The World Club Challenge between Melbourne and Leeds this weekend has exposed one of rugby league’s biggest faux pas – multiple versions of the game.
Rhinos coach Brian McDermott expressed his dismay at finding out late that the game will be officiated by two referees, as per the NRL, rather than one, as per international and Super League (or RFL) rules.
How can any sport wanting to expand and be taken seriously have three different versions of itself?
This is not a new phenomenon either. Remember Luke Walsh’s try at a free-play for St Helens early in their World Club Series game against Sydney Roosters back in 2016, which of course isn’t a law under international rules and it meant Saints had instead coughed up easy possession.
I’ve not even contemplated what rules Hull and Wigan will be playing against St George and South Sydney in their exhibitions this weekend – presumably international, maybe NRL but definitely not Super League.
Those in Toronto who have been captured by the sport of rugby league owing to the Wolfpack’s bold project over the past 12 months or so may indeed be left scratching their heads when they see what should be the highest profile club game of them all.
Rugby league has enough challenges as it is – without having to explain that there are three versions of its rules.
Maybe Nigel Wood can have this at the top of his agenda when he takes up his role at the RLIF.
But it appears, like with many things relating to the growth of the game, that the NRL will be the obstacle to anything becoming universal.
Of course, the versions of the game aren’t a million miles apart, but it is the finer details of the rules that confuse the casual viewer, and rugby league just doesn’t need the doubt and uncertainty it causes.
We have seen the RFL – perhaps due to their own commitment to growing the game – implement some rules first seen in the NRL in recent years, such as the 40/20 kick restarts and seven tackle sets.
As a self-confessed fan of the two on-field referees system, the immediate problem to implementing that worldwide would be the lack of available officials.
That said, in games where there is an in-goal official, I would argue that one of these would be better placed as a second referee, which has a notable impact on the tidiness of the ruck.
McDermott said: “I don’t think there’s anything sinister in this from the NRL, but their competition plays with two referees and ours plays with one.
“There’s been all sorts of dialogue about whether Super League should move to two so therefore, we know about it, and we know the pitfalls of it, but I tell you, we’re not happy that this has almost been forced upon us.
““We’re playing with 12 (interchanges) instead of 10, and the term that was always used was ‘international rules’. International rules mean you play with one referee but we’ve been informed we’ll play with two.”
Perhaps one day, the administrators will get their heads together and do something right for the game as a whole.
Sadly, until the NRL allows the RLIF to have the final say on the true laws of the game and enforce them worldwide, that may not happen.