Graham Annesley, the NRL head of football elite competitions, recently spoke out against a growing problem of diving in the rugby league.
During his weekly press conference, he responded to questions about a contentious incident which occurred during Canberra’s victory over the Roosters last month.
During the 64th minute of the 2nd half, Rooster Josh Morris flailed his arms in the air as he sprawled backwards, drawing referee’s Gerard Sutton’s whistle and Jordan Rapana’s ire. The Raiders challenged, the call was successfully overturned, and the team ended up winning the game 24-20.
But the victory left a sour taste with Canberra coach Ricky Stuart. He referred to the increasing regularity of players trying to con referees. His fear is that “our game is in danger of becoming soccer”. Does he have a point?
Rugby = Soccer?
Rugby fans have long ridiculed football (or soccer) for its diving. The examples of diving, begging referees to hand out red cards, and feigning injury in the ‘other’ sport are just too numerous to mention.
Arjen Robben for acting like he’d been shot in the back during the 2014 World Cup (he’s still persona non grata in Mexico). Barcelona’s Busquets is so famous for his Oscar-worthy dive against Inter Milan that a Google search for “Sergio Busquet’s dive” is more popular than the man himself. Neymar screams in fake pain in pretty much every match he plays.
Diving is such a common occurrence in football (soccer) that bookies even take bets on whether the referee will dish out a yellow for simulation. In rugby, the thought of betting on anything other than the sport itself is simply unheard of. Diving is football’s problem. Rugby is tough, but it’s honest. Players don’t hassle referees. Injuries are real. Diving happens, but it is exceedingly rare. Or is it?
Just over two years ago we reported on players feigning injury damaging the game, with legends like Jamie Peacock tweeting about being “sick to death of players faking injury”. Chris Thorman didn’t hold back, calling for players to “stop this *expletive* now”.
Annesley admits that players feigning injury or milking penalties is becoming more and more common. And he’s concerned it is bringing the sport into disrepute.
Nine’s Phil Gould has a theory about why: the poor management of referees over the past two decades. He cites overcoaching, the review system, and a core referees’ unit that entrenches the wrong approach towards managing rugby on the pitch.
On the flip side, our own Josh McAllister argued that players are showing less respect towards referees these days. As he pointed out in the previously mentioned 2018 report, whatever happened to players addressing the referee with ‘sir’?
It’s clear that work needs to be done, but it goes both ways.
Finding the Balance
The rise in diving may have something to do with the way the game has been changing in the past several decades. Rugby has had to respond to an alarming rise in injuries in the past years, coinciding with the average player’s increase in strength, size, and speed. In 2019, the Irish Times reported that the severity of injuries in the sport is getting worse.
According to a report published by the Professional Game Action Plan on Player Injuries, the threshold for players being shown a red card needs to be lowered. As Annesley mentioned in his press conference, you don’t want players being taken out unnecessarily.
However, the danger of increased calls is that players may decide to exaggerate to highlight perceived fouls, even if contact is minimal. This is certainly what happened in football. Back in the 1970s, the game was far more physical. Even celebrated ‘artistic’ sides like the Ajax of Total Football lore had a mean streak.
While a certain level of gamesmanship can be accepted in any professional sport, including the NRL, it is important we find a balance to prevent the issue spiralling out of control. The answer isn’t simple, nor can it be found overnight, but rugby has to try.
Rugby Can’t Be Complacent
We often think that rugby is impervious to the dangers of diving and other forms of gamesmanship. We assume that the sport has an in-built level of protection against the maladies faced by football, for example.
But that is a misconception. Rugby is developing, the sport is growing in popularity, and the money involved in the industry is significant. The nasty side-effect to this level of growth is the temptation to cheat and push the boundaries of what referees will allow.
We must ensure the NRL continues to sanction and warn players who are falling foul of regulations. Diving tactics do not belong on the rugby pitch, but we can’t assume they will stay out on their own. Only through a concerted effort, in which the fans play a crucial role, can rugby retain its reputation as a ‘fair’ sport.