A player’s insight on the play the ball rules

James Gordon

31st January 2020, Totally Wicked Stadium, St Helens, England; Betfred Super League, Saint Helens v Salford Red Devils : Alex Walmsley (8) of St Helens scores a try and celebrates

Much was made of the changes to the play the ball laws ahead of the new season, only for fans to be left frustrated by seemingly little change in the games themselves.

In this week’s Last Tackle podcast, former Super League referee Ian Smith suggests that referees are reluctant to thoroughly enforce the new laws, due to the insistence that a scrum should be awarded as a result – rather than the traditional penalty.

If it was enforced for every incorrect play the ball as per the revised law, we could be looking at an extra 25 scrums per game on average.

We sat down with St Helens and England prop Alex Walmsley to ask how the players are told about the new laws and how they adapt.

He said: “I think they address the clubs and the coaches with the rule changes first, and then we’ve had referees come in when we’ve done sessions as a squad.

“They’ve come in and refereed our training sessions, probably to give themselves practice, as well as us.

“They explain the rules there as well, so we are well informed as players, and I think it’s just going to be a bit of a teething process for us as players learning the new interpretations.

“It’s part of the game where the fans have been frustrated and wanted it to be cleared up one way or another.

“There was a lot of grey areas, and there still is a bit, but I’m sure as the weeks go by, we as players will get accustomed to what’s expected of us.

“I don’t think you can instantly just change the way you play the ball, it’s something you’re going to have to do over a period of time.

“Obviously it’s an area where they wanted to change, and it’s up to us as players to respond to that.”

Another topic covered by Ian Smith in the podcast was the dual-referee system which is employed by the NRL.

However, he has doubts over that system due to the lack of authority that promotes, and means referees are too busy communicating with each other rather than players.

The main benefits of having two referees is to clear up the ruck, and establish just what has happened when the ball comes loose in a carry.

On that, Walmsley added: “It’s hard because there can be that many people involved in a tackle sometimes we might expect too much of the referees to get every single decision right.

“They are human at the end of the day and they cop a lot of flack which is part of the position they’re in, they’re not going to get every single decision right.

“Obviously as players we hope for the right decisions to come across but if you’re not going to get them there’s always responsibility on the ball carrier to keep control of the ball.

“If you’re fully in control of the ball and you stop people from stripping it whether it’s illegal or not you’ll give the referees less decisions to make anyway.

“It can be frustrating when the decisions are wrong but I don’t think we can kid ourselves and expect the referees to get every single decision right, there’s obviously a responsibility on the players there as well.”

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