Find out how the RFL approaches regulating on-the-field player misconduct in rugby league
On occasions I have be known to get frustrated over seemly inconsistent decisions of sports officials and the subsequent lack of disciplinary action for on-the-field misconduct of a player or group of players in match. I am sure many sports fans have similar experiences. Whilst I recognise it is a difficult job to be a sports official, as a sports fan, I find the decisions of officials and disciplinary panels difficult to understand or accept.
Therefore, inevitably working in sport, I have often vented my frustrations at sports lawyers and officials from a number of sports. This has often caused me to revise my opinion once I fully understand the complexity of the matter, such as facts specific to case, financial resources, timings, rule restrictions, etc. that a governing body of sport has to content with. On one such occasion the unlucky individuals were Dean Hardman (Compliance Manager) and Graeme Sarjeant (Head of Legal) at the Rugby Football League (“RFL”),1 the governing body of the sport of rugby league in the United Kingdom. We discussed the pros and cons of a number of rules and disciplinary processes across sport. As it transpired during the conversation they were very open about their processes and proud of a system they believe was able to adapt to the demands of the sport. The outcome of our discussion was that they kindly invited me to the headquarters to see their disciplinary process in action.
For background for those unfamiliar with rugby, the ‘league’ code is a different style of rugby from the ‘union’ code. Both codes use an oval shape ball, but there is less of a focus on scrummaging in rugby league and the ball is turned over to the defending team if the attacking team is successfully tackled 6 times without the opposing team scoring. Rugby league is often referred to a being a faster game, meaning there are fewer interruptions to play than in the ‘union’ code. You can find a more details explanation on the RFL’s website here: https://www.therfl.co.uk/the-rfl/rules/a_guide_to_the_game.
The challenge for National Governing Bodies
Each week hundreds of thousands sportsmen and women at all levels participate in competitive sport (amateur or professional) across the UK alone and the vast majority give 100% to try to win. However, sometimes this desire to win can lead them to be careless, reckless or worse. Therefore governing bodies through their rulebook try to establish clear guidelines as to what standard of conduct is expected from participants both on and off the field of play. Rulebooks, with varying degrees of success, set out what behaviour is prohibited and what sanctions, if any, should apply in incidents where the rules have been breached.
On the face of it, dealing with on the field misconduct would seem relatively straightforward; however, the reality for most national governing bodies of sports (“NGBs”) is that they have to run the sport with a finite amount of resources and a responsibility to serve a multitude of stakeholders from amateur and professional levels of the sport including players, coaches, clubs, sponsors, government, educational institutions, etc., which leaves many NGBs with a difficult balancing act to juggle. Inevitability some do a better job than others as with these competing pressures NGBs can easily spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with on-the-field misconduct. Therefore it is within their interest to have fair and efficient processes to deal with such matters to be as cost effective as possible not only for them but also for the subjects of the disciplinary action. The last thing NGBs want to deal with is a drawn out disciplinary matter that could potentially draw lots of media attention and then requires an increasing amount of resource to manage and deal with effectively.
So with this in mind, I thought it would be helpful to provide an overview of how the RFL deal with on-the-field misconduct.
The RFL Match Review Panel
On the 24th March 2015, I visited the RFL head office to observe how they handle on-the-field misconduct cases arising from fixtures played in the RFL Super League,2 the premier competition for the sport of rugby league in the UK.
Each week the on field incidents are brought to the attention of the Match Review Panel (“MRP”). The MRP is a panel “made up of the RFL’s Compliance Manager (who chairs the Panel) and usually 4 side members drawn from people with appropriate expertise (such as former players, referees and coaches).”3
The current composition of the MRP is:
- Paul Dixon - Great Britain Test forward (15 Tests) played for Halifax; Leeds; Bradford; Sheffield; Gold Coast and Canterbury. DOR at Halifax
- Steve Ganson - Former Super League (over 300 games) and International referee. Currently RFL Match Officials Coach.
- Steve Presley - Former Super League referee and ex professional player for 12 seasons with Batley and Sheffield.
- Mike Burnett - Recent former player. Prop/Second Row with Hull FC and London Broncos.
- Dean Hardman - Compliance Manager, RFL.
Every Monday morning during the season the MRP members meet to review all incidents from games over the weekend that could be a potential breach of the Laws of The Game.4 The MRP consider approximately 50 incidents each week and will meet for anywhere from 3-8 hours depending on the number of incidents and scale of incidents to be considered.
The reviewing of on the field incidents
The MRP review carry out a comprehensive retrospective review all incidents of concern.
