Full transcript of everything RFL said in media briefing on laws, framework amendments, players meeting and more

Drew Darbyshire
Phil Bentham and Robert Hicks RFL Alamy

RFL head of match officials Phil Bentham (left) and RFL director of operations and legal Robert Hicks (right)

The Rugby Football League held a media briefing on Thursday to openly discuss the game’s new laws, the recent controversy, framework amendments and much more.

Answering the media’s questions were the recently appointed head of match officials Phil Bentham and Robert Hicks, who is the RFL’s director of operations and legal.

Love Rugby League was in attendance on the call, we’ve provided you with a full transcript of everything that was asked by the reporters on the call and the answers from Bentham and Hicks…

Robert Hicks’ introduction to the press conference

Robert Hicks RFL Alamy
Robert Hicks is now director of operations and legal at the RFL

RH: Just as an opening introduction from me just to say that it’s really good to have Phil now on this call. As we released a couple of weeks ago, Phil will be joining us as the head of match officials. We’re working on a period of transition and Phil is going to be absolutely vital to improving the quality of standard of refereeing going forward during this period. You all know Phil from his days as a rugby league referee, but in the last couple of years, working with VAR in football, I think it gives the referees real confidence that as we move into an era with video referees at every game, we can really develop that and strengthen what is already a decent group of referees, but give them more confidence and experience of coaching.

Moving on, I think it’s only right we sit here just after the World Club which was a fantastic event, live on the BBC and Sky Sports, strong viewing figures with obviously a British winner. It was a great game played in front of a full house and everything that’s great about rugby league was in that game. That was followed on Sunday with another really compelling, free flowing, entertaining game (Salford v Castleford) that would have been lost to the viewing public in previous years, but thanks to the new Sky Sports broadcast deal and the advent of Super League+ resulted in that going to a much wider audience than it would’ve done in the past. I particularly want to praise one of the most inexperienced Super League referees James Vella, I thought he handled that game fantastically well, it flowed, it had drama and it had entertainment, but also we should praise both sets of players because the game was played in a great spirit and with relatively little foul play, and obviously no charges which is even better for us.

It would naive, however, for me to not mention the other incident from the weekend: that being Nu Brown. I think you saw our response to that on Monday. It’s only right, as we said at the briefing back in November and the one that we did in January that, given the change in head contact processes, we would always remain in a position that we would reflect when we got things wrong and clearly the framework needed amendment if the video referee felt he had to send Nu Brown off. That led to coaches and players meetings yesterday, I don’t think it’s right for me to betray confidences and disclose things that were said in those meetings but they were extremely positive. I think it’s great for the sport that the governing body and the players are able to have those types of conversations and the same with coaches. I know it’s one of Phil’s real key drivers going forward: to open communication, not only to players and coaches, but also to you as the media. I would hope we’ll be able to do this a lot more going forward to give you more of an insight into why decisions were made.

Phil Bentham’s opening words

Phil Bentham RFL referee Alamy
Phil Bentham has recently been appointed as the RFL’s head of match officials

PB: It’s fantastic being back in rugby league although at the moment it is just dipping my toe in. I’m really fortunate in the fact that the company I’m working for in football, the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited), I’m working a notice period but they understand with the (rugby) season starting that it’s really important that I have an involvement within the rugby league set-up, so I’m really fortunate to have them as my employers allowing me to do that for the start of the season.

As Rob eluded to, a really big part of this role going forward for me is that we are open and we’re open with clubs, we’re open with the media and we’ll be doing regular calls that you’ll be invited to where you can come on and we can talk through decisions. We’re going to talk through how the referees reached the decision so that you understand the process for your reporting purposes. There’s going to be a lot of openness so we can try and allow people to understand exactly what the referees are doing. They still might not agree with the decisions, but if they understand the rationale and the way that we’re working, it might help with that perception of the match officials. As soon as I get in full-time there’ll be a lot more interaction between myself and you guys as well as the clubs and players.

The questions and answers from the press conference

Earlier this week, Rohan Smith queried about hitting players with fines as well as bans, what’s the reason behind the double punishment?

RH: The reality of that is the sanctioning framework was agreed on a review of all the sanctioning frameworks two years ago by the clubs, the RFL and the players association (RLPA). That hadn’t changed this year coming in, what has happened is more things are being caught higher up and I think that was part of the conversation yesterday and something that we’re reflecting on over the coming weeks. The key part to this is our direction of travel is unchanged, we have to reduce down the amount of head contact but we also have to remember that player behaviour change takes time, they are buying in and we can’t lose that buy-in, so that was a hot topic yesterday and one that we need to review over the coming days.

Just on the players meeting, did they go away quite happy? Obviously there’s been talk of strike action.

RH: In terms of that point on a strike, we should be clear that we are not complacent about that not happening. I don’t think it’s a surprise that people are talking about it but I thought the meeting was positive, I thought the players articulated themselves fantastically well. It didn’t just cover head on head contact, it covered a wide range of things and what I think the governing body, the RLPA, Rugby League Cares and the players all agreed on was that players are a massive part of the decision making process going forward and that they have representation, so I’m not complacent about that but I thought it was a really positive meeting.

