28 July 2016

RFL Disciplinary Process: Is it too lenient?

Here we are with the final instalment of my 'Disciplinary Trilogy'.

As you may have already read, I've compiled a comprehensive break down of every disciplinary panel charge made against a Super League player from the start of 2010 up to the weekend of Round 22 2016 - or at least every available charge*.  I started from 2010 as that is when the current version of the on field sentencing guidelines - or something very much like it - came in.

I'll be clear. This isn't a review of individual decisions or of individual offences. It's a review of whether the punishments handed out are generally a bit light.

One thing I've argued before is that the punishments handed out by the tribunal are too lenient. The data I'm about to present, I feel, backs up this opinion.

In more than 400 charges over six years of cases, only once has a case been given a higher grading by the tribunal than recommended by the Match Review Panel. This is compared to 13 cases where a charge has been downgraded.

Also only once has a case been given a ban higher than the recommended range for the grade charged. Compare this to 17 cases where the ban given has been below the recommended range for the grade charged.

Furthermore, almost four in five cases (79%) over the entire period see the ban imposed on an offender be at the bottom end of the recommended range or below. That compares to 3% of mid-range bans (only possible on Grade D and above charges, A is 0-1 games, B is 1-2, C is 2-3, D is 3-5, E is 4-8, F is 8+), and 17% at the top of the normal ban range or above.

This should all be viewed with the backdrop that 79% of charges come out at Grade A or B (once revised), so at the lower end of the available scale for a starter. That goes up to 94% for Grades A-C.

It's worth noting that EGP's came in from 2012 and account for almost half the charges since then (49%), but they could be argued as part of the problem that the system is too lenient. Adjusting for them 64.6% of cases that the Tribunal considered still came in at the bottom of the grade range or below. Only 29.5% were the top end or above in the EGP period, leaving 5.9% falling in the middle of a ban range.

When higher grades are given, on those rare occasions, there is a movement towards higher bans within the normal range. Although not at the top of the range, really serious offences do get serious punishments.

However, the system seems clearly skewed towards leniency. More charges at the bottom end of the scale suggests a light touch approach to discipline, but doesn't quite demonstrate leniency. The amount of bans at the bottom end of the grade scale or below, and the amount of downgrading compared to upgrading, do demonstrate leniency.

If there wasn't leniency bias in the system, you'd expect a similar amount of top of grade range bans as bottom of grade range bans. You'd expect the same amount of charges upgraded as downgraded. That we don't see this is clear demonstration of a skew towards a lenient handling of cases by the Tribunal. And that's without highlighting any individual cases.

Hopefully down the way we'll see it more than just once that aggravating factors mean higher bans than the normal range. Or we'll see a serial offender get pinned for being reckless, or maybe even intentional, rather than just careless, based on track record.

I hope you've found this read informative and make sure you check out my last two posts on the topic too. Let us know your thoughts and don't forget to listen to the show and tell your friends about SLP.


(*when I say every charge, I mean in Super League or Challenge Cup games, but unfortunately excluding the 2015 Super 8s as they don't show in the search filters on RFL website at time of writing, and missing any other errors or omissions from the records)

27 July 2016

RFL Disciplinary - Is there a 'Big' club bias?

I'm back and on that favourite of topics again - the RFL disciplinary.

Bias in the system was the first thing I ever looked at for one of my blogs. What kicked me off was actually Wigan fans suggesting that Wigan were on the rough end of systematic bias against them. Although I'm a very passionate Wigan fan, I felt the need to take an objective look and see if the feelings some fans had were merited.

Funny then that now, almost four years later, I'm looking into whether there's any bias from a starting point at the exact other end of things.

Listeners to SLP will know I'm fairly fed up with the notion popularised by many fans of an RFL bias towards the so called 'Big clubs' when it comes to matters of discipline. Largely in recent times that's focussed on Wigan - be it Sean O'Loughlin, Taulima Tautai or Josh Charnley, Wigan's recent trips to Red Hall of a weekday evening have been talked about plenty.

Again, I've tried to conduct an objective review, to see if these views of 'Big club bias' and 'Wigan running the RFL' are merited.

