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NRL Round Table: Are we expecting too much of players?

Each week ESPN's resident NRL experts will take a look at the burning issues in rugby league and try to come up with the answers. Their opinions might not match yours, but they should certainly spark further debate on the latest conundrums facing the game we all love.

Should some allowances be made for player misbehavior under these difficult bubble conditions?

Lucie: No doubt living in the NRL bubble is difficult for the long term, in no way is hub-life the glitz and glam of a Queensland getaway. But no allowances should be made for player misbehavior, they just need to get on with it. At the risk of sounding like a broken-record, these players are privileged. They still have work and an income - a substantial one in that - they have support networks at their clubs, they hang out with teammates most days, and still have the ability to play the sport they love each weekend. So while it's a sacrifice, the bubble will burst at the season's end. It's not forever. It's frustrating as a Sydney-based NRL fan to hear about these breaches when you can't travel more than 5km from your house, go to work or see your friends. On the other hand, other codes are going through the same thing but with less issues. Just look at Super Netball, the NSW Swifts and Giants have been on the road for the same amount of time but don't make a fuss about it. Players and staff have lesser salaries; with some balancing their netball duties with study, second jobs (and some had to sacrifice those second jobs) and taking care of their families within the bubble. They just get on with it. So while there's challenges about living in the NRL bubble, especially for younger and single players, we have to look at in perspective. Everyone is doing it tough, but at least they have an end date.

Darren: It appears tough enough for these young, overpaid, supremely fit, men to conform to the stricter requirements of the NRL COVID protocols for a large chunk of the year, you now have them holed up in COVID-free Queensland and still require them to curtail their normal lives. Like being a rock star, it's the money and social opportunities that make this career attractive to many young men. I know everyone is making sacrifices to get through this pandemic and these players should be extremely grateful that they can continue working and making the big dollars, but I think the very few cases of bubble breaching is a testimony to how well these players are actually doing under the circumstances. On top of the career-threatening punishments hanging over their heads, they have the added burden of knowing every single slip-up is going to be leading the news bulletins, splashed across tomorrow's bird cage liners and used as bait for clicks on countless online outlets looking for any hook. Take Bulldogs forward Adam Elliott for example, a young man who has never been accused of letting good judgement cloud his thought process. He found himself enjoying a meal in the company of NRLW player Millie Boyle. The seemingly enamored athletes reportedly visited the restaurant's restrooms to gain some privacy. They were caught and understandably asked to leave. The pair were subsequently subjected to a very public humiliation. Elliott was stood down for the final two games of the year, fined $10,000 by the NRL and may yet lose his contract with the Bulldogs. No one was harmed, no charges were laid, and there was not even a breach of the NRL's COVID protocols, but it was clearly not the smartest move for either party, especially with Elliott's previous indiscretions. It is a big price to pay for being young and foolish.

Roosters, Sea Eagles or Eels - which team will nail down the final Top 4 spot?

Lucie: Alright. Looks like I'm eating my hat. In April I said Tom Trbojevic could lead Manly "thereabouts" of a top eight finish after he returned from injury. I'm now backing the Sea Eagles to nail down the fourth spot on the NRL ladder. Out of those three teams, the Sea Eagles have the easiest run to finals with their final two matches against the dungeon-dwelling Bulldogs and the dwindling Cowboys. The Roosters will meet the Rabbitohs and Raiders, while the Eels have the toughest task in combating the Storm and Panthers to round out the season. With Trbojevic on field, the Sea Eagles have a 77 percent win rate this season and his return from injury will come as a welcome boost after narrowly holding off the Raiders last weekend. On the other hand, I think the Roosters are the dark horse of the contenders to make the top four because they've managed to overcome an injury and suspension-hit roster to make it this far. Trent Robinson has blooded the next generation of Tricolours this season in the absence of Boyd Cordner, Jake Friend and Brett Morris. With the Roosters sitting fourth, the team - led by James Tedesco and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves - have a strong chance of heading into finals with a second chance. That will likely come down to a win over the Rabbitohs on Friday night, which is shaping to be another NRL thriller.

Darren: I think we can immediately rule out the Eels, as they are currently playing so poorly that they might struggle against any of the top eight teams, and yet face the formidable top two teams to finish off the season. The Roosters will decide their chances when they take on the Rabbitohs this weekend. I think they can cause an upset and remain in the running for the top four. If they go on to beat the Raiders in the final round fourth place is theirs. If they drop either game and the Sea Eagles win both of theirs, the Sea Eagles will pip them on a superior for and against. The Sea Eagles have relatively easy games against the Bulldogs and Cowboys who will both be well on their way to Mad Monday celebrations. If the Rabbitohs get the better of the Roosters, then I believe fourth place will go to the Sea Eagles, a truly incredible effort from the club many tipped to miss the finals. It all comes down to tonight's clash of the bitter Sydney rivals.

Should the bunker only be able to rule on the exact reason for the captain's challenge?

Lucie: A captain's challenge at heart is to review a specific decision made by the referee and that's why I think the bunker should only rule on the exact reason for the call. It's a tough one because a separate infringement or error in the play can sometimes be seen in the review, so if the bunker didn't override the intention of the captain's challenge then this debate would be the other way around. It's a win-lose scenario either way. Under its current format, the captain's challenge can be used strategically to turn over the ball as Clint Gutherson seemingly did against the Cowboys on Saturday. Teams can still win a challenge for a separate reason, even if their intended call was incorrect in the review - while they can also be hit themselves if an infringement against them was shown. For the integrity of the captain's challenge, I think the review should solely focus on that decision like in tennis. The Hawkeye system is used to review a call and only that call by following the ball in that specific moment. Granted, it's far easier to pinpoint that decision due to the technology used and the nature of play. But the difference is the lead-up play has no bearing on the decision. The NRL could tighten the timing of a captain'd challenge to make it more decision-focused or the scenario in which they can be called for - if they don't want a black-and-white approach. But I'm a stickler for the rules and love a clear-cut interpretation.

Darren: One of the by-products of the NRL's constant tinkering with the rules of the game is the almost immediate way coaches and players come up with plans to exploit the changes. There have been several incidences of unrelated indiscretions being picked up by the bunker while ruling on a captain's challenge. The ultimate outcome of this development was seen on the weekend when Eels captain Clint Gutherson wasn't happy with something the referee missed during general play and took it upon himself to cause a game-stopping penalty by deliberately infringing in the next ruck. As soon as he was penalised, he challenged the call and the bunker then had a chance to see the earlier infringement and rule on it. In the end the right decision was achieved, so all good, right? Well no, because it becomes farcical when you have players effectively taking over the refereeing of the game. I, like many, already believe the fabric of the game has been destroyed by all the countless changes, having the bunker effectively review everything is a further step away from the free-flowing nature of the game we loved. The captain's challenge needs to be specific and the bunker needs to look at the specifics only.