The rule that sees mandatory sin-binning of any player that throws a punch is actually bad for the game.
It was introduced into the sport two years ago after Paul Gallen laid into Nate Myles in the Origin arena. While I obviously understand and support the NRL’s reasoning for introducing the rule it is actually having a detrimental effect on the sport. The NRL wanted to remove fighting from the game and I’m not going to criticise them for that. That should be the goal. However, introducing a mandatory ban, while smart in theory, simply doesn’t work well in reality.
Referees have always had the power to sin-bin anyone that throws a punch. Heck, they have always been able to send a player off should they deem it serious enough. A blanket rule didn’t need to be put in place. In doing so, players know that it will seriously hurt a team’s chance of winning a game if a player from the opposing side is sent from the field for a period of time. Players and coaches use the rule to their advantage, baiting opponents into punching. That’s happened for years to a degree as well but under this new rule we are seeing a host of slapping, pushing, open-handed punches etc to try and find ways to force an opponent to throw a punch. It happens in nearly every game now. Smaller players target the more aggressive players, which wouldn’t have happened a couple of years ago. Go back two years and you could count on one hand how many times a player would throw a punch during the regular season and there was very little of the pushing and shoving we see across the board today. Now we see it almost every game.
I’m not advocating giving players the opportunity to throw punches to clean it up – I’m stating that in introducing the blanket rule an incentive has been given to teams to try and use it to their advantage which has been a blight on the sport. It will be hard to fix now.
Referees these days have no discretion to use when dealing with a melee. If a player has thrown a punch, they must be sent to the sin-bin according to NRL instructions. Earlier this year we saw Canberra Raiders fullback Jack Wighton stand up and throw a number of punches at Cronulla winger Sosaia Feki. Feki copped two or three blows to the face before he did anything. How is he supposed to stand there and allow an opponent to continue to land punches to his face? Feki did what any normal person would do and tried to defend himself by fighting back. He maybe threw one or two half punches in self-defence. When the fight was broken up the referees sent both players to the sin-bin. I’m not sure what the referees or the NRL wanted Feki to do. Were they expecting him to allow Wighton to continue punching him until the referees could stop it? If that is indeed what Dave Smith and company wants then I don’t know why more teams aren’t sending players onto the field to throw punches at the opposition side’s best players in order to get them to retaliate. Sure, both players will be forced from the field for 10 minutes but that could be an advantage depending which players it is.
Looking ahead to tonight’s State of Origin fixture makes me think this could well become an issue. There is bad blood between the two sides and much of the lead-in talk has been around cheap-shots and dirty tactics. There is the possibility of punches being thrown but neither side will be prepared to lose a player to the sin-bin without both sides suffering the same fate. So, if a punch is thrown, look for mass numbers to run in and start throwing. Will referees Gerard Sutton and Ben Cummins be prepared to send half a dozen players or more to the sin-bin? What would happen if there was a repeat of the infamous Origin clash in Melbourne back in 1995 where almost every player on the field threw punches in the biggest fight in Origin history? The game’s biggest showpiece could very quickly descend into a farce.
The no punches rule, while made with good intent, actually harms the game. All the NRL has to do is instruct their referees to be strict on fighting but leave the decision on punishment to the referee’s discretion.
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