Everyone welcomes the transparency and accountability, but some people may ask why the framework wasn’t clearer coming into the season…

RH: Yeah, the reality of that is that a lot of this was changing in the off-season and you didn’t have live matches. We’ve now had 11 and have seen some incidents that happen, and until you actually see something in operation, sometimes you do miss things, and, clearly, in an ideal world would’ve been that the framework made it clear this was purely about initial contact and/or had something in there that gave referees and match review panel, and everybody really, a little bit of a way to use their rugby league knowledge to get to the right outcome.

Has there been any consideration about amending the directives for head contact to allow contact for ball carriers that gradually lose their height rather than rapidly or unexpectedly?

RH: I think that’s difficult because I think it’s quite accepted in sport that when a tackle starts to happen, the tackle will change height. What we’re trying to do here is give some ability to referees to interpret what would be the mechanics of the tackle going forward. That might be something that’s not a mitigating factor, but a factor within the decision making process. That was why yesterday’s meeting with coaches and players was useful because they came up with live examples that they’d seen this year that referees might not have picked up, and this is all about us being in the same boat heading for the same direction.

The World Club Challenge was played under international laws, how close are we or what process is there to try to ensure that the international laws are as stringent around head contact as they are in Super League?

RH: The first thing to say is there’s an international laws committee, of which the NRL and the RFL have members. In fact, Dave Rotheram, who is the RFL laws chairman, is also the chair of the IRL committee. There is also now a new brain health, it’s not called brain health cub-committee, but an international version of what we have that’s been created. Again, the NRL and the RFL are putting representatives on that. They are looking at this area significantly. Throughout the last 12 months, the RFL have met closely with the NRL and I think everybody accepts that player health is the most important thing when looking at laws, especially in relation to head contact, but that process is something for the IRL to take forward as the game’s governing body because it will also face the same challenges that the RFL faces, so will the NRL, albeit they might look at this in a different way, because they are in a different position for a number of different reasons.

I think the short answer is that it’s a work in progress, but it’s something that we are keen to help both the IRL and the NRL, and ultimately, the ideal position would be that the game has one set of laws across it, with what you could argue as local variant rules for not having a video referee, for example, or something like that.

On the flip side of that, you guys are probably looking at what the IRL and the NRL are doing in terms of anything you can learn from them as well?

RH: Yeah, exactly. What we’ve actually found by liaising with them is that they are very much ahead of us in what they do around post-retirement research in what they do in the impact on player health whereas we are very much ahead of them in terms of the mouthguard data and the impact during a season. What will be interesting is how we can collaborate together to come up with a game-wide solution for what will be a worldwide game issue.

Phil, what sort of lessons have you learned from your time in football that you’ll be able to bring back to rugby league?

PB: Firstly, the size of the organisation that I work for, PGMOL, is just for elite level match officials in the professional game so as you can imagine, their support services in terms psychology, all the performance support services, the way that they assess referees is mind-blowing with the detail they go into. I can actually bring an element of that with the right team together into rugby league to kind of advance our match officials, and that should work at all levels.

We should be able to get all levels performing together by assessing them in a different way. One of those is to look at holistic assessment of a referee, so rather than ‘how did he do for 80 minutes?’ and he starts at 100 points and he gets deducted for every mistake he makes: we look at the whole person instead. So, what have they done in the week? What’s their lifestyle like? How are they from a phycological point of view from before that game? What other support services do they need to be able to go out and perform? Are they really good at taking feedback about the game? Do they self reflect on their performances? All those things that I’ve learned in the last two years we can bring back to rugby league. That’s been the learning, and, obviously the other part of it in terms of the VAR, is making sure that now we have six video refs at every game on an equal standing, how can we enhance our video ref product so that it fits the game in the best way, but also provides us with more accurate decision making? There’s lots of learning that I can bring over.

Rob, you said that the player meeting went really well last night. Can you say with confidence that a player strike is now lower than it was 24 hours ago before you all got together?

RH: Without trying to repeat myself, I think we wouldn’t be complacent about anything like that but I reiterate, I thought the meeting was positive and constructive.

As I said, we didn’t just talk about head contact, we talked about a lot of things, specifically around improving the representation for players in decision making for them in terms of governing body decisions but also decisions with clubs. I wouldn’t be complacent about anything and I also think it would be wrong for me to just say my interpretation of that meeting, when players and I all agreed that we were doing that in good faith.

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The RLPA were on the call as well last night and there’s been talk from people about starting a new union. What’s the direction of travel with player representation? Do you think they can get engaged with the RLPA or might they have to go down their own route?

RH: Ultimately, I think that’s a decision for the players. The players need to have proper representation and feel they are getting that going forward. They also need to be engaged in that process. I think that’s one for you to ask the players about how they go forward. From my perspective and the RFL’s view, what I’d say is that we want a properly engaged playing group that feel they are represented in the decisions that ultimately affect the sport because without the players we aren’t in a position to do anything.

