Saturday 22 September 2012

RFL Disciplinary Bias

I love rugby league. I watch a lot of rugby league and read a lot about it. An overwhelming theme these days is discontent - discontent from current/former players about the state of the game, discontent from coaches about our play off system and our referees, discontent from fans about what they're watching. All this discontent boils down to one place, the games' administrator in this country - The Rugby Football League.

I'm a Wigan fan, so most of my watching and reading is in Wigan's direction, and one area of the RFL administration areas Wigan fans feels most aggrieved with is the bias we feel from officials, the match review and disciplinary panels. 

The recent Michael McIllorum red card, three match ban and rejected appeal have brought this back into the front of Wigan minds.

The typical fan view is that the RFL are at best inclined to favour the opposition and at worst inherently corrupt (here is a recent fan forum thread: A Leeds bias and a Yorkshire bias are labels thrown around.

Its not just the fans who have an opinion about the disciplinary panel following this issue, Wigan players have also recently spoken out about this issue (see:

I wanted to have a look into this issue as impartially as possible. I haven't set out to prove any bias or corruption does exist, and I want to be as dispassionate as possible - until maybe a little summing up that shows my colours. I'm going to avoid the temptation to go into to detail about specific decisions and comparing like for like incidents that have been treated inconsistently (although I have a few up my sleeve). 

What I've done is a simple numbers exercise. From the Super League and RFL websites, I've collated information on the disciplinary records of the 13 clubs to have completed in all of the past three Super League campaigns (2010, 2011 and 2012). I've recorded the disciplinary decisions as the RFL website shows them, even though I think they've recorded some warnings as 'charges' and some as 'no charges', which I find curious.

The table below shows the records for the 13 clubs (in an order I based on who I was most interested in looking at initially) for in-game calls (penalties and cards), calls that went up for review, and the way the decisions went on cases where a charge was made. Bans are in numbers of games, so over the three years (to date - information was gathered before week 2 of 2012 play offs) Wigan had maximum possible bans of 34 games for all charges issued.

Team Penalties YC RC 'No charge' referrals charges Total referrals max ban possible bans given difference % of max given appeals successful appeals Appeal success
Wigan 621 9 6 114 15 129 34 20 -14 59% 2 0 0%
Leeds 658 11 1 95 17 112 30 16 -14 53% 5 2 40%
Saints 601 6 2 65 6 71 13 7 -6 54% 2 0 0%
Warrington 602 9 0 92 10 102 21 9 -12 43% 1 1 100%
Catalans 662 12 4 89 17 106 24 16 -8 67% 1 0 0%
Huddersfield 623 16 2 59 10 69 18 9 -9 50% 0 0 N/A
Hull 631 11 4 49 15 64 22 8 -14 36% 2 1 50%
Hull KR 566 10 1 51 10 61 13 6 -7 46% 1 0 0%
Wakefield 645 10 1 56 7 63 11 6 -5 55% 1 0 0%
Castleford 612 11 0 68 11 79 14 9 -5 64% 2 1 50%
Bradford 665 12 1 45 13 58 28 15 -13 54% 0 0 N/A
Salford 650 11 3 57 6 63 11 4 -7 36% 0 0 N/A
London 598 6 1 40 8 48 14 8 -6 57% 2 1 50%

Total 8134 134 26 880 145 1025 253 133

Average 626 10 2 68 11 79 19 10

The most penalised team has been Bradford (665), then Catalan (662), followed by Leeds (658) in third. Hull KR (566) have been notably the least penalised. Huddersfield (16) have seen the most men sat down for 10 minutes, ahead of Bradford and Catalan (12). London and St Helens (6) have seen the least yellows, with Wigan and Warrington (9) also getting single figures. Wigan (6) have had the most sending offs, with 4 in 2012 equalling anyone else's three year total (Catalan and Hull - 4). Warrington and Castleford (0) haven't seen red once in three years.

Wigan (129), Leeds (112), Catalan (106) and Warrington (102) have seen the most incidents looked at by the Match Review Panel (MRP). London (48), Bradford (58) and Hull KR (61) were the least referred. Leeds and Catalan (17) had players charged on the most occasions. Wigan and Hull FC (15) had high numbers too. St Helens, Salford (both 6) and Wakefield (7) were least charged. Over a fifth of Hull FC (23%) and Bradford (22%) referrals led to a charge. One in ten or less for St Helens (8%), Warrington and Salford (both 10%) of all referrals through the MRP led to a charge.

Where charges were given, Wigan (34) faced the most possible missed games and lost the most games through suspension (20). Leeds (30/16), Catalan (24/16) and Bradford (28/15) all had high rankings in these unwanted stats also. Salford (11/4), Wakefield (11/6), Hull KR (13/6) and St Helens (13/7) figured with better disciplinary outcomes. The average per club would be 19 potential games missed through suspension, with 10 games actually being missed.

