RefCam and 5 other innovations rugby league introduced long before football caught on

Aaron Bower

The Premier League will break new ground tonight with the introduction of RefCam: as official Jarred Gillett will wear a camera during Crystal Palace’s game against Manchester United.

But as any rugby league fan knows, referees wearing cameras is nothing new. Super League introduced the innovation in the past to mixed reviews – and it’s far from the only time the sport has been at the forefront of an innovation that other sports have followed suit with several years later. Here’s some more examples.

The video referee

Arguably the most predominant example of rugby league being at the forefront of technological innovations is the video referee. Super League has had video refereeing systems in place since the competition launched in 1996 – and the NRL quickly followed suit.

In recent years, the system has evolved in numerous ways, with Super League having a video referee at every game this season for the first time in history: a development which some would argue is long overdue. Rugby union introduced video referees for the first time in 2001 and as we all know, the Premier League were a long, long way behind.

VAR didn’t arrive in football until the mid-2010s, though the ‘Hawkeye’ system was implemented some time earlier. Famous footballers such as Paul Scholes have pointed to league’s usage of the video referee system in the past as an example for football to follow – it’s undisputedly the biggest technological advancement league was first to properly use.

Sunday games

The notion of sport being played on a Sunday is now, in the 21st century at least, commonplace.

But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, the first football fixture to take place on a Sunday was as recently as January 1974, with it previously prohibited to play matches on the Sabbath.

However, that all changed in the mid-1970s but rugby league had been playing games on Sunday, its traditional day of the week, for years and years. Cricket was the only other sport which had flirted with Sundays before football adopted it as one of its more traditional days to play matches.

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The ‘blood bin’

We’re used to seeing players being taken off the field to have open wounds that are bleeding get treated. The ‘blood bin’ was first used in league in 1991 – but it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that football even considered it.

The records show that a motion was tabled in the Houses of Parliament in 2006 which read: “That this House supports the initiative by Doctor John Haworth, club doctor to Carlisle United FC, to persuade the Football Association to accept temporary substitutions of players to allow the treatment of open wounds, similar to the successful blood bin scheme introduced some years ago in the Rugby Football League; and urges the Football Association to accept this policy which is supported by the Professional Footballers’ Association on the grounds of health and duty of care.”

It received 43 signatures of support – but the ‘blood bin’ never officially came into fruition, with players that need treatment having to come off without a temporary replacement, meaning their team plays a player light until they return or are officially substituted.

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Dressing room cameras

It’s incredible to think that the dressing room in football is still viewed as a sacred area where cameras can’t really go: not least given how league has been showing viewers inside there for years.

Any league fan of a certain age will remember Rugby League Raw, when nothing was off limits in regards to half-time team talks and expletive-laden rants from coaches. And even now in Super League, cameras have shown the inner sanctum of a team’s preparation and debrief.

And incredibly, English football didn’t do it for the first time until 2022! The League One fixture between Portsmouth and Wycombe in December 2022 was the first to allow cameras into the dressing room to show behind-the-scenes footage.

Even now, after that initial trial, it’s incredibly rare you get to see what happens in a dressing room: which for league fans is unthinkable.

Concussion substitutes

League’s approach to concussion and head injuries could be heavily debated for a prolonged period of time: but there’s no doubting they were ahead of football when it came to replacing players who had possible head injuries.

Incredibly, football didn’t introduce a permanent law allowing for concussion substitutes until THIS YEAR – which is absolutely staggering. League, however, has had the system in place for much longer.

However, there is still no system in football which allows for temporary concussion substitutes, something league does regularly with Head Injury Assessments..

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