The table below shows a comprehensive break down of every charge made against a Super League player from the start of 2010 up to the weekend of Round 22 2016*. I'll go over some of the headline figures below, the table might not show up great on the blog so head over to our Facebook page for a larger version. I start in 2010 as that is when the current version of the on field sentencing guidelines - or something very much like it - came in.

(*when I say every charge, I mean in Super League or Challenge Cup games, but unfortunately excluding the 2015 Super 8s as they don't show in the search filters on RFL website at time of writing, and missing any other errors or omissions from the records)

So, is there a big club bias? Well first I need to understand who are the 'Big' clubs. 

Obviously people use this term to mean Wigan and Leeds. They are the best attended and the most successful clubs in the 2010-2016 time period I'm looking at. St Helens have been very successful throughout the Super League era and are pretty well attended too - although I don't see 'big club bias' attached to their name too much, lets assume they're a big club. Hull FC and Warrington are the only other current Super League sides to win major finals in the Super League era and to regularly draw five-figure gates, so lets say they're big clubs too.

Huddersfield have a fairly recent League Leaders Shield and been runners up in the Cup in recent memory, but then crowds aren't great and they're in the Qualifiers this year, so let's assume medium size for them. Catalan have had a Cup final appearance and get reasonable gates so we'll lump them in there as well. Castleford and Hull KR on similar criteria might just be medium sized too - although both have missed some of the Super League years, just like the other two in this group. Bradford can also fit in here - they can't beat part-timers now but they were massive once upon a time, not so long ago.

That leaves London, Salford, Wakefield and Widnes as the small clubs - because to have big clubs you must have small ones, otherwise they'd all be normal sized! But seriously, by most metrics they must be what people mean in the big/small club divide. Oh, and League 1 Crusaders, though with so few charges from their Super League run (something ain't right in the RFL website data there) they're barely relevant to this review, so I won't mention them again.

BIG - Hull FC, Leeds, St Helens, Warrington, Wigan
MEDIUM - Bradford, Castleford, Catalan, Huddersfield, Hull KR
SMALL - London, Salford, Wakefield, Widnes

The clubs with the most charges in the period are:
1. Catalan (Medium) - 52
2. Hull KR (Medium) - 40
3. Leeds (Big) - 38

The clubs with the fewest, that have played in all 7 seasons (i.e. not Bradford, Widnes or London), are:
1. St Helens (Big) - 22
2= Wakefield (Small) - 29
2= Huddersfield (Medium) - 29
The overall 'Guilty' verdict average across all 438 charges is 93%.
Clubs with above 93% of guilty charges:
Castleford (Medium) - 97%, Catalan (Medium) - 94%, Huddersfield (Medium) - 97%, Leeds (Big) - 95%, Salford (Small) - 95%, St Helens (Big) 95%, Widnes (Small) - 95%, Wigan (Big) - 94%

Clubs with below 93% of guilty charges:
Bradford (Medium) - 89%, Hull FC (Big) - 90%, Hull KR (Medium) - 90%, London (Small) - 86%, Wakefield (Small) - 91%

Warrington (Big) have 93%

Across all 409 guilty verdicts, 4% of bans are below the normal grade range, 75% are at the bottom of the normal range, 4% in the middle of the range somewhere and 17% are at the top of the normal grade range or above. (normal ban ranges are: Grade A is 0-1 games, B is 1-2, C is 2-3, D is 3-5, E is 4-8, F is 8+)
Warrington (Big) have seen the most bans below the normal range - 11% (Wigan are actually the only 'Big' club with less than 4% - meaning they're less likely than average to get a cushy lower ban handed to them).
Castleford (Medium), London (Small) and Widnes (Small) have had no bans below the normal range (Another 'small' club Wakefield do have 6% bans below the normal range - the only 'small' club to be above 4%, so more cushy lower bans than average).

Wigan (Big) and Catalan (Medium) both have 65% of bans at the bottom end of the normal range, the joint lowest figure - meaning they get fewer lenient bans than are given out to any of the small clubs. 
Hull FC (Big), St Helens (Big) and Widnes (Small) all get the lowest normal ban most - 86% of the time.