One way to look at this to see if some clubs have been treated differently to others is to consider the percentage of potential bans actually handed out. The average is 53% of possible suspensions are enforced. In this regard Catalan (67%), Castelford (64%), Wigan (59%) and London (57%) may feel hard done too. Salford (36%), Hull FC (36%), Warrington (43%) and Hull KR (46%) appear to get off lightly.

Appeals are a rare occurance. This surprised me becuase with so much objection and criticsm to the system I expected more decisions to be formally questionned. As there are so few, it would be unfair to draw too many conclusions from this. For example, Leeds have had the most appeals (5) and the most successful ones (2), but they've still had more turned down (3) than the next most knocked back club Wigan (2 from 2 rejected).

Catalan feature highly in a negative capacity in most categories - worse (i.e. above) average in all catergories shown. They are known for their physical style and this must run too close to the line too often for both on field and video judges. It wouldn't be unfair to say they are the least disciplined side in the competition, which might explain why they are dealt with more severely in terms of percentage of maximum ban they've suffered.

Leeds are above average in every category other than red cards and percentage of maximum ban they receive. Given their overall poor discipline, being better than average in the two categories they are does suggest a more lenient treatment than other clubs when it comes to players missing game time. It could be because their squad is full of 'stars' who have represented their countries and won a number of Grand Finals. These stars might get afforded better treatment becuase they will have a more positive public image, which due to human nature at the best (favouritism at the worst) can influence decision making.

Wigan, it could be argued, must be guilty of the most serious offences. They come in below average for penalties and sin-binnings, but above for sending offs. The MRP take it further, giveing Wigan more citations, charges and banned games than any other team. If Wigan are guilty of the worst offences then this would be a logical step to make. In fact, Bradford are as guilty of higher graded offences (C-E grades), Leeds and Huddersfield also receive relatively high numbers of C grade offences. However, these other three clubs all fair notably better than Wigan in front of the video panel overall and in red cards issued (combined total of 4).

Salford and Hull FC are noteworthy in that they are worse than average in the three categories called by on-field offiicials, but fair much better when it comes to MRP panel referrals. I have no explanation as to why they have 15 and 14 total cards respectively yet have only seen 12 games lost to suspensions between them. These aren't clubs that get accused of receiving favourable treatment (other than KR fans to FC maybe!) so it would seem strange they fare so well infront of the disciplinary panel.

St Helens, London and Hull KR deserve credit for good records. St Helens are known as the entertainers courtesy of favourable media attention so this could work in their players' favour when they do throw in something nasty. They also have high profile successful players like Leeds do. But that shouldn't take away from the good record they clearly have. London, well, I guess people don't really care about them that much. Their record would look even better if David Howell didn't get hungry once mid-game and rack up a grade E biting offence. Hull KR are the only team below average in every category. These three deserve to be considered the best disciplined.

I have a sneaky suspicion that it doesn't help if you feature on TV a lot - not for match officials decisions, but MRP referrals and charges. As much as this pains me to say, this makes St Helens's record seem even better if its the case. There is a camera at every game, but when the full set of TV cameras are there an incident will get highlighted more, and more slow motion out of context replays from more angles are available to the panel to make their judgements from. They're bound to find more to look at when there is more to view. Leeds, Wigan and Warrington are all top teams with big star names. They will be on TV more than Salford, London, Wakefield etc. Catalan, as well as having two good play off seasons in the three looked at, have all their home games on TV in France. This will partially explain why these teams get more citations than the rest - it doens't explain why Warrington only miss such a low amount of games to suspension.

I didn't set out to prove anything writing this, I don't think I can. I just wanted to get some perspective for myself more than anything - I don't know if anyone else will read it to get perspective. However, I do think its fair to make some loose conclusions from the above analysis.

Catalan, Bradford, Leeds and Wigan would be in the worst discipline category.

St Helens, Hull KR and London would be in the best discipline category.

Wigan are treated less favourably in big decisions and by the review panel than Leeds are, but the same applies for Catalans - and Warrington are treated even more favourably than Leeds in games and after games.

One thing I can confidently say (it hurts me to say so!!) is there doesn't appear to be a Yorkshire bias from match officials, the MRP or the disciplinary panel. 

Bradford got the most penalties, Leeds third most. Huddersfield got the most sin bins, Bradford second most. Yorkshire do get off a little lighter on red cards its fair to note.

Leeds are second in referrals and first in charges. Hull and Bradford get charged on more of their referrals than anyone else and Castleford are second in the percentage of maximum bans they are charged with. 

Salford, St Helens and Warrington, all west of the Pennines clubs, are amongst those with the best results when facing the disciplinary panel.

The French have the biggest claim for bias based on the numbers over the last three years.

The officials can be criticised for individual decisions and inconsistencies but I think this is through weakness of conviction and poor performance than any institutional bias or corruption. Their ineptitude is another mattter for another day.