Obstruction turning a ‘simple’ game into complicated mess of decoys and defenders milking penalties


“Rugby league is a simple game.” Don’t you wish you had a dollar for every time you’ve heard that, especially over the past fortnight as the obstruction rule and it’s interpretation has come under fire.

If you look at it as a game of five tackles of bash and barge then kick, then yeah it is. But rugby league has far more intricacies in its game play than it’s ever given credit for.

In most team ball sports where the objective is to get the ball to a target – be it a try, a goal or a basket – players don’t have to be behind the ball carrier to be able to receive a legal pass.

In soccer if you’re trapped at your own end, you can hoof it downfield directly to one of your own team mates. Ditto AFL. American football is largely about players heading down field in front of the ball to receive a pass. It applies to almost all sports of this nature – basketball, netball, polo, water polo, hockey, ice hockey, Gaelic football, hurling, European handball.

The exception is the two rugby codes. In those games, players need to be behind the ball carrier to receive a pass. If you want to hoof the ball downfield to get out of trouble, your teammates have to be behind you to make a legal play at the ball or its catcher.

There’s no code war here. All of the sports mentioned have intricacies in rules and tactics that make them unique and enjoyable. But this is what makes the rugby versions unique – particularly in terms of attacking strategy.

When you take into account that you can’t just bang the ball over the defence to a teammate further down field, rugby league isn’t necessarily that simple. If you want to unlock a defensive line you have to find a way to go around or through, as opposed to going over. That’s where the art in rugby league is. Not having attacking players in front of the ball is not just part of the game, it exists in its very essence.

Sometimes opportunities are created by a big bopper bashing his way through – it’s a simple game remember. More often though, it comes about by creating a numerical advantage because the attack has made the defence think they are going to do one thing but then do something else.

Decoy plays have always been part of that deception. This was something that was drilled into me during my playing days 30-plus years ago. We were encouraged to yell out “my ball!” or something similar to add to the subterfuge. What didn’t happen was decoy runners being sent downfield ahead of the ball like they are now. Certainly not three decoy runners on the same play. This is a relatively modern addition to rugby league.

Over the past 30 years as we’ve moved into full-time professionalism, players have become bigger and faster. Rules have been put in place to facilitate end to end football and not have 80% of the game played between the 40 metre lines. The field has effectively become smaller as a result.

Decoy or second man plays have become increasingly important in unlocking that defensive line. We can’t wind them back.

The Roosters thought they were on the scoreboard, but after the review, this was given as NO TRY.

???? Watch #NRLRoostersPanthers on ch.502 or stream on Kayo: https://t.co/B1ijnGXtqA
BLOG https://t.co/7xxa1aqeN9
???? MATCH CENTRE https://t.co/CHxza3H28S pic.twitter.com/rSBx5thMAu

— Fox League (@FOXNRL) March 28, 2024

Defenders are milking it now, no doubt. In the Dragons v Sea Eagles game on the weekend, Haumole Olakau’atu – surely one of the most intimidating humans on the planet – went down softer than an Easter egg left in the sun. Watch the replay and Luciano Leilua was clearly sent through in front of the ball. He was never getting the ball and the pass went through a couple of metres behind him. The Dragons gave Olakau’atu the opportunity to sharpen his acting skills

“He can’t just disappear, what’s he supposed to do?” is another saying used ad nauseum. If you want your answer have a look at the Tyrell Sloan try and the Mikaele Ravalawa no-try in the first half of the same. The Dragons ran almost identical plays, but their decoy runners didn’t get in the way of the defence. They got it right. All good.

Decoy runners have options. They can choose to not stop in the defensive line, they can change their line and run at the inside shoulder, they can pull up short, they can not get in the fullback’s way. Their life is sometimes made harder by academy award winning performances by defenders. More often though, it’s just plain old poor execution.

Ultimately, you send a player through in front of the ball, you’re rolling the dice. That’s exactly how it should be.

Going back 10-15 years, referees had complete discretion in determining obstruction plays. They made calls based on estimates of whether the defender had initiated the contact, whether the defender would have got there, etc. It worked fine.

Then came the waves of decoy runners. Referees were having to make multiple obstruction calls on most tries. The subjective approach was, well… subjective. And weren’t we all up in arms about it. Ironically, a lot of the commentators who are now unloading on referees for not having “a feel for the game” were the same ones saying “take the subjectivity out of it, we need black and white interpretations.”

That’s pretty much the way the game has gone. If you’re in front of the ball and you interfere with a defender it will be a penalty. It’s a much better system than the bunker referee trying to determine the intent of the defender and whether he was capable of “getting there” and stopping the try.

That’s what scares me about Graham Annesley recently saying that the system isn’t black and white and that referees are supposed to use discretion in determining obstruction. World class back flip on its way? Referees hung out to dry? That’s bad, but are we on the brink of decisions that may impact the essence of the game.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.