Each new season these days seems to see the arrival of a new Referees Coordinator, or Elite Performance Manager, as it is now known. Regardless of which title they use, it has been a long time since the NRL’s refereeing system resembled something coordinated. Or Elite.
Full of hope and promise, they assure us they will solve the woes of past seasons, and we will all forget about the man in the middle. Then round 1 comes along and reality sets in. Maybe next year fellas.
It is apparent to me that each iteration of this role is destined to fail until the basics of the referees role are re-evaluated, and the perception of what Referees should be responsible for is refreshed. I believe there is a large misunderstanding in the league world of what is going wrong with the whistle blowers. It is a view that will annoy some who see players as angels and referees as Rugby League version of El Nino.
There are several obstacles impeding the performance of the NRL’s men in pink. The one that drives most people wild is incompetence. Missing tackle counts which lead to tries in knockout semi finals is indefensible. But that level of howler doesn’t occur too often. It is the minute by minute grind that the referees are subjected to , which most harms their ability to adjudicate correctly. And the calls they shouldn’t have to make which is making their job unnecessarily difficult.
The referees attention has been diverted away from the simple premise of what a referee should be. A referee or umpire is by definition someone tasked with enforcing the rules of the sport. Somewhere along the line, NRL referees were told to stop enforcing rules and start facilitating them.
Look at a 20m restart. The player rushes to the mark to tap the ball, but because he has an offside player in front of him the referee will kindly ask him to come back and take it again. Wrong. This is a penalty. Penalise it, gift the opposition 2 points and see how quickly people start making sure they are on side. Instead it happens game after game. It is a small aspect of the game, but by continually letting players retake that tap restart, you show a weakness that players attempt to exploit just as they would an outnumbered short side defence.
Giving a team three chances to feed a scrum and directing the halfback where it needs to go is ridiculous. Its more ridiculous that as a public we are conditioned to accept a referee explaining to a player who has presumably played for 10 plus years how exactly to feed a scrum. that is the job of every coach he has had. Not the referee’s. Players need to be responsible for their roles and not rely on soft officialdom to let so much slide. If you penalise these indiscretions hard and fast, the smart teams will get on board quickly and Ricky Stuart coached teams will continue to argue with refs and collect wooden spoons.
This level of facilitating engulfs a large part of the game. Directing a player “get up, get up” before you penalise them just encourages them to lay all over an opponent until they hear it. If officials start blowing whistles once you’ve deemed it’s too long, watch how quick players start getting up without the friendly warning they have grown accustomed too.
If the men in charge were able to shift their focus back towards enforcing the rules, it would ease the pressure on their job considerably. This isn’t to say I advocate large penalty counts or penalties in general. I prefer a free flowing game as much as the next person, but it shouldn’t be regarded as the referees fault if players choose to continually break the laws of the game. And by letting discretions pass in the name of fewer penalties, it places further pressure when the game descends into a slow wrestling match between two mostly offside teams who are trying to get away with more than their opposition.
It is hard to determine who is most at fault for this degradation of our entrusted whistleblowers from on field authority figure to toothless tiger. Is it a result of Bill Harrigans glory years when blowing as few penalties as possible delivered flowing, gripping matches? if so, the coaches caught on long ago and have been plotting against this zero-penalty mandate for many seasons.
I suspect it evolved from there, and the public got used to low penalty counts and anything resembling a rugby union game is thought to be the referee’s fault. Which worked in the players favour even further.
What’s most important though is not how we got into this mess, but how the NRL get us out. it is time to stop tinkering with the rules and break out the sledgehammer. Break it down and build it up from scratch.
Until this happens and the system is setup where players and coaches take responsibility for their actions, and referees are left to focus on officiating the game, no matter who gets the two points on any given day, the referee will continue to be the loser.
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A well known Rugby League writer, League Freak has established a reputation among supporters of the game for his fearless commentary and unmatched insight. With a reach that spans both sides of the globe, League Freak has produced an independent network that allows him to distribute content to his many thousands of followers. He is the owner and main author of LeagueFreak.com