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Imagine- you?re out pounding the pavement, jogging with Prefontaine-esque zeal, when suddenly a muscular 110kg powerhouse launches himself at you and crashes venomously into your chest. The force leaves you winded and bruised. As you hit the ground, the behemoth leaps on you, crushing your ribs under his weight, and then proceeds to lever himself off you by planting his palm on your face and informing you that you are the world?s biggest loser, before calmly jogging back 10 metres, to do the same to the next unfortunate jogger.
It?s a frightening scenario, and yet an old clich?. Rugby league fans instinctively realise that this is a league scenario used in an inappropriate context. This sort of example is sometimes used to justify league?s seedier side, by appearing to prove that even legitimate play would still equate to serious assault in the outside world. But, of course, this is flawed reasoning; most supporters realise that boundaries need to be set, and that certain behaviours are unacceptable. However, in recent times fans and the media have become divided on what behaviours are unacceptable, and what road rugby league should travel in disciplining perpetrators of foul play.
A number of fans and ex players have complained that referees are too quick to pounce on innocuous indiscretions. To quote Mark Geyer, ?where is the reward now for a player who pulls off a bone-rattler? He?s either penalised or cautioned when seven out of 10 times, the tackle is perfectly cosha (sic)?. Interestingly, hardly a peep was heard in the defence of John Hopoate and Clint Newton when they went for big hits and appeared to, as Geyer puts it, ?slip up a few inches too high?. The judiciary has also come under scrutiny for the regular stream of small bans for minor offences. These offences, such as careless high tackles, are the sort that many old-schoolers deem ?just part of the game?. The abundance of suspensions may be a concern, but perhaps some people view the past with rose-tinted glasses. Legendary (or infamous) hard man Les Boyd may have been an 80s great, but he also copped two of the biggest suspensions of all time. Steve Bowden and Mark Broadhurst?s legendary 1981 brawl is regarded as an icon of old-school toughness, but Bowden was sent-off and copped a lengthy suspension, much like he would expect today.
One issue that fans on both sides agree on is the role of the referee. Somewhat paradoxically, send-offs have rarely been more rare than they are today. It also seems absurd that referees are not allowed to use the sin-bin to discipline players for relatively minor acts of foul play, when it is brief, to the point, and a genuine deterrent. A number of players sent off in recent years have not received further punishment*; but I do not think this proves that the referees got it wrong. In some cases, a send-off is a sufficient punishment, and shouldn?t be saved for only extreme instances of foul play.
Unfortunately, these arguments have become trite and boring. The opposing views are equally well known; we need to improve league?s image, make it faster and more entertaining, better for the fans, better for the kids, better for the NRL?s coffers, and so on. What is really necessary is a broader look at the culture rugby league should create. What role should niggly, rule-bending play have? Is it important? I would suggest that it is not. Cameras viewing the game from all angles are not going away, and a blind eye cannot be turned to any incident. In the English Premier League, a minimum 3-match ban is imposed on any player who deliberately strikes an opponent in the face, and as a result most fans consider such behaviour reckless and idiotic. Players in the NFL can be penalised for ?unnecessary roughness?; even aggressively sledging an opposition player is not allowed. League fans may not wish to go this far, but the point remains; strictly and decisively enforce rules to clean up a sport, and after a period of time unnecessarily vigorous play will be considered unacceptable. Rugby league has gone too far down its current road to turn back. The game?s traditions must be upheld, but the more sordid side of its past should be left where it belongs, so that rugby league can be a palatable product for the general public, without losing any of the attributes that truly make it the greatest game of all.
Mark Geyer quotes from Rugby League Week, September 1 2004
*See Big League, April 21 2005
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