OPINION: Scrap the 40/20 ball-boy clause – now
Given the controversy, confusion and significance around the crucial 40/20 ruling late in Canterbury's 18-16 win over Parramatta on Friday night, this rule is one that merits being adjusted on the fly rather than waiting for an end-of-year review.
And let's be clear before we even start – nobody, absolutely nobody, is blaming the ball boy for what happened.
In case you missed it, here is what it looked like.
With the Eels trailing by two points with around two minutes to play, Chris Sandow nails an unlikely 40/20, races downfield, receives the ball, takes a quick tap, runs over and scores the match-winning try. Only the play is called back because the ball boy tossed the ball to winger Vai Toutai, who passed the ball to Sandow from near the touch line.
The rule regarding a restart of play from a tap – which is what is required under the new 40/20 requirements, states: "Ball persons must place and leave the ball on the touchline at the point where the ball crossed the line and next to the touch judge. Ball persons MUST NOT under any circumstances, throw the ball into the field of play or to a player close to the touch line."
In a high pressure situation and with teams racing down for the restart, it is NOT the ball boy's responsibility to refuse to throw the ball to an NRL player who is calling for it. It is also NOT the ball boy's responsibility to have a finer grasp on the subtle nuances of a new and obscure rule than NRL players.
And yet, we find ourselves in a situation where the ball boy's actions can have a major bearing on the outcome of an NRL match. In this case, it could potentially have determined whether or not the Eels will play finals footy in 2014 – although significantly in this case, replays show Sandow failed to tap the ball correctly in restarting it, meaning the play would have been called back regardless of the ball boy's actions.
Eels CEO Scott Seward told NRL.com after the game the ball boy in question was "distraught". That is a real shame, and we can only hope the young lad shakes it off quickly – and it is this, as much as the fact a game can be influenced by the actions of a 12-year-old, that means the rule needs to be changed ASAP.
It's no secret that the NRL made a raft of rule changes coming in to the 2014 season, with many aimed at speeding up the game and increasing value for fans.
Some have been a rousing success. The extra excitement in the final five minutes of a close game as a result of time being blown off after points has led to some incredibly exciting finishes and comebacks that may otherwise not have been possible.
Some have had unintended consequences – and it appears the new rule allowing a quick tap from a successful 40/20 is one of them. On paper it looks a good idea – more reward for a team pulling off a difficult-to-execute play and some exciting attacking play for the fans.
But in reality the fine print of that rule has led to a number of teething problems this year, and plenty of the successful 40/20s have not resulted in quick tap restarts for various reasons.
Then the times the quick tap has come off, it seems close to inevitable the attacking team scores, the defending team winds up with a player in the sin bin for a professional foul, or sometimes both. It is too big of a reward for one good kick – coming, as it usually does, after the defending side has just produced a great set of tackles.
As a matter of urgency, the rule either needs to be reverted to its 2013 form, or adjusted so that the onus for the restart is entirely on the players. For example, if it is deemed imperative the ball must be placed on the touch line prior to a quick restart, then the ball boy simply needs to get a ball to the player by whatever means, and it is then on the player to place the ball correctly for the restart.
There is an NRL competition committee meeting this week which may take action regarding the contentious rule.