NRL begins rule crackdowns after storm around 'illegal' tactic from Penrith Panthers

The dodgy move to protect Nathan Cleary has raised eyebrows a number of times in recent years.

Isaah Yeo and Nathan Cleary in the NRL with the Penrith Panthers.
Isaah Yeo has been called out for blocking NRL defenders from getting to Nathan Cleary multiple times. Image: Channel 9/Getty

The NRL's newest rules and interpretations were in full force across the weekend's trial games, and it looks like a much-maligned tactic used by the Panthers is a thing of the past. The only official rule change that will come into effect in 2024 is the tweak to short restarts, which result in a play-the-ball rather than a penalty if there is an indiscretion.

But there are a number of changes to the 'interpretation' of existing rules that teams have been made to get up to speed with. One example is the 'downtown' rule that now sees attacking players unable to pass the line of the play-the-ball before chasing a kick.

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In the past players could move as far ahead of the kicker as they liked, so long as they gave the player catching the ball 10 metres before tackling them. This year players aren't allowed to move beyond the line at which the ball is being played before beginning their chase, with Toby Couchman of the Dragons incurring a penalty against the Rabbitohs on Saturday night.

Another player penalised for breaking a tweaked rule was Manly recruit Nathan Brown, who was pinged for illegally blocking an opposing player trying to get through and pressure a kicker. In the past, players could stand in the ruck and effectively act as 'blockers' so long as they didn't move to impede an opponent.

Nathan Brown in action for Manly in the NRL.
Nathan Brown was penalised for blocking defenders in the ruck.

But in 2024 the practice will be outlawed completely, and the blockers won't be allowed to stand near the ruck if they're not part of the play. The controversial tactic has been employed by basically every team over the years, but the Panthers have come under the most scrutiny for it - probably because of their success in winning three-straight premierships.

Roosters players, pictured here standing in the ruck to block defenders in 2023.
Players are no longer allowed to stand in the ruck and block defenders from getting to kickers. Image:

Panthers called out over 'illegal' tactic in the past

Co-captain Isaah Yeo is often spotted standing next to the play-the-ball in an attempt to impede defenders from getting to Nathan Cleary before a kick. Dolphins coach Wayne Bennett was the first to call out the controversial move when he was coaching the Rabbitohs in 2021.

Speaking before Souths and Penrith clashed in the grand final that year, Bennett said the tactic was used in the previous game between the sides. "Nathan was untouched in that game, and we couldn’t get near him,” Bennett said at the time.

“And it has been going on for quite a while and the game has got to address it. It is illegal. They (Penrith) will say they are just going on another kick chase. They are not going on a kick chase. They are moving sideways, backwards and they are making contact with shoulders and hands.

“We haven’t been able to get near Nathan and his kicks because our kick chasers are blocked by illegal blockers. I asked for some direction from the NRL in recent times as to what our position was and what was allowable and not allowable. Because at the moment there is no doubt that it is illegal what they do, and you need to go and look at the vision – it is all there for you to see.”

Veteran NRL journalist Paul Crawley re-ignited the controversy before the NRL grand final last year. He said: "Cleary is playing in career-best form, there’s conversations going on about is he as good as the greatest? But I tell you one thing he doesn’t need, he doesn’t need a leg up from the referees ignoring some of the tactics going on to give him protection.

“You have a look at some of these incidents involving Isaah Yeo and Moses Leota. When you’re giving kick-block protection, you’re not allowed to move. They’re moving, they’re getting in the way. These are penalties that are just being ignored. Why are they being ignored?"

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