Each SL game is recorded on video from either the broadcast from Sky or through footage recorded by the RFL (the RFL have cameras installed by Micron in HD format at every Super League ground). Each panel member reviews every tackle in every minute from one or two games each weekend, and creates a shortlist of incidents to present to the MRP. The MRP also consider any incident which was dealt with by the Referee by way of a red card or sin bin, any incidents which the Referee has placed “On Report” or citings from clubs. Section E16.1.1 of the RFL’s Sentencing Guidelines and Procedural Rules5 permits a club to cite an incident during a Super League (“SL”) match held over a weekend by notifying the Compliance Manager of an alleged incident by 10am on the “first working day after the incident”. The restricted period to cite an incident aims to strike a balance between giving the MRP “time to review the incident and if necessary issue a sanction against an offending player”6 whilst ensuring that the incident is dealt with expediently so the teams and players can have certainty about a player’s availability for the next competitive match.
The MRP members in turn run through each incident on a large TV screen in real-time. The MRP then discuss the incident in depth, with the different members of the Panel bringing their unique perspective on the matter at hand. The MRP will use all camera angles available and will watch the clips multiple times, including in slow motion, in order to come to a decision.
The MRP also have access to an online archive containing clips of every offence which has been charged over the last few seasons. This assists the Panel in making consistent decisions.
It is helpful to the MRP that the referees wear microphones, which allows the panel to hear the dialog between the referee, the touch judges and players. This can be particularly helpful when the MRP are trying to understand why a referee took a particular course of action during the game.
Each incident is reviewed by the MRP members as described above. If it is decided by the MRP that no offence has been committed no action is required. If a sanctionable offence is found to have taken place, the MRP grade the incident depending on its severity, as per the Sentencing Guidelines (Section E16.2. The Grade range from Grade A, which usually attracts a sanction of zero to one match, through to Grade F, where the suspension is a minimum of 8 matches. It is worth noting that this is something that can be discussed at length by the panel and where the technical knowledge and experience comes into play. For example, what may look like a simple tackle to a lay person may well be a dangerous and career threatening (for the receiver of the tackle) technique and therefore it will be important for the safety of all participants that the entry point is the highest it can be to deter this type of behaviour. For example, within the last decade wrestling techniques have crept into the game. These techniques, primarily aimed at slowing opponents down when they are attacking, can cause serious damage to opponents. For example, the “crusher” style tackle involves undue pressure being applied to the head or neck of an opponent.
If the MRP’s view is that an incident is not worthy of a charge, but are still concerned at the technique used, the MRP can issue formal cautions or can speak to the player’s coach and provide an informal warning and advice. For example, where a player’s running style may lead to his knees being raised excessively high This appears to me to be a positive course of action and one that I know other sports also adopt; it encourages education of and better compliance with the rules as players and coaches are informed as to future behaviour that may amount to misconduct and then can take preventative action to avoid a disciplinary action at a later date (for example, by adapting training techniques or encouraging a player to be alert to the risk in a competitive setting).
Recording of incidents
Each incident considered by the MRP, whether it is deemed to have breached the rules or not, is documented for future reference. By 5pm on the Monday of the MRP meeting the incident and the decision with a brief explanation is then published on the RFL website here: https://www.therfl.co.uk/the-rfl/disciplinary.
The MRP also monitor incidents of concussion, with the RFL ensuring all such incidents are reported through the RFL’s Welfare Director, and that players follow the Graduated Return to Play protocol. This allows the Welfare Director ensure that the players follow the Graduated Return to Play protocol.
If the MRP issue any charges a letter is drafted to the club’s chief executive and and Paul Dixon (former player) calls the head coaches of the relevant team to inform them of any warnings or sanctions. These conversations can often be fractious as coaches may disagree with the charge.
Accepting or Refuting a Sanction
A Player that is charged can where eligible accept an Early Guilty Plea (EGP). However, it they are are not eligible or do not wish to take the EGP then the case is referred to the Operational Rules Tribunal.
Early Guilty Plea
The EGP is a system where a player charged with an Offence of Grade A-C can take an EGP to benefit from the offence to be sanctioned at the “lower end of the suspension range for the Grade of Offence….(i.e. for a Grade B offence, which has a range of one or two matches, a one match suspension will be imposed).” Also a player making an EGP “will not be subject to any fine but will forfeit the right to any hearing.” The EGP “only applies to initial hearings and not to any appeal hearing."
Only players who meet the following criteria can apply for the EGP:
“not been found guilty of any other charge of on field misconduct before the Tribunal (including charges in the NRL), or by submitting a previous Early Guilty Plea (including charges in the NRL), in the 12 months preceding the date of the Match in which the alleged Offence took place; and who has not been permanently sent from the field in a Match in the 12 months preceding the date of the Match (unless subsequently found not guilty of such an offence).”
