27 June 2014

Obstructing our enjoyment

So far this year - in fact, more and more as it goes on - we've heard lots of talk and criticism over the obstruction rule.

It's raised its head on both sides of the rugby league world but it seems more and more to dominate commentary and social media during televised Super League games.

We have talked about it on an earlier episode of our show but now Mark gives his thoughts and suggestions on clarifications and changes to the operating rules around obstruction.

Right, let's get the obvious one out of the way first. I'd stop the video ref from being able to call on obstruction decisions.

Two main reasons. First, it's often a fine margin judgement call that I think is best made by a person in the action with a feel for the flow of things. Second, I think it's these long and repetitive referrals that really gets on the fans nerves. We aren't always sure what they are seeing or looking for and they take it to too precise a level that you start to feel, like I did in the Salford v Wigan game, that no try will ever get given!

That brings me neatly to my second point on obstruction. We really need to know what they are looking for. The interpretation on the rule needs clearing up for us all. We all used to know that you can't run behind your own man close to the line carrying the ball. Crossing was clear, you rarely saw it but always understood it. Now we have the dummy runner/man out the back where was the ball caught and which shoulder of the defender did they run at questions to answer.

For me it's simple. Obstruction should be called when a player possesses the ball behind his own man, whilst that man clearly instigates contract that physically impedes an opponent to his own team's advantage.

That's what we should want. It doesn't reward poor defence, which we don't want. It will make for more tries being allowed again, which is part of what we want. It would also mean this would It should make things clear to everyone I would hope.

Actually, I think how I've worded the rule is how it's already intended to be applied but the refs have just got a little too bogged down in it all, and they are now in too deep so it would look weak to back down. After all, the coaches wanted this area tightening up too (sometimes you should be careful what you ask for). And I fear that a line in the sand on this issue might not be drawn until 2015, which for a lot of people might come too late.

The final thing I would do may actually be the most radical and unique. I would change the result of an obstruction to be a scrum rather than a penalty. Maybe in the past obstruction (or crossing as we always knew it) has been a deliberate attempt to gain an advantage for your team but now really it's just poor execution of attacking skills, like a knock on or a forward pass. It makes me think a penalty is too severe for what is very often a fine margin error in execution. A scrum would surely be fairer. I think fans would accept it more if you don't lose possession and 20 or 30 metres for the penalty for poor attacking execution.

That's what I think. Let us know what you think too. As always the best views we get will be read out on the show.

Thanks for reading. It would be great if you could share a link on your Facebook or Twitter too.

Super League Pod

4 June 2014

Hardaker & the wider issue

Over the weekend, footage emerged from the match between Warrington and Leeds. Footage that beyond almost all reasonable interpretation shows Zak Hardaker in the calling referee James Child a faggot.

I'm not going to dance around the word or try to lessen it's impact to a sensible reader because the impact this word has on some of the people it is aimed at is utterly devastating.

I tweeted the footage on the SLP feed early Tuesday morning and was overwhelmed by the different responses and opinions this incident has provoked from people.

But first a little context, because I think Hardaker's actions actually reflect a wider societal problem. One that he is probably acutely unaware even exists.

The use of the word faggot in some quarters of society is meant to imply stupidity. Or a lack of machismo in certain circumstances. In the minds of the people who have grown up with this definition as part of their vernacular it is hard to see the damaging impact this word has because they don't use it with it's intended connotations. The result is that this deeply offensive term is tossed around with much less care than it ought to be. Sometimes.

When used in its intended fashion it is a word that drips with venom and hatred. It's almost impossible to say without sounding aggressive.

The word isn't invincible.

Many people abused for their sexuality are so comfortable in themselves that they can rightly laugh it off with the casual indifference that this writer would laugh off a crack about his lack of hair.

For many, however, it is stab at the very heart of a personal and lifelong internal monologue, which has seen that person, through sheer force of will find the courage and security to truly express who they are.

I believe Zak Hardaker is not a homophobe. I believe he is a young man uninitiated in the true meaning of a word he used as a means to express frustration at what he saw as poor refereeing by James Child.

This, to my mind however, in no way excuses him from any blame. It is beyond unacceptable to use the word faggot to insult or denigrate someone in any fashion.

What Zak Hardaker was in fact saying to Mr Child was "I feel you are performing badly. I do not like this. You are therefore a homosexual. I do not like this either. And nor should you."

As the debate progressed over our twitter feed it became clear that there were two distinct schools of thought. Firstly those who felt that as the word was not directed at a practicing homosexual it was not homophobic, and secondly those who felt any use of the word is at best inappropriate and at worst outright bigoted.
I fall into the latter group as you may have gathered from the tone of my piece.

At the time of writing the RFL has announced that it is to investigate the incident. There is little doubt in my mind that he will be found to have used this word and be subject to punishment under the RFL's own bylaws. I anticipate that he will avoid criminal prosecution.

The biggest question is where do we go from here? Should we accept that this type of behaviour is creeping back into a sport that prides itself on respect and dignity in the face of extreme physical competition? Or is there an opportunity for some good to come from this?

I believe there is. If Hardaker's club and the RFL act quickly.
Zak Hardaker is a young, popular and exciting talent in our sport. He is a role model to thousands of youngsters. At the moment the message he is sending to those youngsters is a negative one. A message that says it is acceptable to use a word like faggot, and by inference a number of other deeply offensive terms. But this could quickly be turned into a positive message.

Publicly demonstrating remorse for his actions would be a start. Awareness training of the type that NFL players who criticised the drafting of Michael Sam were made to undergo would also go a long way to reaffirming our sports commitment to being fully inclusive.

Zak Hardaker is a young man. Young men under pressure are prone to lapses. He needs to be helped to understand the impact of what he said. He needs to be shown that it cannot happen again. He needs to show the sporting world, and particularly his younger fans, that he regrets what he did to apologise unreservedly for this. And if it happens again, we throw the book at him and his club. I'm sure the threat of losing competition points would spur even the most backwardly run organisation into action, and Leeds Rhinos are a long way from backwardly run organisation.

The NRL has a rule that only captains may address the referee. I'd bring this in sharpish, because it is alarming to see the habit of disrespecting match officials starting to gain traction.

Rugby League battles hard to show that it is more than a parochial northern pastime. Handling the Zak Hardaker situation correctly will win it many admirers. Failing to do so will make the sport seem inaccessible and prejudiced.

Super League Pod

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