LEEDS RHINOS chief executive Gary Hetherington believes coaches should be rewarded for encouraging attacking play to liven up a “sanitised” Super League.
As the new season approaches, the vastly-experienced administrator has expressed concerns about the competition losing some of its appeal.
Hetherington concedes rugby league has become too “system-driven” and wants to find ways of producing more inventive styles.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, he said: “There is a challenge. I think there is a genuine concern for me throughout the game – both in the NRL and Super League – and my belief is that the real issue sits with coaches.
“In many ways, they need to take the shackles off the players because – and rugby union has the same challenge – we’re getting coaches who are very, very system-driven. There’s an obsession with error-free rugby.
“Coaches will show you the statistics that if you can control the ball for 95 per cent of the game and you have it in certain areas of the field, you will win.
“But we as administrators have to be one step ahead as, indeed, we have for the last 100 years.
“It’s only the last 10 or 15 years where we have allowed the coaches to take the ascendancy by them not necessarily flouting the laws of the game but just encouraging the way it is played, which make it difficult to referee.”
The ‘wrestle’ tactic to slow down the play-the-ball has long been familiar and, too often, there is little flow to contests.
Hetherington added: “A lot of the techniques that have come in that are very successful have effectively strangled the life out of the opposition, the opposition’s star players and the situations which excite the crowd.
“Now, you cannot knock coaches as, at the end of the day, their job is to produce winning teams.
“But we have to be careful as a game that we don’t lose that; we are a spectator-sport and we have to be very conscious about what it is we want to produce to see.
“It’s up to us, the administrators, to throw the challenge out to coaches so we are rewarding the more creative ones rather than those that have created this ability to strangle the life out of the opposition.”
Introducing a bonus point for scoring four tries, as is the case in rugby union, would not necessarily cure the problem.
A team could easily still just produce a safety-first set with little ball movement and end with a kick that, in the modern game, is so often the assist for scores.
“There’s always the law of unintended consequences which becomes a real problem,” continued Hetherington, who has been involved in the sport for more than 40 years as player, coach, manager and owner.
“You do something because you think it is going to create this change but then, actually, it creates something different.
“The number of interchanges has to be thought through but once again you don’t want to create it so that the big guys don’t get selected; if interchanges are reduced, you don’t then want coaches leaving out highly-explosive players as they’re worried they won’t last long minutes.
“That’s why the game has got to come together – in the NRL and Super League – to be at the head of that debate rather than reacting to say nothing has to change. The time is right to do that now.”
For once, the former RFL president, who has been involved in so many discussions that have shaped the game during the summer era, admits he is flummoxed with regards what the solution is.
Hetherington said: “I don’t have the answers to what is a difficult question and, if any member of my staff comes to me with a problem without an attempted solution, then they are in trouble.
“So I have to admit that I am (flummoxed)… I’m identifying what I think is a growing issue for the sport and a challenge but it is only the administrators that have the power to control the game and we need to be vigilant.
“Defences have got that much better so it’s more difficult for players to find space than it was before.
“Part of that is down to coaching but the other part is, if you’re going to be successful as a team, you have to have a strong defence.
“In days gone by, we didn’t coach defence; players were taught to tackle by the legs so things have changed.
“But we have become a sanitised game with things like no more shoulder charges being allowed. We are a spectator-sport, we are a good spectator-sport and we have to remain a very good, vibrant spectator-sport.
“That’s why this needs a very focused group of people to come together and approach it.
“That group can’t be all coaches, either, as they look at it from a certain aspect as do spectators and broadcasters who we’re dependent on. It has to be a broad spectrum of opinions.”
Furthermore, with genuinely exciting players like prolific wingers Denny Solomona and Josh Charnley switching to rugby union, and more talent being attracted to the NRL, Super League can ill-afford to lose many more of its best players either.