The impact of the EGP according to Dean Hardman has been a positive one. Dean explains, “The EGP system rewards players who have a clean disciplinary record for the previous 12 months. They can therefore benefit by receiving the lower end of the range of sanctions that would be available were the matter to be referred to a Tribunal. The benefit to the organisation is that fewer cases are referred to the Tribunals, thereby reducing the administrative burden and allowing Tribunals to focus on the most serious matters. The acceptance rate for the EGP is approximately 85% showing that players generally favour the certainty that this process allows. The EGP system only applies to the least serious offences (Grades A to C), with all cases of Grade D and above automatically being referred to a Tribunal for determination."
Operational Rules Tribunal Hearings
Hearings of the Operational Rules Tribunal (“hearings”) take place at around 5pm the day after the MRP have met. Each hearing consists of a Chairperson and two side members. The Chairs are serving or former Circuit Court judges, who chair hearings on a rotational basis.7 The side members are all experienced former professional players.
The Tribunal determines (Section E16.1.2):
- Whether an Offence has been committed;
- If so, the Grade (see below) of the Offence; and,
- Where a Player has been found guilty of an Offence, the appropriate sanction (in accordance with the Sentencing Guidelines).
If the Tribunal does not consider that it can reach a decision on the evidence before it, it may refer the incident to the Compliance Manager for further investigation.
Before the hearing commences the Chairperson and the two side members will review the information provided by the MRP.. After which the player’s representative (usually a coach or chief executive) and/or player will be asked to join the panel along with the Compliance Manager in accordance with the ‘Order of Proceedings’.
The ‘Chairperson will read the charges that the player has been charged with . The player or his representative will then either:
- Admit the Offence (and the Grading of the Offence)
- Admit the Offence and challenge the Grading of the Offence; or
- Deny the offence
The Compliance Manager then presents the case to the Panel, including playing the footage of the incident, after which the player or his representative will present the Player’s case, which usually also includes highlighting key issues on the footage. Players “are entitled to provide further footage of the incident for which they have been charged. Footage must be submitted to the Operations department before the hearing. Footage of other incidents shall not normally be permitted.”
The Compliance Manager is then given a chance to respond to the Player’s submissions and the player or his representative will be given the opportunity to respond to the Compliance Manager’s submissions. The Player and his representative will be “given the final word".8 If the Player denies the offence was committed the Chairperson will ask the Player and his representative and the Compliance Manager to leave the room. The Chairperson and side members then discuss the evidence that has been put forward. At this point the technical expertise of the side members became apparent, as did the professional experience of the Chairperson, as a Chairperson and judge, in analysis and applying the rules of the game to give the subject of the hearing a fair hearing.
Once the decision has been reached all parties are invited back into the hearing room.
When all the parties are back in the hearing the Chairperson outlines the decision of the Tribunal. If the player is found guilty, before the Tribunal consider the relevant sanction, both parties are asked if they would like to make any further comments or present any evidence that they had not already presented that may help their case, for example, a player with a good disciplinary record will often proffer that as mitigation, whereas the Compliance Manager may submit to the Tribunal that any injury caused should be considered as an aggravating factor.
It is worth nothing that there are both mitigation factors, for example, previous good behaviour and provocation, and aggravating factors, for example, previous record, violence and retaliation, (See E16.2 and E16.3) that may be taking into account when sanctioning a player.
Appealing a Decision
After a hearing, a player and his team have 7 days in which to appeal, unless he wants the appeal to be heard the next day so the player can play on the weekend, in which case the player must submit an appeal by l 11am the following working day. The hearing would then be heard on that day. The appeal is a complete rehearing (a “de novo” hearing)9 and is heard by one of the five judges who did not Chair the original hearing (again this judges are on appointed by a schedule on a rotational basis).
An appeal is then heard after 5pm the day following the original hearing (Wednesday). This means all decision are taken quickly and give both the players and teams certainty of outcome in time to prepare for the next competition weekend.
The RFL’s Match Review Panel appears to have implemented an efficient and transparent means to deal with on-the-field misconduct. That is not to say it is a perfect system, I think there is almost always room for improvement. The RFL themselves are always striving for improvement with regular meetings and training sessions taking place with the MRP and the ORT. However, with the resources they have and for the characteristics of their sport I think they have a practical and effective mechanism in place for dealing with on-the-field misconduct. It was also interesting to hear how the RFL and NRL (Australia) share information on disciplinary matters such as the type of misconduct, head injuries and potentially dangerous tackling techniques being used to help keep the sport as safe as is possible.
I am sure, like me, many fans won’t fully appreciate how much time and energy goes into disciplinary matters across many sports. But, like the RFL many NGBs are starting to understand the importance of having transparent, efficient and effective disciplinary processes in place in order to build confidence in their sport and to ensure they can spend more time providing a better service to their stakeholders and in turn growing their sport.
I would like to thank Dean Hardman (Compliance Manager), Graeme Sarjeant (Head of Legal), the Match Review Panel Members and Operational Rules Tribunal Members for their time and for allowing me access to the RFLs disciplinary procedures.