Shepherding Bulldogs cause NRL controversy

Referee’s Co-Coach and veteran official Bill Harrigan conceded that a try to Bulldogs winger Jonathan Wright during his side’s critical clash with the Wests Tigers on Friday night should not have been awarded, but his admission has failed to gloss over the fact that there is mass confusion around a fundamental rule within the game, and that that confusion threatens to have a serious effect on the finals series, should another incident like Friday night’s arise. 

The situation occurred late in the game at ANZ Stadium, with the Tigers, inspired by the ever-influential Benji Marshall,  looking poised to upset the table-topping Dogs and take a huge step towards cementing their own spot in the play-offs. With 6 minutes remaining and the Bulldogs on attack, Frank Pritchard ran behind decoy-runner Josh Morris, before passing for Wright to cross in the corner. But replays clearly showed Morris impeding the opposition defenders, and Tigers’ players immediately voiced their complaints to match official Sean Hampstead. 

Harrigan explained to media at length that any obstruction essentially boiled down to whether the attacking side had received an unfair advantage from the play or not. In instances where the decoy runner does not impede a defender, or is far enough away from the ball career to suggest that the defenders closer to him would not have been able to affect a tackle on the ball carrier, running behind a team-mate is allowed. 

But it was clear for all to see that the Bulldogs try came as a direct result of players in the defensive line being unable to tackle Frank Pritchard because of the decoy runner, and while it is refreshing to see an official come out and admit that a mistake has been made, it is worrying to have such a fundamental problem arise so late in the season. 

Not that this is the first time the issue has arisen. Players, coaches and commentators have bemoaned the inconsistent findings of match officials in this area for the whole season. Speaking on the Sunday Footy Show Sharks and NSW halfback Todd Carney told the panel that he himself was unsure of the rulings, and that there were stages during his side’s latest  game against the Rabbitohs when he stopped in his tracks as he was about to run behind a teammate. When we get to a scenario where some players are playing to a rule and others aren’t, there is inevitably going to be controversy, and with the finals series approaching, something needs to be done to prevent any such drama over-shadowing the business end of the season.

Robbie Farrah voiced his disappointment for all to hear, and while it’s never smart for a captain to so openly oppose a refereeing decision it is easy to see where the frustration comes from. It comes from inconsistency on behalf of the match officials. Andrew Johns explained the point of conjecture by talking about the extra decision the defender was forced to make as a consequence of the decoy runner hitting the line and shielding the ball-career, a decision which those defenders should never have had to factor in to the equation. 

It was a huge talking point during the State of Origin as well, with former players from both sides who were sitting in the commentary box managing a rare moment of agreement. It seems that a blanket rule which states that a player simply may not run behind a teammate, is both the simplest to understand and enforce, and preferred by the players. 

Hopefully the two-hour session that officials held to clarify the rule following the Bulldogs v Tigers game will have brought all those involved up to speed, and will avoid any further controversy as the most important games of the season get set to kick off. 


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