‘Every time we do black and white, it doesn’t work’: Does anyone actually understand the obstruction rule?

The NRL likes to go through phases where everyone throws their hands up and wonders what the rules actually are – and boy, are we in one at the moment.

The last week of footy has been a riot of interpretations of the obstruction rule, from Jake Trbojevic’s seemingly understandable call last week to Jared Waerea-Hargreaves’ totally inscrutable call on Thursday night via a plethora of given and not given examples.

The rules as most people understand them are fairly simple, but the interpretation of those rules is anything but.

Here’s the best attempt to work out what they actually are. You’re allowed to run decoy lines, but not if you take anyone out.

“The onus is on the attacking players or ‘block-runners’ not to initiate contact with the defenders,” reads the NRL’s advice on this, and that seems easy enough to follow.

If the defender takes the bait on your decoy, that’s their choice and well done.

“If the defender initiates contact, it will not be deemed to be an obstruction, says the official guideline, and ‘defensive decision’ is what you’ll hear the Bunker say.

But wait, there’s more.

“The ball carrier must not run behind an active block-runner and disadvantage the defensive line,” it continues, adding “Block runner(s) (who do not receive the ball) must not stop in the middle of the defensive line” and “must not run at (chest or outside shoulder of) defender(s) and initiate contact”.


“Attacking players who run a ‘Sweep’ line must receive the ball beyond the inside shoulder of the ‘Block’ runner(s)”


Don’t stop in the line, you’d think, would be easy to police, but given the moving nature of the line and the vital point of where the ball is in relation to anyone’s theoretical ability to make a tackle, it really isn’t.

If a winger on the other side of the field moves up and stands in the line, it’s obviously not an obstruction, so clearly there is a level of proximity necessary to make it relevant, and that’s a grey area at the discretion of the Bunker.

Given that we’re invariably talking about these calls after a try has been scored – aka when the line has been broken – then where that line becomes a point of discussion, too.

Jurbo stopped in the line, but far enough that the impeded defender, Luca Moretti, mightn’t have made it anyway, which the Bunker then has to rule on.

Jared didn’t stop in the line, but was close enough to another defender, fullback Dylan Edwards, that the Bunker had to rule on whether he theoretically could have.

Then you throw in the 13 moving parts in a defensive line, all making microscopic mini-movements and it becomes even harder, and the myriad patterns in attack and you wonder why we don’t make more mistakes than we actually do.

It’s not *that* complicated, honestly, but given the complexity inherent in it, there’s a lot of room for interpretation. That’s why coaches tend to be slightly philosophical about the whole affair.

Ivan Cleary, for example, saw the futility of it all.

“I’m kind of trying to avoid talking about bunkers and stuff this year,” he told the post-match media conference following his side’s victory at the Roosters in which, in fairness, it was easy to say something like that as he had just won and, undeniably, been the beneficiary of an obstruction call that fell right in the middle of the confusing section.

“If you got me at the right time on the right night then I could talk for half an hour, but I’m not going to tonight. It is what it is. You win some, you lose some.

“I’ll say one thing – I feel like every time we’ve done a black and white interpretation in rugby league, it’s been a failure.

“I’m not saying that was the case tonight – I’m not saying yes or no – but every time we have, it doesn’t work. That’s just my opinion.”

The next morning, Anthony Seibold – who had been on the other side of an interpretation the weekend before – wanted to point out how hard the refs had it, and that players knew that there was an advantage to be gained and could always play up to it.

“I think the biggest challenge for the referees and officials is if someone is through the line,” explained.

“Jared did a good job – Dylan Edwards is working really hard, so I’m not saying he did this – but sometimes you see a defender literally run into the back of an attacking player.

“That didn’t happen last night so I want to be really clear on that, but they’re hard for the referees, touch judges and the Bunker to rule on. 

“It’s a tough a job, right? They don’t need an extra person shouting from the rooftops on what I think, they’re doing the best that they can. But it’s hard sometimes because defenders will play for penalties and that’s the grey (area) for officials.”

Graham Annesley, who writes the rules and fronts the media frequently on them, had already admitted that the call on Thursday night was wrong.

“Last week I supported two obstruction rulings by the Bunker,” he said on Friday morning.

“I talked about the need for the lead runner to continue through the defensive line, and for the play not to be turned back through the gap created by a collision with a defender.

“Neither of these factors were present in last night’s decision (on the Waerea-Hargreaves incident).

“In the circumstances, the Bunker does have discretion to consider whether a defender could have prevented the try.

“In my opinion, the try would have been scored regardless and the on-field decision should not have been overturned.”

Without going full Alcoholics Anonymous, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

Annesley, to his credit, is happy to front up when these things go wrong and say as much, and generally does it in a way that doesn’t also throw his refs under the bus.

But in doing so, he proves that the rules are wide open to whatever the Bunker sees, which can often be wildly different from what everyone else sees.

It’s not so much that the law is an ass, but that the law is inspecific about what equine is in question at all. Fans love the idea of consistency, but when you have interpretation, consistency is unattainable.

We thought that bringing in tighter policing of these things with the Bunker would lead to greater clarity, but (as anyone could have told you in advance, had they put their mind to it) the more you look at a grey area, the greyer it gets.

Soccer struggles to deal with an offside law that has three moving parts: the attacker, the defender and the ball.

Cricket struggles with LBW, which has just two: the ball and the batter.

Rugby league is faced with far, far more than that. It’s an impossible task and bound to go wrong a lot of the time and, crucially, we only really care in the most heightened moments.

Ivan Cleary knows more about this than almost anyone, and Anthony Seibold the same. Both think it’s too difficult to police and anyone asking for consistency isn’t going to get it. Maybe we should all take that approach.

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