Exclusive: RFL chief upbeat over significant law changes, urges fans to support match officials in rollout

James Gordon
Tony Sutton, RFL

Tony Sutton is the chief executive of the Rugby Football League

RFL chief executive Tony Sutton has had to oversee proposals for arguably the most significant changes to rugby league in a generation within his first year in the top job.

Recommendations for law and interpretations have been rubber-stamped and are due to be rolled out at different stages in the community and professional games over the next couple of years, largely driven by the recommendations around brain injury and health in the interests of player welfare.

While plenty of scientific research has gone in to the recommendations, education for the key stakeholders in the game – players and fans – remains paramount.

Law trials were held in academy games last summer as part of the recommendations. The significant change is to tackle height, which will be lowered from shoulder height to arm pit height meaning any contact above the arm pit will be penalised.

This will be rolled out in the community game in 2024, with the recommendation for this to then be applied to all levels of professional rugby league from the 2025 season.

Exclusive: RFL chief upbeat over significant law changes and urges fans to support match officials in roll out

Ultimately, it is the match officials themselves that will shoulder the responsibility for implementing the changes – but they also find themselves in the firing line for the inevitable complaints and misinterpretations of players and fans as the tapestry of the way the sport is played adapts.

Chris Kendall, Leeds Rhinos, Liam Marshall, Wigan Warriors, Wakefield Trinity, High Tackle
Referee Chris Kendall signals a high tackle (main image); Wigan Warriors’ Liam Marshall is hit with a high shot by Wakefield Trinity’s Reece Lyne (circle) – Alamy

Sutton told Love Rugby League: “It’s massively important (to support match officials). The match officials are now based at RFL HQ.

“We thought that was important as they are the RFL’s team out on the field, and we wanted to show them that support as well as having them using this magnificent facility we’ve been able to move into.

“I felt strongly that in the brain health committee recommendations, a huge part of that was the academy trials last summer, and the match officials played a huge and difficult role in that.

“What they did on behalf of the game is show us the impact of those recommendations and helped us form those proposals which have now become part of the laws and interpretation of laws of the game.

“The game is asking them to play a huge role in the rollout of these new interpretations and that’s the support we’re trying to give to match officials.

We ask everybody else to do that, as they’re doing this on behalf of the game for the medium to long-term health of the game to be more positive.

“We’ve been very diligent and careful to make sure match officials were involved in the journey of the recommendations and involved in the debates. We’ve ensured that not just the full-time match officials group, the three or four hundred part-time match officials were engaged, informed and communicated with and their feedback was taken on board.

“I sit in the back in the office here when the match officials are in and you can hear the conversations around interpretation, and it’s great to see. It shows you the depth of engagement and involvement that department has.

“They’ll be hugely important and influential in the rollout of these changes as we move through 2024 and 2025.”

The changing face of rugby league at community and professional level

A total of 44 changes were announced by the RFL to laws, operational rules, medical standards and coaching interventions following the recommendations of the brain health sub-committee to the RFL board.

Liam Moore RFL Super League referee Alamy
RFL referee Liam Moore in action – Alamy

Amongst those changes were limiting number of games for players, increasing off-field sanctions and mandated off-seasons.

Trials will be conducted in the community game for further law modifications, including a return to the five-metre rule, removing one marker and maximising tackles to two players.

Other considerations are outlawing the ankle tap, no lifting of the ball carrier and no falling on prone players.

The community game has been reacting to information about the changes in recent weeks.

In one letter sent by a club to the RFL, seen by Love Rugby League, they ask about the impact on player numbers on increased sanctions, if players find themselves hit with bans and fines.

The question has been asked whether there will be amnesty for bans and fines in the early months of the rollout as players and officials adapt.

In another letter, one junior team raises concerns about the decision to remove tackling from primary rugby league – under 6s in 2024 will only play tag, and that will then graduate through the age groups so that from 2027 all primary rugby league will be tag only.

Removing substitutions has also been raised as an issue that while ‘every one plays all the time’ is good in practice, it puts added pressure on player availability.

Rugby league was ’10 days away’ from collapse, says RFL match official

The dark cloud of litigation, brought by a group of former players who allege that the governing body didn’t take reasonable action to protect them from serious brain injuries, has caused significant financial headaches for the sport, with insurance premiums sky-rocketing.

One match official claimed last week that the sport was just 10 days from ceasing to exist, such was the difficulty in finding a partner to insure the game’s players and officials.

Leigh whistler Warren Turley took charge of Leigh Miners against Latchford under-18s and addressed the inevitable negativity about the changes.

Via X, as below, he said: “Credit to both teams who really tried to adapt their techniques and behaviours and managed to do so really well in such a short period of time. We probably had 15/16 penalties in the game for above armpit contact, but it tended to be when the players were more fatigued at the end of sets.

“The players bought into it, the coaches certainly bought into it and the game didn’t suffer off the back of it. It’s going to take time and it’s not going to be perfect to start with.

“Just remember the whole game was just 10 days away from not being in existence due to insurance, so the game I saw today was certainly better than not having one at all.”

RFL chief Sutton says they are ‘responding to what we know now’

There are a number of factors at play that have contributed to the changes afoot, but RFL chief executive Sutton says it is a challenge they have tackled head on for the long-term future of the sport.

Joe Philbin Warrington Wolves head injury assessment HIA Alamy
Warrington Wolves forward Joe Philbin leaves the field for a head injury assessment – Alamy

Sutton told Love Rugby League: “Last year, we were presented with a number of challenges and we had to rise to them, because they have been significant.

“If we chose not to act, I think the medium to long-term challenge would have been significantly more. I think the main point is we are responding to what we know now in terms of care for those that play the game.

“What we knew in 1970 or 1990 or even in 2010 is different to what we know now, and therefore, the responsibility is on us to react to what we know and react to the latest research, which is ongoing, and make those recommendations and proposals to change the some of the interpretations of the existing rules.

“The premium went up a considerable amount. A very significant insurer has stayed in the game and worked with us and was willing and able to provide cover.

“What they told us is they wanted to stay for the long-term and they renewed because of the work that we’re doing in terms of management of the issues.”

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