Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Balance of probabilities

The RFL list nine people under the full-time match officials section on their website. All of them have come in for varying levels of opprobrium in recent weeks from large sections of the rugby league public, from spectators to coaches and administrators. Some of the wilder accusations are of particular referees having a vendetta against certain clubs to the RFL conspiring to keep clubs out of it's showpiece events. But the more general chatter is simply a background hum of whining about how they're all rubbish and the standard of refereeing is at an all-time low.

But can this be right? It sounds preposterous. What likelihood is there that nine separated individuals are all just bad at their job, especially when few complaints were made less than twelve months ago? The principle of Occam's razor says that the explanation which makes fewest assumptions is most likely the correct one and suggesting conspiracies or a group of nine people suddenly failing to do things they were doing well until recently does not fit that maxim. There has to be a simpler explanation stemming from something consistent to every aspect of the debate.

The item that's common in all these arguments is the rules. Every year, we get a series of tweaks to the rules and directives on certain aspects. Consequently, the current code has a haphazard look about it with vast swathes of rules open to the interpretation of the referee rather than a black and white, this is OK, that isn't approach. For example, rules about whether there's an intention to play at a ball when judging knock-ons and whose scrum it is are almost impossible to police, as are ball steal/loose carry decisions or judgments regarding intent. Without seeing into the mind of the player in question, it's an impossible task and when rules become that hard to police, then it's not the fault of the policeman trying to enforce it. And when so much of the game is down to interpretation, consistency goes out of the window and that's where the frustration comes from. Moreover, where there's obvious confusion over the application of a particular rule, it adds scope for players to push the boundaries, use obfuscation and downright duplicity to con penalties and give us the unedifying sight of umpteen players all trying to referee the game at the same time. That's something that's been noticeably increasing as the rulebook has evolved.

So, short of appointing Derren Brown to referee all Super League games, what can be done? The rules need clarifying and a complete review is required - start with a blank piece of paper and a debate about what we want the game to look like and go from there. Rugby league's unique selling point used to be it's simplicity, but the endless debates over minutiae of every decision shows that to not be the case any more. What the final outcome of such a review would produce is almost secondary - whether the defensive line remains at ten metres or goes back to five isn't as important as coming up with something coherent, unified, straightforward and, most crucially, easily policed. It doesn't need to be too complex - go back to the mark, play it with your foot, don't smack anyone round the chops and don't swear at the officials. Start with that and maybe that background hum of whinging about it will drop off and be replaced by coaches, administrators and fans having to explain why their team has lost without turning into a great conspiracy theorist.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012


Acronym: Super-Annuated Antipodean Pensioner. The sort of player clogging up squads in the lower half of the Super League table.

How journalism works

And our example for today's lesson is this article in today's Star, titled "Angry Cats' Quit Threat".

Lesson one. Make the headline unusually dramatic.
Forget, if you can for a moment, the erroneous use of the word "cats" in the headline of an article about the Dragons. Instead, focus on the words "Angry" and "threat". Dramatic, eh? That got your attention.

Lesson two. Don't worry about the headline and body matching up.
Scour the copy below the angry, threatening headline. Do you see anyone actually saying that the Dragons are about to quit Super League? Of course you don't.

Lesson three. Sensationalise!
Note the line "Around 500 fans walked out during their last home game in protest at a video referee ruling." Given that the ruling came in the last minute, the only surprise here is that they don't say that 9,000 fans walked out. Also, "There is a belief around the club that the RFL don’t want ­fourth-placed Dragons to reach the Grand Final because it may affect crowd numbers." Quite a claim, again not backed up.

And that's basically it. All that's missing here is a liberal sprinkling of the word 'EXCLUSIVE' and it's a full house.

As far as the Dragons (not Cats; not now, not ever) are concerned, their focus is a little off. All through this season, there have been some bizarre calls and, yes, the Dragons have got the rough end of some of those. Instead of railing against referees and refereeing standards though, the spotlight should really be turned on those in charge of the rules - the lawmakers rather than the policemen if you like.

