29 March 2014

Discipline Matters - a view on the RFL disciplinary process

It's become a big topic again in 2014. We've heard a lot of criticism from all quarters but little suggestion for change has been put forward. SLP presenter Mark has been thinking how he might change things, here are those thoughts.

I've always been interested in the disciplinary process and the absolute slaughtering it gets from fans, players, coaches and club owners. The first blog I ever wrote was on the topic of bias in the system because I was sick of people claiming a bias against their club and in favour of certain clubs they dislike. I think I demonstrated no bias but you can be the judge of that.

Last year I tried really hard to put something together on consistency. The problem I found was that there wasn't enough footage of incidents freely and openly available to really drill down on the issue.

That has actually changed this year a little with incidents getting highlighted quicker so that fans are getting footage out through social media of similar incidents where inconsistency has been seen. A piece on The 18th Man website highlighted this well recently over the Justin Poore and Willie Isa dangerous throw inconsistency, amongst other examples. Despite a little bit of 'the RFL don't like Hull clubs' sentiment it's a really good piece well worth a read.

Consistency, both in decisions and the reporting of them (loads of player names are spelled incorrectly in the RFL records), is a topic I might return to in the future but here I want to throw in my suggestion as to how I might amend the process to provide fairer decision making.

Having the Match Review Panel (MRP/panel) and then following this up with an Operational Rules Tribunal (ORT/tribunal) for me isn't a problem, it's how it's done that I have a problem with. I suspect there is both an element of the ORT making their mind up before the hearing and an element of them erring on the side of the MRP calls. The set up for me certainly calls into question the real independence of the ORT, however it is made up.

What would I change? I would have the hearing see both sides - the player/his club and the MRP - present cases to an independent ORT and see offences with the ability to impact a game or injure an opponent be dealt with more severely. I'll go through how I would achieve this.

Panel/Tribunal members
At the moment the ORT panel members can't have any active club association, although there will be previous club associations obviously. There is nothing in the rules to suggest they can't have any RFL and MRP associations. The names of the weekly ORT members are published, those of the MRP aren't, but the criteria for side members on both is the same (former players, referees or coaches) and you have to assume some overlap in those sitting on both without any evidence otherwise. I couldn't even find the name of the RFL Compliance Manager who chairs the MRP on a Google search.

It isn't clear how many members sit on the panel each week but we know it is chaired by the RFL Compliance Manager. The tribunal has a chair with a legal background and two side members with rugby league backgrounds.

It makes sense to me that the MRP members are employed/contracted by the RFL in their roles and would be the RFL representatives in the process. I also agree that those with current associations with clubs should be prevented any involvement. For me this would be extended to the tribunal decision makers also not featuring anyone currently on the RFL payroll. I would also consider ex-players or coaches with a particular association to any one club be prevented from sitting on decisions related to players of that club, though this could prove impractical and I wouldn't want to question the integrity of those with no current associations. 

Tribunal costs and fees should be jointly paid for by the clubs and the RFL from a dedicated disciplinary fund to ensure independence of the final decision.

The process and hearings
Currently the MRP assess Super League matches on a Monday, inform players through their clubs of any charges later that day, then the ORT is held on the Tuesday, with appeals heard on the Wednesday. Each match is reviewed by a member of the panel then any incidents highlighted are discussed on the Monday morning and clubs have until 10am on the Monday to notify the compliance manager of any allegations of misconduct they want to be considered.

One major change to the process I would make is moving the tribunal hearings to a Wednesday. I'll explain why that's needed.

I have no problem with how the matches are reviewed and any incidents identified by MRP members can continue to be considered on a Monday morning. I would extend the deadline for clubs until 2pm on the Monday - currently clubs that play on Sundays are disadvantaged in being able to highlight incidents so I would give them a little more time to review tapes. The club would have to provide clear details of when on the match tape the incident happened to help the panel look into it. I would also extend the MRP work to Tuesday morning where they would consider any incidents clubs raised that there was not time for on the Monday and any other incidents that have been brought to their attention by the RFL Match Commissioners or following the referee performance review process. This extra time also allows a last review of all charges proposed because the ORT shouldn't have to do this quality check, they should just be considering the evidence and cases from each party on charges made. All charge letters should be issued to the player through their club as some as possible, but by 1pm on the Tuesday, at the latest, otherwise it would have to be considered the following week.

As more time is being taken by the MRP, the ORT has to be moved to the Wednesday, with any appeals heard on the Thursday. This also gives both the MRP and the club more chance to prepare their case - the way the cases are presented being another change I propose. The Compliance Manager and respective panel member for the game in question would present their evidence of the charge, the reason for the grading and any aggravating factors, to include supporting evidence for these and any precedents referred to. The player and their representative from the club would present the plea and any mitigating factors with evidence to support these and details of any precedents being referred to.