Castleford (Medium) get the maximum normal ban most - 28% of the time - followed by Wigan (Big) 26% and Catalan (Medium) 24%.
Widnes (Small) get the maximum ban the least - 5% of the time - followed by Huddersfield (Medium) and Hull FC (Big) on 7%.

It does appear that on average the five 'Big' clubs get more charges downgraded, although it's 'Small' Salford who've had the most charges downgraded by the Tribunal. It does also appears that the 'Big' clubs get more punishments below the normal ban range, although this is skewed somewhat by 'Big' Warrington having three of 17 such cases. With such cases, though, we're talking small volumes.
With the larger volume 'bottom of normal range or below' and 'top of normal range or above' categories, the 'Big' clubs are just about more likely on average to get more of the softer punishments, but they're also quite a bit more likely to get more of the tougher punishments than 'Small' clubs too. Trust me, this does make sense when you notice Wigan are the only one of the 'Big' clubs to have had a mid-range ban handed to them, when smaller clubs like Widnes and London had a few of those.

What of appeals? Well there haven't been loads, so there's no firm conclusions to take away, but as a group the 'Big' clubs are more likely to make an appeal and more likely then to see success. I probably put this down more to making sure they have a better handle on the process rather than the process being biased towards them.
I would explain that success doesn't mean a guilty decision was overturned - in all but one case the success was only partial, in that there was a reduced ban but not a complete overturning of the decision. For the sake of colour, I'll also add that three of Wigan's six appeals have been made this season, and both partial successes were this year too - Flower and Tautai had bans reduced on appeal. I can't say there's a 'big club bias' from appeals though. The numbers are fairly low and the teams with the best success rates (Bradford, Hull FC, London and Warrington) come from all across the club size scale. 

In conclusion, I'm not convinced from looking into charges over this lengthy period that there is any evidence of a 'Big' club bias. The spread of guilty charges, lenient punishments, lengthy bans and successful appeals cuts across all clubs. 

'Small' clubs are slightly less likely to get a guilty charge than larger sized clubs. 'Big' clubs are slightly more likely to get a lenient punishment at the tribunal, although it's 'Medium' clubs that fare worse than 'Small' clubs in this regard. 'Medium' clubs will also get more top-end bans, with 'Big' clubs also more likely to see lengthy bans than the 'Small' ones. 'Big' clubs do have more success when appealing decisions. 

There is one firm conclusion I can make from the data though - the disciplinary process errs on the side of low grades and lenient punishments. That will be the subject of my next blog post.

As always, thanks for reading and I hope this has been informative. And don't forget to listen to the show every week and tell your friends about SLP.


16 July 2016

Rip It Up And Start Again: The RFL Disciplinary Process

I've researched and written about this loads in my time as a blogger and podcaster. Each time I think I've gained more understanding of how things work.

I've got some things wrong in the past, or had my views change and evolve. One thing I'm certain of though is the system isn't fit for purpose. It hasn't moved with the times and its also held back by other aspects of the way our game is run not moving on either.

It might be a good idea to start the whole thing from stage one. Forget the past. Write off what has been in place for as long as I've known it. Put something new in place that better reflects the modern views on player welfare and what is or isn't a serious offence.

Let me make this clear, this isn't about the Sean O'Loughlin tackle (I'm a Wigan fan so at least 11/12ths of you will disregard my opinion anyway), but that whole issue has encouraged me to write about the disciplinary again.

So, as I've said, I'd scrap the old system altogether and bring in a new one. I would change the types of offences, the scale of grading, the level of punishments. I would, as much as is fair, limit the amount of incidents reviewed where no action is taken at all. Here goes...

Type of offence
This is the categorisation I would use in my new world order (n.b. list may be incomplete, and there would be room to add other specific offences that I've missed or start to occur).

Type A - Dangerous Contact

  • (Aa) High Tackle
  • (Ab) Shoulder Charge
  • (Ac) Eye Gouge
  • (Ad) Chicken Wing / Ankle Twist
  • (Ae) Cannonball / Attacking Knees
  • (Af) Crusher / Undue Pressure On Neck
  • (Ag) Lift / Throw
  • (Ah) Late hit
  • (Az) Other Dangerous Contact

Type B - Fighting/Striking

  • (Ba) Fighting / Punching
  • (Bb) Use Of Forearm / Elbow
  • (Bc) Raising Knees
  • (Bd) Tripping
  • (Be) Kick / Stamp
  • (Bf) Headbutt
  • (Bz) Other Fighting/Striking

Type C - Other non-contact offences

  • (Ca) Dissent
  • (Cb) Foul / Abusive Language
  • (Cc) Contact With An Official
The specific offences should be outlined in the laws of the game as being illegal and have examples of these offences for players, coaches and fans to reference. It should be made clear that this isn't a limit to the offences and anything previously unspecified can come under the (z) options.

