries for so long are now being penalised. Two players were sin-binned in this game too – Luke Lewis for a professional foul and Cameron Smith for dissent. Cameron Smith being sent to the bin was something I thought I would never see.
The message is obvious. If players abide by the rules, there will be no need for penalties to be blown.
While commentators in the media are losing their minds about the number of penalties being blown, they are also not listening to the players or the coaches.
In this week alone, we have seen Bunnies coach Anthony Seibold acknowledge that the number of penalties being blown are impacting the flow of the game, but also encouraging the referees to keep doing what they are doing.
Josh Jackson was also exceptionally mature following the Bulldogs loss to the Bunnies. In this game, Ben Cummins apologised to Jackson for awarding a try to Greg Inglis while Jackson was still getting back into position after having a discussion with Cummins. Cummins apologised for not seeing Jackson getting back into position when play had already resumed.
The easy approach for Jackson here would have been to have blamed Cummins for his team’s loss. Instead he called out his own team for better game management.
Wayne Bennett has also made it clear that should the Brisbane Broncos break the rules, that his team deserve to cop the consequences.
As a fan, speaking honestly, it is exceptionally frustrating to see the referees blowing this number of penalties per game. It certainly contributes to a stop-start style of play and impacts the flow of the contest.
But, I don’t blame the referees for this. I blame the players for not abiding by the rules. I also blame any coach who has coached their team to play in a manner which breaks the rules.
So many fans have complained about lack of consistency from the referees in the past. We are now seeing consistency and I’m confident in the next couple of weeks we will see players and teams continue to change the way they play the game.
If I had any words of encouragement for the referees, it would be to continue to go harder and also, to not be afraid to use the sin bin.
Particularly when teams are defending their own line, there is a tendency to give away penalties not only because a penalty goal is favourable to four points being scored, but also because it gives the team defending the opportunity to catch their breath and reset their line. Blowing penalties in this situation is not going to stop offside infringements or infringements around the ruck.
What will work though is sending players to the sin bin. We’ve seen referees give countless warnings to players for these types of infringements. Warn both teams before the game and do not be afraid to send players to the sin bin for infringements.
I also encourage commentators to think about their positions in the game and how influential they are in educating the public about rugby league. Their role is not to create headlines or to push their own agendas.
And if fans can see the bigger picture, surely those who are experts in footy should be able to see the same.