Warrington Wolves caused anger among rugby league supporters last week with their team selection for the league game against London Broncos. Tony Smith left out a number of players, including the likes of Lee Briers, Brett Hodgson and Joel Monaghan, ahead of this Saturday’s Challenge Cup final against Leeds. The result was a 62-18 victory for the resurgent Broncos, and embarrassment for Warrington.
The practice of a team fielding a weakened side before a cup final is far from uncommon. Yet it cheapens games – we’ll never know whether London could have won against a full-strength Warrington – and some fans have opined that the practice should be outlawed by the RFL.
However, I’ve always been uneasy with that idea, for a number of reasons. Should the RFL really have the final say in team selection? Even if they should, how could it actually be enforced? Why is it wrong for players named in the first-team squad to be selected to play in a first-team game?
First of all, while coaches may rest players they certainly don’t pick teams they expect to lose. Prior to the game Tony Smith told the Warrington Guardian that “Whoever we decide to put out there this week, they need to perform at a high level and I’ve got a lot of faith in the squad that that can happen.” Afterwards he was clearly shocked by the magnitude of the defeat, indicating that he didn’t simply travel to the Twickenham Stoop expecting to lose.
Despite those who claim London’s win was inevitable and scoff at talk of a “shock result”, few people prior to the game seemed willing to predict a Broncos victory. The consensus seemed to be that a weakened Warrington team would claim only a narrow victory, so a 44-point win is still something of an upset. The Warrington team, though missing a few key players, was still more than capable of claiming two points at the Twickenham Stoop.
You might argue that, while Tony Smith hasn’t necessarily thrown the game, he has taken an unacceptable risk. It’s true that any coach who leaves out his best player risks defeat. But Warrington are already safe in the top two of Super League, and in our system at the moment whether they finish first or second matters little: if the table remains as it is then a first-place finish sees a home play-off tie with St Helens, while a second-place finish sees a home play-off tie with the Catalans Dragons. Neither fixture seems so much more preferable than the other, so Warrington could afford the risk of losing two points.
If the League Leadership of Super League was actually considered an achievement, as it should be, then Warrington would have realised they were chasing Wigan for top spot and perhaps wouldn’t have taken that risk.
If we decided that teams that do field a weakened side or rest players should be punished, it takes away the freedom of the coach and club to pick the team they want. It may be the case that the coach decides he wants to play a young player with potential, and places him in the starting thirteen instead of a more experienced player. The RFL could then decided that this was “weakening” the team and punish the club for doing so.
There’s often disagreement about which players to pick, with coaches remaining faithful to one player while fans want to see another. Should the RFL arbitrate in such a situation? If the coach continually selects Player A, yet fans and pundits feel that Player B is in better form, could the RFL force a club to select Player B under threat of punishment? Or, say the coach was convinced by Player B and selected him, but the RFL still preferred Player A. Could the RFL bring punishment in that situation?
You might argue that that’s different, but how would that difference be quantifiable in any new rule? It’s not enough to simply ask for a team to be banned from fielding “a weakened team” or constrained to select “the strongest team” without considering exactly how that would work and any implications.
It may not always be fun to watch, but if a team has been successful and got to the point where it can afford to risk losing a league game in order to trial some new players or rest established ones for a cup final, why should it be denied that right? What’s the point in having a large first-team squad if your club will be punished if certain members of that squad actually appear in the starting seventeen? I can’t see any way to resolve the issue, or that there is an issue which actually needs to be resolved.
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