Whilst attitudes and assessments should change gradually over time, consistency is key, which is why precedents set by previous similar incidents should form a key part in any charge and defence of this. These should be central in the presentation of cases and clear in the reporting of these so everyone with a stake in the process can see more consistency. As well as the written record of the case being provided on the RFL website, a video clip of the incident should be included so all can see what was considered for future referral as a precedent.

I would also have the tribunal chair, the person with no direct rugby league experience, be more of an overseer than decision maker, making sure fairness is maintained and ask pertinent facts are considered appropriately, with their judgement only used if the two side members aren't in agreement over the case.

Charges, grading and punishment
The outcomes of MRP assessments at the moment are no charge, caution or charge.

There are 11 'Laws of the Game On Field Misconduct' offences. These are:
15.1(a) - trips, kicks out strikes another player
15.1(b) - when tackling or attempting to tackle makes contact with the head or neck of an opponent
15.1(c) - drops knees first on an opponent on the ground
15.1(d) - uses a dangerous throw
15.1(e) - intentionally & continuously breaks the laws of the game
15.1(f) - uses offensive or obscene language
15.1(g) - disputes a decision of the referee or touch judge
15.1(h) - re-enters the field of play without the permission of the referee or touch judges
15.1(i) - behaves in any way contrary to the true spirit of the game
15.1(j) - intentional obstruction of an opponent not in possession
15.1(k) - shoulder charge

The offences are graded in six grades, A to F, with A the lowest level offence and F the most serious. They carry the following sentence guidelines:
A - NFA-1 game ban
B - 1-2

C - 2-3
D - 3-5
E - 4-8
F - 8+ or period suspension

These are guidelines only and punishments handed out can be outside the normal ranges. Players may also in some circumstances submit an early guilty plea (EGP) in Grade A-C offences, meaning they will get the ban at the lower end of the normal guidelines, but they can only use this once in a 12 month period.

A standard £200-£300 fine applies to Super League players (usually £300 in practice) deemed guilty of a charge by the ORT. Fines currently aren't allowed to be issued instead of suspensions.

For me, cautions and EGPs have to be radically overhauled. Cautions should be removed as an option - any and all incidents considered by the MRP should result in either a charge or an advice letter if there is to be no charge, so the player is aware of the incident and warned over future conduct at the least. EGPs should only be allowed on Grade A offences and should act as a warning. You should be allowed one EGP/warning for a Grade A charge in all 11 offence categories for a 12 month period, but any further charge will be considered by the ORT with a ban possible. I would not allow an EGP for a charge at any other grade than A but a guilty plea combined with genuine remorse will still be allowed to be used as a mitigating factor in defence of a charge for the sentence to be at the lower end of the possible range. Players who have regularly received advice letters and EGP cases can't be considered to have a 'clean' record.

Another major change I would make is to treat physical actions with more serious bans and non-physical offences with more serious fines.

So for physical offences the punishment would be the standard fine with the maximum guideline ban unless mitigating factors are sufficient to see this reduced. Physical offences would be those under a, b, c, d, j and k above, and could also be some offences that fall under e, and i.

Non-physical offences would be f, g, h and some e and i offences. I would have a lower ban range but a higher fine range for these, to reflect that whilst these offences are serious they don't actually have the same opportunity to impact the on field result or potential to cause injury to an opponent. I would go on this basis:
A - no ban, £300 fine
B - 1 game ban, £400 fine
C - 2 game ban, £500-£700 fine
D - 3 game ban, £700-£1000 fine
E - 4 game ban, £1000-£1500 fine
F - period suspension, £1500+ fine

I think this change would be something that fans would support, with bans seen as a fairer way to punish foul play and the sense of injustice when a player is banned for pushing a referee for the same length of time as a player who injures another player from a reckless action (Castleford fans in particular should support this based on recent complaints!).

Summary of my proposals
  • Greater independence of disciplinary decisions from the clubs AND the RFL
  • More time to prepare cases and greater importance on precedents in cases presented for MRP and player/club
  • Caution and EGP options to be overhauled making disciplinary action more likely for offences made
  • Physical offences to be treated differently to non-physical offences, with stronger bans for the former and higher fines for the latter.

That's Mark's say on the matter, get in touch and let us know what you say! What changes would you make? Any ones we both like will get the fair airing they deserve on a future episode of Super League Pod.

No comments:

Post a Comment