NRL Rd 2 - Sharks v Storm
NRL Rd 2 - Sharks v Storm

Kent: Pull coaches into line or wrestling’s here to stay

One of the joys of the collapse in live sport has been the replays of old games, replayed from strange days where wrestling was a weird Olympic sport and the ruck was a race, between attack and defence, to get to the feet first.

The game was fast and attrition was unavoidable. There was no interchange, just replacements.

In terms of aesthetics, the game looked better. Given the modern footballer is stronger and better conditioned, better coached, you wonder what sort of game the modern players would provide under these rules.

Maybe, instead of introducing new rules, the game should look at going back to the rules from a better time.

On Monday, they zoomed in from around the League Nation to talk about this idea of reverting back to one referee. Graham Annesley, Trent Robinson, Don Furner, Daly Cherry-Evans …

But it is irrelevant to know the correct number of referees if the referees, one, two or more, can't do their job in the first place.

Already some coaches have warned against going to one referee saying the wrestling, which is a sure way to evoke an emotional response in this game, will get worse.

Two referees were introduced in 2009. The hard sell was they would clean up the wrestle in the ruck.

Since then the wrestle has got worse. So mark that down as a fail.

It highlights the truth yet to be addressed: it is impossible for any number of referees to adjudicate the game as it should if the coaches continue to get away with bending the rules, for competitive advantage, and League Central does not have the stones to back the referees against the coaches.


The techniques used are becoming subtler and harder to spot. Photo: Toby Zerna
The techniques used are becoming subtler and harder to spot. Photo: Toby Zerna


For example, in the early days coaches instructed tacklers to lay on the tackled player. The referees saw it, a tackler laying a dead weight on a ballrunner was easy to spot, and began penalising them for slowing the play-the-ball.

The coaches demanded to know why?

The tackler was making no effort to get up, the refs said.

So the referees began shouting they wanted to see "movement".

But the coaches, unwilling to play under the rules, began coaching their players to spin around on top of the tackled player, like a hand on a clock.

When the referees began penalising that the coaches blued.

"The tackler was moving!" they barked.

The refs adjust, and because coaches know the "consistent" interpretation, they also know how to bend the rule for competitive advantage.

If the ref fails to officiate as the coach coached, it doubles down the next morning when the referee's boss turns up to work and there is an email in the inbox with 48 clips from the losing coach asking why none of these were penalised but his team was for an almost identical tackle.


Wrestling is just a normal part of training routines in the modern game.
Wrestling is just a normal part of training routines in the modern game.


Here the NRL dies by its own hand, crumbling under its impossible push for consistency.

Each little shift is how it developed into full blown wrestling, with Brazilian jujitsu holds, to slow the tackle down.

The best chance the NRL gave itself to fix this came in 2018 when then-chief executive Todd Greenberg declared the referees were going to clean up the ruck, telling everybody not to blame the referees for the crackdown, these were his instructions.

Referees acted as instructed and there was not a penalty they blew that was not warranted.

But it was too much for some, and so a campaign was begun behind the scenes by coaches who didn't want the wrestle out of the game.

By June Greenberg folded.

He accused the referees of nitpicking and told them to stop. Just when he needed to push on.

The game is so out of whack there is a war for the long haul.


The referee’s authority will suffer on and off the field. Photo: AAP Image/Scott Barbour
The referee’s authority will suffer on and off the field. Photo: AAP Image/Scott Barbour


Now, some argue wrestling has begun to disappear but this is again misleading. The smart coaches have transitioned.

Technically, wrestling might have reduced, but now we see the leaders in wrestling bending the rules in other ways.

They thread an arm in under the ballrunner's arm, tangling it up with the ball. He freezes for fear of dropping the ball.

Ball-runners get held up and the referee yells "Held".

But instead of immediately pulling out of the tackle the defenders collapse the tackle, taking the ballrunner to the ground, buying two to three more seconds for the defence to get set.

Then they tangle their legs up, making it look accidental.

Go back to one referee, keep it at two or even go to three or four if you like.

Nothing will change while ever coaches dictate how the game is officiated.



Originally published as Kent: Pull coaches into line or wrestling's here to stay