Rugby League Expert & Columnist
Rugby league needs to define how late is late, says Phil Clarke
Last Updated: 03/08/17 10:22pm
Some tasks are thankless ones and being involved with the disciplinary side of rugby league is one such example. Whatever decision is made, someone, somewhere, will think that you've got it wrong.
This weeks it's the Leigh Centurions who think that the game's gone soft. Jamie Acton has been banned for nine games and fined another £300 (I say another because it's the fifth time this year he's been charged).
Some Leigh supporters think that he's been punished too severely. After running around for almost 20 minutes, Acton assumed that Greg Bird had made a late challenge on his half-back partner Ben Reynolds, when in fact, there had been an accidental clash of heads. His action of briefly picking up Bird from the floor was a dangerous and needless one and he'll now miss the rest of the season.
I have a degree of sympathy for the Leigh front-rower. I'm old enough to remember games in the 1990's when his actions wouldn't even have been a penalty, let alone a nine-game suspension. In the heat of the moment I'm guessing that Acton didn't pause to think about the health and well-being of his opponent.
Fortunately, Bird was well enough to not only walk off the field, but return to play another 40 minutes later on, but that's not the point either. Times have changed and we're all now more aware of the dangers of concussion and the risks of spinal injuries in collisions like the one here.
It's interesting that the sport used to perceive tripping to be more dangerous than we do today, players found guilty of it used to be given an instant red card. Nowadays, the most they get is a yellow. Who made the decision that tripping was no longer that dangerous? Sorry, I digress.
If the game in France hadn't been televised then I am not sure we would ever have heard much about this, but again, that's not the point either. The action replay shown from another angle made us all aware, which might be a good thing in the long run if we are serious about player welfare. Let's assume that Acton was annoyed with Bird because he perceived his opponent's tackle to be a 'late' one on his team-mate. This is the important part that the game needs to debate in my eyes because it has an impact on the style of rugby that teams can/will play.
We have seen a number of defenders hitting either the kicker or the passer after he has released the ball late this season. Some of these are penalised, and rightly so. But, if I were to ask you the definition of a 'late' tackle I'm not sure that we would get a consistent answer. I'm not even sure that every referee could define one.
It's possible that some of you would say that any contact with the attacking player after he has released the ball is a 'late' tackle and therefore should be penalised, but most of us know that it's impossible to pull out of a tackle at full speed, so, what's the cut-off time? Is it one second? Half a second? A quarter of a second?
Does it matter, and can it be used as any defence, if the defender cannot see if the ball has already been passed? We see some players turn their upper bodies as they release the ball to a team-mate which makes it impossible for the defender to be certain where the ball is.
This is where the game starts to get very complicated but if we want to see attacking play, where the ball carrier has the confidence to run at defenders before releasing to his team-mates, then it's an issue we're going to have to deal with soon. Lots of big forwards think that it is their duty to protect their smaller 'ball playing team-mates' and we have seen several incidents when colleagues have run in after they have seen one of their colleagues tackled 'late'. In the old days players used to say to the referee that they "got there as quickly as they could". Well we've finally got to the stage when we need to define when late is late.