NRL Finals: Getting the rules right

Opinion is divided is about the decision to stop play to attend to Corey Oates' head injury in the Broncos win over the Panthers on Friday. Was it right?

Referees in the spotlight again

Another week, another NRL refereeing controversy. It’s yet another example of where the rules of the game and its interpretation have covered another grey area without sufficient remedy.

Corey Oates suffered what appeared to be a severe head injury after colliding into teammate Anthony Milford during the Broncos 13-6 semi-final win over the Panthers on Friday. Oates was running at break-neck speed towards Milford upon impact which made it for harrowing viewing.

While this was an unfortunate sequence of play, the collision resulted in a loose ball, which the Panthers capitalised on. Sione Katoa set up for a swift 50 metre run towards the line for a try which, under any normal circumstances, would have been a call of play on. Instead, referee Gerald Sutton opted for what was described as a “safety first” and decided to stop play in order for medics to attend to Oates accordingly. The winger was knocked out cold and sadly stretchered from the field. 

The decision denied the Panthers an equalising try midway through the first half. While this did not have the bearing on the game that most believed, this might have been the shift of momentum that the Panthers needed after a slow start to the match. They did not open their account until the 64th minute. To his credit, Penrith coach Anthony Griffin did not have an issue with the decision made and refused to use it as an excuse for the loss.

NRL defends decision

Referees boss Tony Archer has been a busy man this season, defending criticisms of the referees’ performances and the TV match official known as “the bunker” on a near-weekly basis. Friday night was no different, with the Oates decision being brought into focus.

A statement from an NRL spokesman defended the decision, stating the following –

“There are guidelines in place regarding head injuries which enable play to be stopped immediately in some circumstances. There was a potentially serious injury involved and the referee determined that player welfare should be the focus.”

What are the rules?

We looked at the big book of the laws of International Rugby League as approved by the Australian Rugby League Commission, issued for the NRL Premiership in February of this year. We also checked the aforementioned NRL policies and guidelines, as they relate to head injuries in play.

Applying the situation to the Laws of Rugby League

The most relevant section of this beast is provided in Section seven (Timekeeping), subsection 5 (a) which states that: “If the continuance of play endangers an injured played, the Referee may stop the game. If, when the game is stopped, player is in possession of the ball the game shall be recommenced by that player playing-the-ball.”

In this situation, from having reviewed the footage again, Katoa’s subsequent pick-up of the ball following the drop did not directly impede with Oates. Oates was not in any direct danger of being affected by the play as the Panthers player was parallel to him and therefore would not have, at any time, been running towards him as he set off for the try line. Therefore, this law can be ruled out.

Another applicable rule to the above is contained in Section seven, note five, which states that: “The Referee should endeavour to reduce stoppage to a minimum. Injured players should be removed from the playing field to receive attention as quickly as possible, taking into account the gravity and nature of the injury. Treatment to an injured player, by not more than one attendant, may be permitted while play proceeds if, in the opinion of the Referee, such treatment is not likely to interfere with play.”

The treatment to Oates would have been able to go ahead while play was still live, as it would not have interfered with the match continuing directly at that point. Therefore, you would expect to rule this point out as well.

Reviewing the NRL Head Injury Guidelines

The NRL statement above referred to their policies and guidelines for such matters, which are available on their website. There are specific guidelines for dealing with head injuries in this library of information.

The policy statement outlines the most relevant information relating to this case, being:

  • All unconscious players must be managed by the attending NRL Sports Trainer and an ambulance called immediately.
  • Under no circumstances should the player be allowed to continue playing or return to play during the same game. This will eliminate any potential “second hit syndrome”.

Contrary to what was claimed in the NRL’s statement, suggesting that certain guidelines enable play to be stopped immediately, we have not identified this line of wording in the head injuries guidelines policy statement.

Reaffirming the need for clarity in rules

Having reviewed the laws of rugby league as well as the NRL guidelines, the play should have still been live after the time the injury occurred.

It was very serious case and the referee made a judgment call to look after player safety in the situation at his discretion. No one was doubting the seriousness of the matter. That is not the issue.

Nor would it be an argument as to whether the referee should also be in the position of a doctor as well, as has been mentioned in other quarters. I don’t believe it to be pertinent as the game will move at the referee’s discretion in any case.

What is more of an issue, as it appears to keep arising time and again, is the consistency of the rules in the game of rugby league and how they are applied and interpreted by the referees. This needs to be addressed to bring some level of consistency for the viewing public. It also continues to set a dangerous precedent for future decisions and how they are applied and viewed in similar situations.

This is only one matter the NRL might consider in future but it comes back to one theme – of the referees getting the rules right, for the betterment of the game.

Do you feel like some NRL rules need better clarification? Let us know in the comments below.

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Ahmad Khawaja

Cricket and Rugby League Writer at RealSport

Ahmad is a passionate follower and preacher of Cricket. Born in New Zealand, now living in Australia, and of Pakistani descent, the sport most definitely runs in his blood.

Having worked in Assurance at big 4 firm EY for a number of years with New Zealand Cricket among his client base, he has come to appreciate the inner workings of leading cricket organisations that govern the great game.

He is also a contributor to Indoor Cricket for Cricket Victoria, Indoor Sports Victoria and Indoor Cricket New Zealand.

In his spare time he follows a number of other sports including rugby league, union and tennis and plays competitive indoor and outdoor cricket.