Danny Lockwood: Play-the-ball Penalties Are Killing The Game



GARETH HEWER has been receiving plaudits aplenty for his performance as referee in the Challenge Cup Final and I’m pleased for him.

A couple of minor calls apart his judgment was spot on, he was in excellent control, kept the game moving and hopefully thoroughly enjoyed what most be a career highpoint for anyone in sport.

I’m pleased too for a referee’s department that hasn’t been having the easiest couple of weeks of things, due in no small part to stories we’ve carried in this newspaper. Sorry chaps, just doing our job.

I thought Hewer’s Wembley performance was assisted greatly by being in charge of two teams who came to play. In that, both Hull and Warrington – and especially their coaches – deserve praise for ensuring the game provided the spectacle it did.

Any ‘arm wrestle’ at the ruck was in the context of a good contest and if there was the odd penalty offence then I think we can fairly put that down to being part and parcel of the game.

Congratulations all round then.

If Gareth Hewer was in front of a television on Thursday night however, putting his feet up and enjoying a well earned few days off, and he happened to switch on the Wigan-Widnes game, I imagine his first reaction would have been huge relief.

He might even have offered up a prayer of thanks that he didn’t cop for a complete train-wreck of a game.

I defy any referee, from any era, to emerge from a contest like that one looking good. If you missed it, Widnes lost the penalty count 20-8, had two men binned for ruck offences (they were down to 11 at one point) and still won the game 8-6 (continued below)Super League ebay

Who says ‘cheats never beat’? Widnes sure did on Thursday night.

By simply attempting to get some kind of a match out of it and seeking some sense of continuity, referee Phil Bentham probably missed a few penalties.

And indeed, because of the serial offending of Widnes in particular, he may even have blown for one or two that weren’t.

It got to the stage – or at least it felt – that there was barely a tackle made that didn’t involve a flop, a dragged leg, an extra tug, a hand on the ball.

If Mr Bentham had blown for every single offence he would have probably been the winning as well as losing fans. Like I said, an impossible job.

I’D LIKE to have seen his boss Steve Ganson in charge of that all-in wrestling match, because the game might have had to be abandoned once Widnes were reduced to seven or eight men. Ganson was never the most patient of refs and didn’t brook any nonsense. He might have needed post-match physiotherapy on a bad arm with all the cards he’d have been required to flash.

That bad? I thought so.

On the premise that winners can laugh and losers can please themselves, Vikings coach Denis Betts probably spent all of Thursday night splitting his sides like that clown in the glass box outside the Fun House in Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Got away with one there, and not half Denis.

The irony of course is that Widnes, by courtesy of an absolutely tremendous defensive display (notwithstanding their serial penalty offences) did the dirty on Wigan, the widely acclaimed undisputed kings of slowing down the opposition play the ball.

In different circumstances, we could smile along with Betts and his players, and with a nod and a wink move right along to the next Super League spectacle.

Except we would be kidding ourselves – and rugby league cannot afford that.

Match attendances and Sky viewing figures are struggling, and I say that without knowing the up to date figures – because I haven’t been able to find hide nor hair of any.

And I haven’t been able to find a single ‘woo-hoo, look at us’ press release from either the RFL or Sky crowing about numbers since February when week one attendances were up by 5,000 on the 2015 total.

Just look at that Wigan-Widnes crowd: 11,495. Sure, it was a Thursday night, but this was after a week off, the kids aren’t back at school and it wasn’t exactly a three hour trans-Pennine trail.(continued below)World Cup ebayWigan have long been the masters (along with Leeds) of finding ways to whip up support and squeeze every iota of marketing value out of matches. But there were just 15,000 at their recent thrashing of Saints (their previous league clash drew over 20,000) and the 10,500 for the Wakefield walloping before that seems the new norm for non-marquee games.

There are Into of variables to throw into the mix as to why that may be, but the one factor we can’t afford to ignore is the product. We live and die by that – and right now it isn’t up to scratch. We’re playing a different sport from the NRL.

It’s as though basic skills are no longer worked on. Players can’t just pump iron and practice ground-wrestling techniques, can they? Some of the matches this season seem like that.

I’m not sure what the answer is either. In the simplest instance it comes down to coaches and players because they’re the people responsible. But while ever the tactic yields dividends, as on Thursday, there’s not much use looking answers there.

Two referees, as in the NRL, might be a solution, but we’re thin on the ground for match officials anyway – and it isn’t as if Mr Bentham didn’t see, whistle and punish appropriately. No one wants to see teams down to 11 men, but what else is there?

Could money work – fining clubs who are serial transgressors, and fining
them serious money, not £500 or £1,000? Club finance directors would soon take a view with the coaching staff if they were being hit with a £10,000 fine every time they gave more than five ruck penalties in a game, and especially if it went up £10k every additional five.

Friday night’s Saints-Hull game wasn’t much better (I thought the match got away from referee Chris Campbell) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Catalans boss Bernard Guasch said he was throwing the towel in, after another rookie ref in Jack Smith was a decisive factor in Warrington’s last gasp win.

General quality is a real concern. Even the RFL would probably admit that. But the pantomime that the play the ball is becoming in virtually every game risks long term damage, not least because we’re becoming laughing stocks.

And if it’s just something we have to put up with, then I’m sorry to say it, but the.


THAT ‘pop-pop-pop-popping‘ sound that rang out across the counties of the M62 corridor on Saturday tea-time?

That was the sound of the thousands of exploding balloons, universally filled with scornful hot air. claiming that the 12s and 8s system is a waste of time and the dice are perennially loaded against the Championship clubs.

“No one will ever get promoted – it’s just a question of which Super League team sees off the best they’ve got…” was the received wisdom in many quarters.(continued below)

Oh really? Tell that to the frenzied Leigh Centurions fans who traipsed across the M62 to east Hull on Saturday, saw their heroes pull off a quality win against an admittedly off-colour Hull KR (but they have been most of the season) and come within an ace of cementing a place in the top flight.


And no, not by virtue of the dreaded Million Pound Game either, but by rights, having claimed two SL scalps.

I expect the Giants to ensure their survival at Leigh this weekend – but we’ll then have the unreal prospect of Rovers and Salford cheering like mad for the Batley Bulldogs to go to the LSV and repeat the victory they achieved over Leigh to start the campaign.

Gripping stuff – and well done Leigh.


IT’S AN overused expression, “they don’t make ’em like that anymore.” In the case of Harry Jepson OBE however, it would be an understatement – I don’t think they EVER made ’em like Harry. The gentlemen was a total one-off, in any walk of life.

Journalists who knew Harry far better than I have paid tribute in various media this past week, after the passing of the President of the Leeds Rhinos at the grand old age of 96.

It wasn’t Harry  Jepson’s kind humour and gentle way that won immediate friends wherever he went, nor indeed his indefatigable outlook on life and the various fortunes (good and bad) that sport presents to anyone involved in it. There’s little Harry didn’t witness first hand over the generations. His memory, even in his advanced years, was phenomenal – as much for the names and faces that made his common touch such a gift, as for his prodigious recall of our great game.

Enjoy your well deserved rest Harry, and thanks for everything.

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