We’re aware of the concerns players and coaches have, but have you had match officials come to you and express concerns about whether these rules are tough to govern on the field? Obviously you put Marcus (Griffiths) and his team in a bit of an invidious position at the weekend. Have the match officials had any concerns?

Fa'amanu Brown, Ben Currie
The head-on-head collision between Fa’amanu Brown & Ben Currie in a tackle towards the end of the first half which saw Brown dismissed

PB: 100 per cent. They were very uncomfortable with the decision and we were basically straight onto it with Rob to come to a solution that would kind of suit everybody so we don’t have to go into this weekend with that framework holding us back in terms of making sensible decisions. That’s been dealt with this week, the referees are a lot more comfortable going into the weekend and aware of exactly where they can use the framework and the mitigations within that to come out with sensible outcomes.

RH: Just to finish on that, to be really clear here, the governing body’s aim is to reduce the amount of contact to the head during tackles and the referees play a hugely important part in making sure that is done appropriately, so all these discussions like we have with players and coaches have to be done with match officials as well, and I feel confident that this weekend we’ll be able to not have the dramas of last weekend.

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I’m just wondering whether you feel the match review panel and the operational rules tribunal are about right so far this season? Obviously there’s been quite a number of charges downgraded in the two rounds so far.

RH: To be really candid, when you think about the new framework being implemented, and we always thought it would be difficult for players, coaches and referees – it was also going to be difficult for the match review panel to understand all the nuances of that framework and I would say it’s the beauty of the process were coaches and players feel that their charge is too high that they can come in and have a challenge at an operational rules tribunal.

It’s a beautiful independent process that avoids everybody saying it’s about the RFL picking on players or clubs. Have they got everything right? Clearly not, and in an ideal world they would have done, but I think the clarity we’ve received over the first two weeks, together with the ability for the governing body to be nimble, and change the guidance to make it clearer, will enable them to make far better informed decisions. They are ex-players and referees and they also need guidance, and I think we have now got to the place we need to on that.

The very big change in rugby league this year is that what everybody used to describe as an accidental head clash as a ball carrier and a tackler is no longer just an accident, play on and an unfortunate event. The reason for that is because of the laws of the game and the risk that head on head clashes cause to both concussive and sub-concussive events for both players tackling around the ball carrier.

What that meant was that we had to try to produce a framework for something very new, we’d only charged three incidents in round one, and of those three incidents, two of them were challenged last week but the clubs involved and the ORT gave greater guidance to the MRP about the mitigating factors that could be found in those types of incidents. On the bases of that, the MRP rightly agreed that because Tom Amone was challenging the week after for procedural reasons, that should also be reflected in the grading of his challenge down to a Grade B. I think we have now got to the right place in terms of understanding what the mitigating factors are in head on head collisions and giving both on-field referees and the match review panel the ability to take the sport with us whilst we continue to try to reduce the amount of head on heads we have.

I think for context, I just think we need to think carefully about how we communicate about head on head collisions. There have been over 7,000 tackle events in rugby league in the first two rounds of Super League, and we have had three charges for head on head collisions, that’s a minut percentage of the number of times people are involved in tackles, and then obviously we then had the Nu Brown one which we clarified, so I actually don’t think this is as big of an issue as it first appeared, but we have now got that clarity.

Phil, in football referees can’t referee their hometown club – we don’t have that in rugby league. Is that something you’re happy with and will that continue or is it something you’d look at?

PB: I’m 100 per cent happy with the way it’s run in rugby league. They’ve got a large selection pool in football, so they can make those decisions and they can avoid people refereeing their hometowns. In rugby league we haven’t got those numbers and, the other side of that, it questions the integrity of the referee. I can tell you from experience, I’ve refereed England… When you get on that pitch it’s white against black or it’s white against green and gold, that’s how you referee. You are not even thinking ‘I’m refereeing England against New Zealand’. You are just refereeing the incidents that come up in front of you. It’s probably difficult to understand that if you’ve never been in the middle of that and experienced that, but I would never question the integrity and I have no intention whatsoever to change that.

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Are other referees happy with that? Because you could say it maybe puts them under a little bit of pressure, the perception from fans.

PB: I can understand that. I know during my career… I’m from Leigh, and the time I refereed Leigh I was criticised for over penalising Leigh because they thought I was trying to prove that I wasn’t being a homer towards the team that I grew up supporting, so whichever way you do it, it can be become difficult. But ultimately, I know the guys go out and referee incident by incident and tackle by tackle – not based on the colour of the shirt in front of them.

You mention transparency and communication, is there a chance of getting the video referee’s deliberations heard on the television and in the stadium so we can get that clarity?

PB: That’s interesting, isn’t it? They are on TV now on try decisions. To get it within the stadium, operationally and logistics-wise, would be a big project – but I think that’s a really good point because at the moment, you could argue at times that you’ve got a better experience of the referee’s decision making if you don’t go to the game. Again, it’s something that’s on my to-do list in terms of to look at it and whether it would be feasible or not for us to do that. I think it goes down pretty well in Australia, doesn’t it? It is something that we would need to look at from a logistics point of view.

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