How cheating coaches have created ‘ugly’ NRL
COACHES are a funny breed. They want the NRL to tell them exactly how a game is going to be refereed, all in the name of fairness, mind you, then exploit the very information they are given.
NRL head of football Graham Annesley opened the season by telling everybody the referees were going to put the whistle away to create more time in the game.
The nit-picking penalties that marred last season were gone. The game was going to open up.
Oh you bet everybody cheered at that.
What few knew was the happiest people in the NRL nation were the coaches.
They knew the last thing that was going to happen was the game would open up.
Wayne Bennett gave us a peek last Thursday.
"I told them when I knew what was going down, that the issue was going to be what was going down in the tackle," Bennett said after his side's win over Canterbury.
"You all saw today, that had a huge impact on the game because of what was going on at the ruck, and in the play the ball area."
The Bulldogs' defence most closely identified two men at sea, one of them drowning. They refused to let go of the Rabbitohs no matter how much the Rabbitohs discouraged them.
It made for an ugly game.
This is completely defendable if you are Dean Pay, the Bulldogs coach.
The Bulldogs didn't have near the talent of South Sydney so their best chance to keep the scoreline tight and even give them a puncher's chance at victory was to strangle the play-the-ball.
Don't let Souths' attack find its rhythm, keep the score down, and hope for the best.
The same tactics are being employed at other over-achieving teams in the competition.
Manly are off-side so often the referees have lost the will to penalise them. Scrums, taps, the short side, they can almost shake hands with the opposition.
Coach Des Hasler knows this. He knows once the referees ping a few penalties the crowd will get on their back for "ruining the game" and somewhere in the back of their mind the referees look toward Monday's review and suddenly the whistle gets put away.
For years Canberra tried to outscore teams under the misapprehension that if they scored more points than their opposition they would win.
Turns out the key to victory is to make the opposition score less.
The top teams - Melbourne, Sydney Roosters, Souths - have been doing it for years. That's why they're at the top and it's how the rest are trying to get there.
Slow down the play-the-ball so there is no attacking advantage.
This all began years ago when coaches began complaining about "consistency" and began sending in clips of a tackle in their game that resulted in a penalty and a clip of a similar tackle in another that didn't.
Instead of continuing to referee according to the rule book the referees began coaching the coaches on what they were looking for, all under the myth of "consistency".
Everyone seemed happy.
Only the coaches didn't accept it for the courtesy it was. They immediately began working on ways around this "interpretation".
If referees were going to let a little go to keep the game flowing, then the coaches told their guys to stand off-side at the 10m and lay all over them to slow down the tackle.
If referees were going to crack down the 10m then coaches told their players to hold them down longer in the play-the-ball. If it was a play-the-ball crackdown, of course, stand off-side at the 10m a little.
This year the edict was let the game flow, which translated to put the whistle in the pocket.
"I said I support what they're trying to do but," Bennett said Friday, "at the same time, I've never probably been in an era in the game where the players are less compliant."
Add the coaches to that.
Nowadays coaches want a rule interpretation, updated weekly under the guise of "consistency", just so they can figure a new way around it.
But don't blame the coaches, either.
Coaches are the first men sacked when a team is not winning.
Defence, and winning the ruck, have always been the key to winning rugby league.
It all changed when the referees began issuing edicts on how they would adjudicate, all under the impossible dream of consistency from tackle to tackle, from interpretation to interpretation, and from referee to referee.
Still, they attempted it and it only got worse, even as referees got better.
It is now at the point where even fans are conditioned to look for this mythical consistency and complain when it is missing, as if this is the game barometer.
There is no other sport in the world where so much time is spent on exploiting the rules instead of, in good spirit, playing within them.
Where the NRL is at fault is for bowing to the coaches.
Hopefully for not much longer.
"The solution is reffing what's in front of you - it's always been the solution," Bennett said.
"If it's an unnecessary time on the ground, in the play-the-ball area - blow the whistle."
It was the smartest thing Bennett has said in years.
Clearly that Sydney air is good for him.
After a solid start Annesley will give his weekly briefing on Tuesday with a few restless questions coming his way following a troubling weekend.
The answer is not to explain or apologise. Annesley needs to tell the coaches and the game, like Bennett said, that from now on the referees will rule on what they see.
And things might be different from game to game because different referees see different things. And different teams are trying on different things.
And when coaches complain they were not warned they would be penalised for certain infractions the solution is simple.
Post them a rule book.