NRL cops backlash over response to Panthers' controversial new Nathan Cleary tactic

Head of football Graham Annesley has had his say on the new ploy to protect the Penrith halfback.

The NRL have come under fire for giving the Penrith Panthers the tick of approval over a controversial new ploy to provide kick protection for Nathan Cleary. The NRL has cracked down on players standing in the ruck and impeding opponents from applying pressure on kickers, but the Panthers appear to have found a loophole.

A number of instances were highlighted over the weekend of Panthers hooker Mitch Kenny passing the ball to Cleary on the fifth tackle before running across in front of the markers as they tried to pressure the kick. Kenny's over-exaggerated run across field is clearly a new tactic to free up Cleary to get away the kick unimpeded.

Mitch Kenny, pictured here running across the field to provide more protection for Nathan Cleary. Image: Channel 9/Getty
Mitch Kenny runs across the field after passing to provide more protection for Nathan Cleary. Image: Channel 9/Getty

Graham Annesley, the NRL's head of football, was asked about the tactic over the weekend and dismissed it as a hooker simply following through after completing the pass. Annesley was asked about it again on Monday at his weekly briefing, and declared that the Panthers weren't breaking any rules.

Debate erupts over new Penrith Panthers tactic

But under NRL rules, a player who is not in possession of the ball can't impede an opposition player. As Paul Kent pointed out on NRL 360 on Monday night, the league may have opened a can of worms by allowing the Panthers to get away with it.

“They’ve created a rod for their own back here,” Kent said. “Because in rugby league, someone gets a cough, we’ve all got a cold. They’ll all be doing it this weekend and what’ll end up happening is, I know Annesley says they don’t change direction. Mitch Kenny and every other dummy half in the game is smart."


Kent added: "You watch, he does change position here a little bit. You’re watching him, he comes in, he just circles to his left a little bit. He knows the line that the markers are going to run to get to the halfback. It’s not hard to figure out, this is where he starts. Even when you turn your back, you know where the starting point is for the marker and you know where the halfback’s going. You know the line that the marker’s going to run.

"They’re all going to be doing it this weekend. Now, if you’re going to sit there and you’re going to get rid of the front-rowers standing there as blockers, bring in a rule to do that and then allow this to happen, well, it’s just moronic.”

Mitch Kenny.
Mitch Kenny in action for the Penrith Panthers. (Getty Images)

Should the NRL crack down on Penrith Panthers' ploy?

Fellow panellist Braith Anasta questioned how the referees could possibly police it, suggesting the ploy is actually just "smart". Journalist James Hooper said: "He is allowed to follow after he passes the ball."

But Kent fired back: “Ok, when else does Mitch Kenny follow after he passes the ball? He only does it on tackle five when he is passing to the kicker. He doesn’t do it every tackle.

“You just penalise him for it. You just say the dummy half tackle five you are not allowed to leave the ruck and run out in that line.

"What’s the difference between that and escorting off a kick? When you sit there and a big kick go up and the centres go down and they protect the fullback there. I know they’ll argue they changed their line, but you’re going to see guys slightly change their line here. It’ll turn in to an absolute dog’s breakfast this.”

But Hooper said Ivan Cleary and the Panthers should be praised for finding a way around the rules. “It is an example is smart coaching because they brought in the new rule and Ivan Cleary and his staff have clearly looked at it and gone, OK, well hang on let’s tweak this,” Hooper said. “Mitch when you pass on the fifth tackle just follow the trajectory of the ball.”

Gorden Tallis agreed it was smart, but said it's still against the rules. “It’s very clever, but it is still blocking,” he said.