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It was a groundbreaking evening at Odsal Stadium on Thursday night. The first game of a 24-match trial at academy level where the legal tackle height has been lowered to the armpit and below produced a mammoth 57 penalties, 49 of which were for high tackles. It was a stop-start evening, but also a fascinating one on several levels.
Before, during and after the game, a number of key individuals involved in the opening night of the trial spoke about how it went. There were some good points, and some bad points. Here is what those at the heart of it had to say.
The scientists: Professor Ben Jones
The project is being led by Leeds Beckett University and Professor Ben Jones, who is also the RFL’s strategic lead on performance.
“My sense is the clubs are really behind it,” Jones said. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time and while the launch was six to eight weeks ago they know this has been on the cards. The support we’ve had from wider stakeholders has been really helpful.
“I think the evidence around contact to the head being the highest rate of concussion is there. What we’re looking at over the next six weeks is what we need to do to support people if these law ramifications come into place in the future, so we can support players, coaches and match officials with what they need to prepare for.
“As a definitive trial we’ll be looking at things around contact to the head, head acceleration and the in-game metrics, in addition to the published literature that exists around concussion mechanisms and tackle injuries that will be considered around what the tackle height looks like moving forward.
“Our role is around providing the best field of evidence for the game to make decisions around risks going forward. We can recommend on what the data shows because ultimately it’s about risk reduction. It’s what’s an acceptable level of risk, and how do you reduce that as much as you can whilst protecting the integrity of the game?”
The coaches: Ryan Hunkin and John Bastian
After the game, which Leeds won 50-32, both coaches offered what felt like a mixed verdict on the night. For Bradford interim head of youth, Ryan Hunkin, there were grounds for cautious optimism.
“We’ve practiced a number of things,” Hunkin said. “There was a lot less wrestling, and I don’t think it was any quicker, Leeds offloaded a bit, but we didn’t do too much. As a spectacle I don’t think it was where it will be in eight weeks. But it’s a start, and we’ve got to start somewhere. But it’s a contact sport and we want to try and keep it a contact sport.
“I went in open-minded, I didn’t know what it would be like. We knew there’d be more penalties and they had more energy at half-time than normal because of the stop-start nature, but kids adapt. It’s the ideal age for them to try it because they adapt quickly at this age, whether it’s tackle technique, wrestle, they soon pick it up. I don’t think it was as bad as people were expecting.”
Bastian, however, was slightly more forthright with his views.
“I understand what the RFL are doing but something has to be better than that for us to make our sport safer because that is very, very difficult to watch and play in,” Bastian said after the game. “My biggest concern was that if there were going to be 50, 60, 70 penalties then there is no game and no momentum. There is no game for the spectators to watch.
“I’m a big fan of the medical side, looking after players and high shots coming down but on the flip side of it, there were all those penalties for high shots and I’m not sure how many concussions there are. Hopefully there are none – and I don’t think there are – but there probably needs to be something that’s going to benefit and promote the game. That was so difficult for everybody.”
“It was very complex for both teams and very complicated to play any rugby with any skill or momentum. The rules are being challenged by the Rugby Football League. That’s fine but it made the rules more complicated tonight.”
The officials: Marcus Griffiths
Young referee Matty Lynn was the man in the middle who awarded the 57 penalties. He decided not to speak to the media after the game, which was perhaps understandable given how bruising a night he experienced in the thick of the action.
However, Super League official Marcus Griffiths was on hand to mentor Lynn, and he did admit afterwards that referees will need as much support throughout the trial as the players and coaches.
“It was probably as we expected,” he said. “We expected there to be a high penalty count because players are having to un-learn skills they’ve been taught as a child. It’s a massive ask.
“It’s a massive ask to referee that way too because we’re taught certain ways of identifying tackles and foul play, and we’re having to adapt too. He’s done an amazing job and done everything he’s been asked to do, because at times we’ve got to follow the science.
“Matty has been and seen clubs and done club visits. We’ve tried to educate the best we can in those visits but it was challenging at times out there. It’s a massive learning curve, we’ve got 24 games of this trial and by the 24th game I think you’ll see a different outcome. At times, we’re going to need arms around officials because it’s challenging. To go out and give 57 penalties, it’s frustrating and at times you’re going to have players frustrations taken out on you. We know they don’t mean it but we have to look after our referees.”
The Thirteen verdict
Marcus Griffiths perhaps summed it up best: exactly as tough as everyone expected. There is absolutely no doubting that a game with 57 penalties, 49 of them for high tackles, is anything but rugby league. It is unsustainable in every way, shape or form.
But it is important to remember that this is night one of a 24-game trial, and there are two key points to consider there. The first? It’s a trial. It’s not cast-iron that this will be introduced. If the feedback is negative, it won’t go ahead. And the other, more pertinent, point? It’s night one. By the 24th and final game you would envisage a markedly different outcome. You can draw comparisons to when the six again rule was introduced into Super League; for weeks, there were flurries of penalties but in the end, things settled out.
The penalty count simply has to lower significantly for this to work, though. Whether four rounds of fixtures is enough for players’ muscle memory to adjust enough to lower the height they tackle at remains to be seen. You would anticipate some sort of drop, but whether it is enough will be the crucial factor.
The other major point away from the penalty count? Yes, the 50-plus penalties slowed the game down but when play was live, it was faster and cleaner than we’re used to. A prominent coach was in attendance on Thursday and he suggested the media in attendance watch for the amount of three-man tackles and wrestle in the ruck, a technique which has become increasingly the norm in recent years.
It was far fewer than normal. Lots of one and two-man tackles, lots of quick rucks, which potentially led to the amount of points scored, too. The game was faster in patches, and it was possible to see a way where the new law modifications could actually clean the game up.
However, that can’t be possible if the penalty count remains this high. This trial has to produce two things to be a success: a safer game for the players, but also an environment which retains the speed and aesthetic appeal rugby league prides itself on. Only if both those boxes are ticked will it move forwards and on the basis of the opening night, the jury is certainly still out. Only in six weeks will we know for sure.