Grading scale
I would get rid of the ABC etc. grading system and introduce a simplified three level structure. I would be keen for it to include cautions in this scale and would also be keen to see more cautions handed out. Too many cases where on another day an injury could have resulted in the disciplinary archives have no charge, saying something like: 
  • "Tackle is high. Player is reaching. Worthy of on field penalty."
  • "Level of force used is not overly excessive."
  • "Player is lifted beyond the horizontal but lands safely."
If the sport wants to get serious on player welfare and cut out dangerous tackles with potential for serious injury, the disciplinary process needs to show more effort to punish poor technique that increases the risks that already exist in our physical collision sport.

My scale would be:

Level 1 - Caution for an offence made that did not warrant a ban/fine
Level 2 - Offence that warrants low level ban/fine
Level 3 - Offence that warrants high level ban/fine

I would also want to impose a 'quality check', so that week's tribunal will assess a random selection of cases that the match review panel (MRP) have seen as 'no charge' cases. If they would have imposed a ban for the action considered, the MRP will fail quality. The MRP would then be required to reconsider every case considered from the game with the 'fail', with any new charges to be heard at the following week's tribunal.

Level of punishments
I'm in favour of a system that punishes physical offences with potential for serious injury with a higher ban, and other types of offences with a higher fine. I'm not saying the other offences are less serious, quite the contrary really - I'm saying they ones with potential to injure are more serious.

Level 1 grading:
These would only warrant cautions, but if a player had three cautions for the same type of offence in any rolling 6 month period they should be given an automatic 1 match ban. This would apply to each of the three types of offence.

Level 2 grading:
For Type A offences these would have a ban range of 1 to 5 games and a fine of £300. All cases would start at a 3 game ban, with the final ban imposed by the tribunal being decided by aggregating the mitigating and aggravating factors that apply. I'm happy with the factors currently given in the rules, but just would like them to go both ways and increase as well as decrease bans.
For Type B offences I would change the ban range to 0-4 games, starting at 2 games as default before factors are considered. £300 fine. I would qualify that I expect this type of offence to be more readily picked up and punished in-game, so that's why I'm starting from a lower ban range on review.
For Type C offences the ban range would fall again to 0-3 games but still start at 2. Fine would be £500.

Level 3 grading:
For Type A ban range of 4 games up to a time period ban. Default starting point would be 7 games, with factors then considered for final ban - here's where 'other aggravating factors' might have a big role to play. £500 fine.
For Type B, the range would be 3 games upwards, starting at 5 games before factors are aggregated. £500 fine.
For Type C it would also be minimum 3 games upwards, and start at 5 too before considering other factors. The fine would be a minimum £750, but could also be increased based on any aggravating factors.

An obstacle to my idea
If I was in any position to have the powers that be consider my ideas, I'm sure there would be friction from the clubs and players at the idea of more games being missed through suspensions.

One solution would be a bigger salary cap that would allow a bigger squad to be bought - I'm not an advocate of removing the cap, but I would be looking to increase it. This isn't about the cap, just a note on how the current cap level would be an obstacle to my ideas as if more games are missed through bans, you need a bigger squad to cover that. For what it's worth though, a salary cap of £2.75m (that also actually increases by some sort of measure, be that average RPI/CPI or average wage inflation), with a marquee player allowance taking the full wage of the highest paid player off that cap total, is what I would go for.

That's where my mind is at on the disciplinary at the moment anyway. I'm sure it'll change in the future, but right now I'm convinced that the system has to take a harder line on cases where the possibility of injury is increased by poor technique and execution. I don't want to hang any players or clubs out to dry, but we need to prioritise the welfare of the current and future stars of our game.