NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo says there will be no apologies for the high tackle crackdown that has overshadowed Magic Round.
Eight players were sin-binned from two games on Friday and four were sent for 10 minutes across three Saturday matches at Suncorp Stadium, after an NRL demand that referees more forcefully stamp out contact with the head. Canberra’s Josh Papalii was sent off for a shoulder-to-face hit on Canterbury’s Tuipulotu Katoa and is now facing a ban of three-to-five games, meaning he’s set to miss the State of Origin opener.
The head-high crackdown has in-principle support across much of rugby league but the refereeing blitz has dominated discussion on a showpiece weekend.
Abdo said that teams could either get with the program and thrive, or keep copping punishment from referees.
“This is an intense, physical game and we’re talking about taking the responsible leadership position of eliminating the damage that can be done [by] dangerous head-high shots. I make no apologies for that and I absolutely believe that the decision the commission has made and the way it’s being implemented is right,” Abdo said on The Sunday Footy Show.
“But I’ll also say, what do we know about our coaches and our teams? They’re professional, they evolve, there’s a learning curve. They’ll adapt and the teams that adapt quicker than others will have a competitive advantage.”
Abdo backed a call from Roosters coach Trent Robinson – who had Sitili Tupouniua sin-binned in a win over the Cowboys – that teams were already adapting, given 50 per cent fewer players were binned on the second day of Magic Round.
Yet NSW coach Brad Fittler warned that the crackdown could completely change how teams needed to think about the game. He said that learning to play with just 12 men could become an essential part of the rugby league.
“I think what we’re showing right now, you need to learn how to play with 12 players,” Fittler said on The Sunday Footy Show.
“This is going to be [ongoing]. The accidental ones are also going to be sin-binned as well.
“I asked Victor Radley at half-time, I said, ‘How was it out there with one player down?’ He said, ‘I’m really disappointed that we let two tries in. We’ve trained for this and we should have done a better job while with 12 players.”
Most of the sin-bin incidents have at least fit the bill of what the NRL is trying to achieve.
Parramatta legend Peter Sterling said that one tackle had left him uneasy: a clearly accidental 64th minute high shot from Cowboys forward Lachlan Burr on Roosters fullback James Tedesco. Burr was sin-binned and on Sunday copped a fine for a grade one careless high tackle; one of 10 charges from Saturday’s three matches.
“The only concern I have … we all agree with what we’re trying to do. The only one that hasn’t sat well with me this weekend was Lachlan Burr and the tackle on James Tedesco,” Sterling said on The Sunday Footy Show.
“We are a collision sport, we are a physical sport, accidents are going to happen. I look at that incident, Lachlan Burr, I don’t think he could have done anything else. If you have a look at the point of contact, it’s down around his armpit. Obviously Teddy comes in low.
“The test we always apply to it: does it stand up with 10 minutes to go in a grand final? And that wouldn’t sit well with me because I don’t think Lachlan Burr did anything wrong apart from the fact that contact was made from the head.
“To me, they’re penalties and fines later on, and then I could cop it in a grand final with 10 [minutes remaining]. Because when Lachlan Burr [went off], that was game over. The game finished there.
“We are going to have accidents, I think it’s how we deal with those. Lachlan Burr has made the tackle, yes, there’s contact. But they paid a heavy price … that was the game, right there.
“Once you take the contest out of the contest, that’s where we get as little bit frustrated.”
The sin-bin spree is just one issue to rear its head amid Magic Round.
Abdo had it put to him by Fittler that by allowing the Bunker to referee retrospectively, going back to police foul play missed by the on-field referee, the game was “dulled down” and “slowed down”; at odds with other NRL initiatives to speed-up play.
“That’s a fair point,” Abdo replied. “I think we’ve got to get the balance right between the referee on the field refereeing what’s in front of them but then also making sure that extreme cases are certainly catered for.
“I think the point you make around how far you go back and how much impact you have on stopping the game is a really important one. Perhaps if you look reflect back over the last 24 to 48 hours, maybe there are a few calls that were more minor in nature as opposed to significant in nature.
“I think we’ll get that right over time.”
Fittler said that stopping play for late calls had the potential to be more harmful than regular sin-bins, making the game “stagnant”.
Sterling said: “I think everybody would be OK with things that are missed and picked up maybe later on, instead of halting that momentum. Wayne Bennett’s come out very strongly and spoken about, the attraction of our game is the momentum that it builds and when we take the air out of the balloon, that’s where it becomes frustrating.”
Abdo countered: “It’s easy to say we want to keep momentum and if things get missed they get missed, until it’s your team and it’s a significant issue and it’s had a significant impact on a player who might not be able to return to the field,” he said.
“So we’re got to get that balance right between getting things right and using all the things available to us, and the momentum and the continuity and the speed of the game which we love. I acknowledge the fact that that’s probably something that we need to keep looking at and keep refining.
“I don’t think we’ve got all those calls right. I think we want to really focus on the Bunker being involved when there’s significant errors and that’s something we’ll work really hard on behind the scenes.”
Top coaches such as Robinson and Wayne Bennett have backed the move to reduce head contact, despite the arguably overzealous start to the process. Bennett echoed Fittler’s view that ruining the momentum of play was the key factor.
Abdo said that while the crackdown was a work in progress, ultimately there would be no backing down from the push for less high tackles. He said that making the game safer was crucial to its long-term survival, with increased scrutiny over head injuries.
“In sport, you can either administer or you can lead. The (ARL) Commission are clearly taking a leadership position here,” he said.
“Our job is to make sure we implement that. We want this game to be relevant. There’s a certain amount of arrogance or complacency that goes with thinking that as the world changes we can just do the same thing. We have one of the fastest, most entertaining, toughest sports in the world and all we’re doing now is making sure that we are making it appropriately safe for our players.
“This is a moment in time and any time that you introduce change, there are always people that are resistant to it. We’re humans, it’s human nature, but we’re doing this for the right reason. We’re doing this so that the game will be relevant into the long-term. We’re doing this to protect the safety of our players, who are unbelievable athletes playing an incredibly physical game.
“Again, anyone who thinks that our game is losing the core of its fabric hasn’t been to a game live, hasn’t experienced Magic Round.”
For a daily dose of the best of the breaking news and exclusive content from Wide World of Sports, subscribe to our newsletter by clicking here!