Rugby League's USP ought to be it's simplicity, but years of tinkering have produced a set of rules with vast grey areas between the black and the white. Think how you'd describe a game to a new spectator. How many times do you think you'd describe an incident as "well it looked like x to me, but the ref's obviously seen it as y"? I do it all the time on radio commentary. A series of minor tweaks over the years has left a lot of what happens down to interpretation rather than one thing being OK and another not and that breeds inconsistency which breeds frustration and anger in fans, players, coaches and club officials. Currently, that frustration and anger is being vented at the referees. It needs channeling to the rulemakers.

Regarding the Dragons, then it's to be hoped that Trent Robinson's comments are an attempt to deflect crticism from his players at a crucial point of the season. Rather than worry about 50/50 decisions that go against his team, he'd be better controlling the things he can control, such as ensuring his scrum-half doesn't gob off at the referee giving penalties away while in possession and allowing the opposition to score cheap tries against his side. Just a suggestion.

As for the claim that there's a conspiracy afoot to deny the Dragons a shot at Old Trafford glory, that has to be filed away with the rantings of David Icke and Kevin Pietersen, the great conspiracy theorists of the age. If we thought the powers that be in the game had a Machiavellian plan to bar a side from big finals, we'd stop watching altogether. Besides, if a plot existed, it would convey rather more competence and planning from top bods inside the game that we flatly refuse to believe exist.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Top 10: Players who never played for the Catalan Dragons

League Weekly? League Weakly more like, yeah? YEAH?
A colleague brought the trade papers in yesterday in order to go through them on our radio show. It's Huddersfield-based, so the main topic was the Giants' Super League game at home to the Catalan Dragons. The key phrase in the report was this: "Former Dragon Jason Chan..." Tiny misunderstanding there which less than 30 seconds on Wikipedia could have avoided. Jason, the Papuan international and former Crusader, merely shares a surname with Dragons Hall of Famer Alex, the former New Zealand international and five-season NRL veteran.
Now we're helpful types here, so to help League Weekly avoid any future misunderstanding, here are ten other people who have never played for the Catalan Dragons

10. Casey Jones

9. Anita Dobson

8. Gillian Anderson

7. Arthur Mullard

6. Vincent Price

5. Danny McGuire

4. Ian Bell

3. Menzies Campbell

2. Jackie Chan

1. Charlie Chan

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Superleague Bulls

A solution, of sorts, to the Bradford saga with Super League tabling an offer for the club.

In the absence of another deal in the offing that would satisfy the RFL's criteria, it's difficult to see why this won't go through. The failure of other bids seems to hinge on the interpretation of the word 'unconditional'. Two previous bids seemed to be under the misapprehension that the first syllable was optional.

The move makes sense. The RFL have been acting as ersatz owners for a while now, covering wages and other costs for some months and buying the lease on Odsal Stadium at the start of the year, so formalising that with a Super League - a subtly different organisation to the RFL, but with the same chief executive - buy-out enables them to put the whole thing on a commercial basis rather than month-to-month payments and ever-increasing administrators fees.

Questions arise, as they always will. Firstly, Super League is made up of it's member clubs so there's a potential conflict of interest issue there. What are Super League's intentions? If it's to get things back on an even keel and streamline the failing (failed) business while seeking new buyers, then fine. Even if they run it until the business is turned round and then seek to sell, fine. There are clearly local businesses/businesspeople interested in taking a stake in the club, but on the proviso it remains a Super League club, so if it can be first stabilised and then brought to a position where it will lilely fulfil license criteria, then there's investment to be tapped into. However, if it drags out into a longer-term arrangement, then people will start getting twitchy.

Or should that be twitchier? One valid question is where were Super League during previous insolvency events? What makes this so different and what precedent does it set? One line in the SLE statement says that without this there is "the tangible prospect that we could lose one of our most famous clubs". Are future decisions to be made on the fame of the club involved and does that explain why the clubs weren't willing to save Crusaders? What weighting is there on the fact that the RFL own the lease on the ground and that, were Bradford to fold, they'd be left with a worthless piece of paper?

Questions, questions, questions - that's all this whole saga ever seems to produce. But for the short-to-medium term at least, it looks like we'll still have a Bradford. There's still a lot more to come from this though. This isn't the end.