TONY BUTTERFIELD: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

PUSHING IT: Nigglers like Michael Ennis are thriving under the no-punch rule.IN the reflective light of the fading NRL season I would like to revisit a topic from earlier in the year that spoke of unintended consequences resulting from the multitude of rugby league rule changes in recent times.
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In pursuit of a commoditised version of the professional game that would maximise mass appeal, have we tampered once too often with the very fabric of the game?

But, I hear you say, without the critical mass of appeal there would be no huge broadcast deals, no major sponsorships, no packed stadiums and no big pay days for the players.

To a large extent this may well be true, but those charged with rule changes should bear in mind their actions are indeed having an impact on the very appeal that has sustained the game for decades.

I expect there are many reasons fans have voted with their feet this year. Some of that, anecdotally at least, relates to the many new rule changes and interpretations.

Take the interchange, the scrums and the no-punch rule as three examples of, on the face of it, commendable, contemporary amendments. But it’s how the players and game exploit and adapt to these changes that has created something of a disconnect between fans, players and referees.

● With 10 interchange options available to a team, endurance and stamina, at least for most forwards, is a thing of the past. This factor alone has a huge impact across the game spectrum from participation to the increase in collision forces.

● The scrums are a joke and are nothing more than gathering points at which players (any players) link arms and chat. Alas, the rule masters have no idea what to do with them so they remain like royal guards outside Buckingham Palace – no idea what we’re doing here but it looks good. There was one bright moment earlier in the year when the Warriors won a scrum against the feed against Parramatta and scored as a result.

● In relation to the no-punch edict discussed last week, we saw how a player defending himself by way of retaliation may also find himself in the sin bin.

Another slant on this enforced armistice sees players now able to take far greater liberties in the heat of an erupting disagreement.

Bravado and jersey grabbing is the order of the day, with the odd short one to the chin the worst you will see.

This new “more bark than bite” trend was on display on Sunday when Bulldogs captain Mick Ennis condescendingly tapped Cameron Smith on the head after a costly and uncharacteristic error.

Howls of disrespect arose from Smith’s supporters.

Others claimed King Cam to be well within his rights to snot the experienced upstart.

But the rules say you can’t punch, and Ennis knows the rules and he sensed weakness, vulnerability, so he did what he had to do to win.

No problem.

I understand the safety aspect of our game and I’m all for eliminating time wasting and less attractive features. But I’m not so sure all of these rule changes have had the positive effect on the game at the senior professional level that the game’s architects envisaged.

Indeed I often wonder if it’s even a better game to watch.

Maybe I’m just getting old and not the target audience any more.

■ Meanwhile, hypersensitivity of another rule change has caused some consternation in the Sims household this week with the NRL citing Cowboys enforcer Tariq for an alleged “shoulder charge” on Broncos fullback Justin Hodges.

Most may disagree, but I think Sims was very hard done by and the Cowboys were completely remiss in not challenging the entire case, much less arguing for a downgrade. In the end, Sims accepted a five-week ban rather than risk seven weeks.

As an aside, what a hopelessly inadequate and crazy system we have where you face a penalty if you dare to challenge the match review committee view of things, and fail.

But I digress.

The outrage from some commentators at the collision was a little over the top but set the mood nicely for the carve-up to follow.

Gus Gould immediately called it a shoulder charge. Matty Johns said it was “a shocking shoulder charge” that left Hodges “unconscious” on the ground. Now, I’m not a doctor and neither is Matt, so only the Broncos trainer and Hodges knew whether he was unconscious, and that has not been reported.

As ugly and awkward as the contact was, it cannot by any objective examination of the footage be called a “shoulder charge”. I’m not even sure it was “reckless” – whatever that means. But the match review committee determined otherwise.

If you have a slow motion look at the action on YouTube you will see Sims’s defensive rush from the back field was beautifully timed. His concentration total and narrowly focused. I bet he could not believe his luck when he thought he had Hodges in his sights.

But Hodges is a dangerously skilful mover and thinker.

Suddenly, all Sims’s calculations went out the window when Hodges, not wanting to be sat on his bum, passed to a support player earlier than normally expected. By this stage, Sims was in no man’s land with milliseconds to re-evaluate and reposition his hurtling frame.

Match review committees would do well to consider that this is not an easy thing to do pulsing 170 beats per minute, 60 minutes into a home semi-final. Where finer motor and cognitive skills are impaired due to blood being diverted into the parts of the brain that control emotion, and the actions that result.

In the event, I think Sims was so wrapped up in his assignment that he nearly missed the fact Hodges had passed. When he did realise, he was only two strides out, closing fast and past the point of no return. Collision was now unavoidable, even though both players attempted last-ditch evasive action.

Hodges’s movement in particular had the effect of thwarting Sims escape plan, and they collided.

Further, immediately before impact you will notice Sims finds himself so inside out and tied in knots that the two players clumsily bumped the sides of their heads anyway. A real botch-up. These things happen.

But no shoulder charge.

More to the point, given the Cowboys’ weak response to the charge, the Knights will inherit the residual weeks left to serve when Sims joins the club next season. This is hardly satisfactory.

When you consider a forward of Sims’s ilk will average perhaps 20 games per season and four of those, or 20 per cent, may be spent peeling oranges, you can see my point.

Should the Knights have had a say in how this matter was managed given they are paying the bills next year? Imagine if Sims faced 10 weeks. The Knights could have lost him for most of the first half of the season.

A shabby outcome all round that does not reflect well on the game’s administrators.

■ The Knights’ NSW Cup team are playing for a berth in a grand final on Sunday and our under 20s are playing to survive into the penultimate week of the season. What an amazing time for these blokes.

For many of the NSW Cup guys, this represents their last chance to feel the satisfaction that few know but every player believes he deserves – a premiership.

For the under 20s, the hubris of youth will ensure they won’t be as concerned about tomorrows.

But I can assure them, for most, it may well also be their final chance at the senior level.

So leave nothing in the dressing room fellas and good hunting.