Confusion reigns in Super League as new rules and legal case cast shadow

<span>Warrington’s Nu Brown and Hull FC’s Ben Currie clash head last month in a game in whicht the Wolves player’s sending-off proved contentious.</span><span>Photograph: Richard Sellers/PA</span>
Warrington’s Nu Brown and Hull FC’s Ben Currie clash head last month in a game in whicht the Wolves player’s sending-off proved contentious.Photograph: Richard Sellers/PA

It was in the depths of winter, when rugby league was far from the forefront of most people’s minds, when someone prominent within the game made a remark to me. The sport has been gearing up for its most important season in modern times under the leadership of IMG, with more buzz than ever in the weeks leading up to the new Super League campaign, more publicity and coverage than the sport has ever had, and the undoubted feeling that the mainstream attention rugby league has craved for so long was finally arriving. “This buzz is like nothing we’ve experienced before,” they said. “But you watch: we’ll find a way to mess it up. It’s the rugby league way.”

Three weeks into the new campaign those words weigh on the mind. The IMG buzz has given way to an unhealthy amount of infighting among administrators, players and supporters but, more importantly, utter confusion is casting a shadow over what should be the beginning of a bright new era for rugby league.

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This has been coming for some time. Since it was confirmed that the Rugby Football League was to face legal action from a group of former players who allege the sport was negligent in failing to take action to protect them from serious brain injuries, the threat of change has hung over the sport. This year, those changes have arrived with a plethora of law amendments designed to minimise contact with the head and punish far more severely challenges that breach those rulings. In 2025 they will be even harsher, with contact above the armpit deemed illegal. The rule changes were controversial anyway, but what has followed since implementation has been a complete mess.

Several significant flashpoints have emerged in the first three rounds of the new Super League season, headlined by the red card for the Hull FC half‑back Nu Brown in their game against Warrington after an accidental head clash. The furore from Brown’s red card led to the RFL admitting its framework on head contact was too harsh, and in future accidental head clashes would not be punished as strongly. But this in a nutshell is the problem: the rule changes, and the lack of clarity surrounding them, have caused nothing but confusion. What is a red card? What isn’t? No one seems to know; and that’s a problem.

Senior Super League players have met the RFL seeking clarity after expressing publicly their frustration over a lack of consultation on the rule changes. There has even been suggestion of strikes: though it is understood that is unlikely for a variety of reasons, not least that players would be striking against their employers – the clubs themselves – as opposed to the RFL and the sport. But the fact the players aren’t happy is a warning shot to those running the game.

With the finer details of the laws changing every week as league treads the line between satisfying the insurers who were willing to take the risks of backing a game with a legal threat hanging over its head and not taking away one of the game’s major selling points – its high-energy, high-collision drama – it is entirely understandable that players and coaches are somewhat lost about what they can and cannot do.

But again, this frustration from the players underlines a wider problem that IMG should be concerned about: if the players don’t understand the intricacies of the law changes, how does your average spectator get their head around them? IMG’s remit this year is to bring new eyes to rugby league and to enchant younger viewers with superstars such as Jack Welsby and Jai Field, who are phenomenal athletes that deserve mainstream attention.

However, if someone who has been watching the game for decades doesn’t understand the laws surrounding contact with the head, how is a newcomer expected to make sense of it all? Any league supporter who still believes there is a great rivalry between the two rugby codes would argue one of league’s strengths is its simplicity: six tackles, kick and repeat. But in many ways the laws of the game have never been more difficult to understand – and that creates a problem for not only IMG but also the RFL.

It is important at this point to stress this mess is not the making of those who are running the sport. Their hand has been forced in this instance by the legal threat that hangs over rugby league. Without these changes, it is entirely likely the game would have struggled to secure insurance for its professional players this year – that is how serious the situation was just a few months ago. But there is a desperate need for clear and simplistic communication moving forwards about what the law changes actually entail. Most people understand why these changes have taken place but they now need to understand what the sport will look like in the future to fully accept the changes.

The difficulty now for those in charge is satisfying everyone. Yes, it is absolutely paramount that rugby league ensures it is as safe as possible for present and future generations, to avoid a repeat of what is potentially set to go through the courts with the group of ex-players. But there is also a need to make sure the sport retains its core values of excitement and entertainment, and, most importantly of all, that the laws of the game are clear and coherent for existing and new supporters. Without that, this early season drama is only going to become worse – and the prospect of a worst-case scenario is simply unthinkable.