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No place for punching in rugby league, says Phil Clarke

Phil Clarke Posted 20th May 2013 view comments

Does the referee need to show the red card when punches are thrown in a game of rugby league? YES, YES, YES, YES, YES! I can't be any clearer.

It has been said this season by some former players and coaches that "there's nothing wrong with a punch up!" Well, I'm afraid that's not true on many fronts. I know that it will happen from time to time.

Joe Wardle: was sent off in Huddersfield's win over Leeds in the Challenge Cup

Joe Wardle: was sent off in Huddersfield's win over Leeds in the Challenge Cup

Rugby league is a contact sport, players need to be in an aggressive state to play and at times things will 'boil over'. However we can't go around saying how proud we are that our players 'respect' the referee and don't swear at him, but allow players to fight and stay on the field.

Five players have been sent off this season in Super League for fighting or punching. Joe Wardle was also sent off recently in the Challenge Cup and it seems pretty clear that the referee has been instructed to show the red card as the game continues to improve and maintain the disciplinary standards in the sport.

Throwing a series of punches to the head of an opponent is serious foul play, against the rules of the game, has the potential for injury and more importantly is totally against the spirit of the sport.

Phil Clarke
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Throwing a series of punches to the head of an opponent is serious foul play, against the rules of the game, has the potential for injury and more importantly is totally against the spirit of the sport. The Laws of the Game clearly state that a player is guilty of misconduct if he trips, kicks or strikes another player. They also state that in the event of misconduct by a player, the referee shall, at his discretion, caution, temporarily suspend for 10 minutes or dismiss the offender.

Just as everyone knows it's not possible to throw the ball forward, all of the players and coaches who've read the rules know that you are not allowed to punch an opponent.

One only needs to look at the Guidelines for the Disciplinary Committee to see how clearly this is stated. There is a sliding scale for this offence ranging from a player who may simply react and lash out at an opponent with one punch, to the player who throws a series of punches, to the most serious when the players throws a series of punches in the worst way possible, running in to join the fight.

For those people who argue that it used to happen in the past, well firstly they need to accept that it can't happen now because it's against the rules, and it's not what the game is about.


It was fascinating to listen to the Warrington legend of the 1970s, Mike Nicholas, when he appeared recently on Super League Super Stars. Just to remind those who may not be aware, Mike was sent off about as often as Martin Offiah scored tries. However he was adamant that the game is much better now that it has cleaned up the sport. He admitted that it was thuggery in the past and sadly that's what some players had to do to survive.

The introduction of video cameras at games throughout the '80s was primarily the reason why the game was able to end the violent play that existed. Every one of the 'hard men' of the '60s and '70s that I've ever met has said that they much prefer the game now. It's cleaner but much harder and far better to watch in their view. They claim that the sport is faster and much more skilful, it's not about fighting and it never should be.

In fact, Mike said that he wouldn't have wanted his son to play in the days when someone was stretchered off and another one was sent off in almost every game! He is happy to promote the sport to any youngster now.

I like to watch a hard game of rugby but know that punching is not acceptable in society, and nor should it be on a rugby field. The sport has many occasions when a player can show how tough he is, either when he runs with the ball or makes a tackle. We aren't trying to compete with boxing or MMA.

Those who want to 'Bring Back the Biff' have a mistaken memory of the game 40 years ago. The aim of the game is to put the ball over the try line not to knock your opponents head over the sideline.

I am also a believer that sport has an important role to play in society, and it would be difficult to explain to young people that fighting isn't allowed if it were condoned on the field of play. I understand and appreciate that each incident needs to be viewed carefully by the referee.

The aggressor needs to be treated more severely than a player who could claim that he was trying to defend himself. However, rugby league like to think of itself as a sport of great discipline; let's maintain it.

Comments (5)

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Ian Silver says...

About the Joe Wardle incident ,the decision to send him off was correct not only was he wrong he was stupid throwing punches while on camera etc. Then on he other hand had the referee been doing his job at the tackle immediately before the incident Ablett deliberately kneed Wardle four times in the head which was ignored by the touch judges the referee and the camera man and the match review panel.This is not meant as a defence for Wardle his offence was punished and rightly so but had the ref penalised Abletts offence the Wardle incident would probably never have occurred.I have watched the incident several times and I am 100% confident this is correct.

Posted 10:44 2nd June 2013

Geoffrey Joseph says...

I recently saw a film of Great Britain v Australia test matches of the 1960's and 1970's and it was more like war than sport, with one fight after another. There were gasps from all round the room at the way players were allowed to get away with just a warning from the referee. Afterwards some old timers told me that it was a man's game in those days and they didn't watch Rugby League nowadays as its too soft and they "did it in the open then" (punching presumably). I agree with Phil Clarke wholly and pleased such tactics are now past.

Posted 09:37 2nd June 2013

Andie Riley says...

Great article Phil. Even saw some "bring back the biff" t-shirts at the Magic Weekend. There can be no option but to send the player off in my opinion, be it for 10 minutes or the whole game. I don't see referee's using the 10 minute option often enough. If they did, it might stamp out the thug element a little faster & even speed up the game.

Posted 23:28 28th May 2013

Don Elwell says...

Assertive and aggressive play can be skillful and should be encouraged not frowned upon. However, violent play should be recognised for what it is, pure thuggery! Punching is an intentional act, nobody accidentally throws a punch! Violent play should be banished from the game and punished immediately, by yellow or red card giving immediate advantage to the victims team. Certain players have built a reputation (and career) by violent behaviour on the pitch, but there has always been some reluctance from the officials to act immediately, by giving a penalty and opting to 'report' the matter or leave it to the Match Review Panel. The shoulder charge is a perfect example. Can we have a definitive ruling whether it is outlawed from the game as violent conduct and to be punished accordingly.? The shoulder charge has not left the game, it's use is open to interpretation, which will eventually lead to a mis-timed one causing a horrific injury. By then action will be too late! Perhaps the Referee should 'uphold' the Laws of the game instead of 'interpreting' them. There is a perception amongst many fans that certain referees try to 'balance the game' instead of ruthlessly and impartially enforcing the laws of the game. A Referee's job is hard enough, but respect will only come with how he handles his responsibilities.

Posted 12:53 21st May 2013

Peter Nugent says...

I couldn't agree with you more!! We all love the hard tackles and the collisions but such challenges and fights that are only designed to injure have no place in modern contact sport!! It is highly commendable that the use of the shoulder is outlawed and that only proper tackling is now tolerated in our wonderful sport. Accidents and injuries will still happen in any contact sport but the rule makers and administrators have a duty to ensure the safety of all who participate in sport. Failure to adhere to this ethos would see rugby league players in the dock charged with abh!!

Posted 00:08 21st May 2013

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