Refs boss issues warning to NRL clubs
NRL head of football Graham Annesley has warned coaches and players not to blow it for fans by trying to gain an unfair advantage as a result of the dramatic drop in penalties.
For the first time in a very long time, the referees emerged the big winners after a cracking opening weekend of footy that resulted in a massive reduction in penalties compared to the corresponding round last year.
All up in eight games, there were only 95 penalties blown compared to 127 in 2018.
But the fear now from many experts is that coaches and players will try and exploit this in round two.
Annesley warned refs won't be conned.
"What I am saying is that in many ways (the number of penalties blown) is out of control of the referees," Annesley said. "That is within the control of the players."
In a wide-ranging debrief that he promised he would do every week this year, Annesley also gave his verdict on all the big talking points and controversial calls over the weekend, including his assessment on the need to look after concussed players.
For all the rotten weather, at least the refs did their best to make the footy as attractive as possible.
Overall, there were slightly fewer tries and linebreaks on last year but Annesley put that down to the rain.
Yet the drop in penalties was by far the most positive change.
Perhaps understandably, the fear is that this will be like a red rag to the bull for coaches.
"I am not under any illusions though that there may be a tendency for some clubs to perhaps look at round one and say, 'Well, the referees are going to go a bit softer this year so we might turn up the heat on them a little'," Annesley said.
"The one thing I have said and I have said this face-to-face with all 16 coaches as well as the referees, that there is no instruction by the administration of the game to keep penalty counts low.
"We do need to bring that level back to acceptable level (after last year's ridiculous crackdown).
"But if any team or any player wants to push the envelope to try and gain an unfair advantage over their opposition than they have to be prepared to suffer the consequences of that."
Fans were confused at how Parramatta's Michael Jennings was sin binned for his high shot on Penrith's Isaah Yeo, yet the Roosters' Latrell Mitchell wasn't for his dangerous tackle on the Rabbitohs' Sam Burgess.
Souths coach Wayne Bennett said after the game: "It was a pretty fair hit in the head he got. Anyone else, they would have been knocked out I reckon."
Annesley said the decision comes down to the individual referee's discretion. And he backed each official that the right call was made in both instances.
The NRL brought in a rule change last year that allows refs to sin bin players for foul play to ensure teams aren't disadvantaged when players are concussed after a tackle from former Rooster Dylan Napa led to a huge controversy.
Yeo was clearly in a bad way on Sunday when he finally got to his feet and had to be assisted from the field.
In the Burgess incident, he wanted to play on after getting a clearance from trainers but "spotters" in the NRL Bunker saw the incident and alerted the South Sydney medical staff.
Annesley said it was ultimately the Rabbitohs who made the call to get Burgess off.
In the wake of Andrew Johns' explosive comments this week that head knocks may be contributing to him suffering seizures because of frontal lobe epilepsy, Annesley also said it was crucial for the game to take all measures to protect players.
"I am comfortable with it because more importantly than any game of football is the health and safety and welfare of our players," Annesley said.
"Whilst it might be an aggravation for some players in some instances if they feel like they are capable of continuing without any further assessment, the game has a wider responsibility.
"Eighty minutes of football in the long-term scheme of a player's career is pretty insignificant."
KICKER'S LEGS TAKEN OUT
We saw Melbourne superstar Cameron Munster taken out by an ugly and late tackle by Brisbane's Matt Lodge where he dived at Munster's knee while he was kicking the ball.
Lodge has been rubbed out for two games as a result of the tackle, although Manly's Addin Fonua-Blake escaped with a fine for a similar nasty looking attack on Benji Marshall.
Annesley would not comment on either incident specifically but issued a general warning to all players this "trend" would not be tolerated.
"Clearly again it falls in the same category of protecting the safety and welfare of players on the field," he said.
"Kickers are most vulnerable when they are off balance in mid-air and our judiciary rules are in place to prevent that.
"It doesn't mean that we will be able to stop all incidents but the judiciary rules are there to provide a disincentive.
"If we thought there was an emerging trend, we did see a couple of incidents in round one, if we thought there was an emerging trend around that or any other aspect of play than we would react quickly."
It's not often you get through a weekend "happy" with the refs.
And while you could go through a stack of calls in round one that not everyone is going to agree on, Annesley said overall his refs had done a good job.
"When we make errors, when we make absolute errors, I will be the first one to stand here and say that was wrong," Annesley said.