The Agony and the Irony – The Parallel Journey of Parramatta and Referees

The NRL has produced two organisations in 2013 that are at first glance quite different, and yet, on closer examination, display an uncanny resemblance. 

Peter Sterling may well have wondered, along with the Dr and the entire Parramatta fan base, what the club could credibly point to as an achievement in 2013. The harsh truth is that Parramatta has been going backwards. It’s in recession, in other words, and could use a good dose of stimulus! And what makes it worse is the fact that it is entirely of its own making. 

Similarly, the NRL could justifiably wonder what, if anything, their referees achieved over the course of an error-riddled, directionless season. It is a victim of its own short-sightedness, and an affront to the laws of compound interest!

Clearly, both organisations have failed to even tread water this year, meaning they haven’t been able to build on past … ahem … successes, so the question begs asking whether they have learned anything at all from the experience? Or are they like the Dr, who continually rediscovers his grip on the 18th hole?

In Parramatta’s case, two solid years of eating from a wooden spoon highlight a tragedy of immense proportions. And this from what was the club of the 1980s – a proud, successful team that exhibited professionalism before its time, and was a blueprint to be copied.

Parramatta have gone backwards on the playing field and crowd numbers, in many ways driven there by a divided, selfish and poisonous board that makes Federal ALP look like synchronised swimmers. Their ineptitude and desperation were highlighted in their complete inability to negotiate a simple, stable coach’s contract. What they ended up with when they hired Ricky Stuart was the absence of a contract in a ‘functional sense’ – ie. they agreed to pay Ricky an exorbitant amount of money until he found someone to pay him more, no questions asked, which is what happened after the first year of a three year contract.


Yeah ... about that contract-ee thingee

Yeah … about that contract-ee thingee

What they received in the interim (which is usually a key part of any contract) was a coach who, under his own level of stress to win games in order to resuscitate an almost irretrievably lost reputation, sacked half the NRL squad in humiliating fashion when the answers weren’t matching the questions, and who was clearly not fully invested in the organisation for the long haul. There’s no argument … He’s not there any longer … In Brad Arthur, Parramatta appear to have enacted their own version of a stimulus package, even if the process was excruciating. He is a committed man with Parramatta pedigree who will be looking to embrace his players in a communal culture, rather than a divided one. The slate is clean for him to show the NRL world why he is held in such high regard.


no no, you heard right, I'll pay YOU ...

no no, you heard right, I’ll pay YOU …

But what they really need is a saviour. Will Daniel Anderson, the man they stupidly and acrimoniously sacked the year after taking them to a closely fought Grand Final, only to replace him with an untried, and ultimately spectacularly unsuccessful associate of Craig Bellamy’s, be the right choice? After all, he has just made a meal of the referees post. And will he allow Brad Arthur the space and autonomy in the context of a meddling board to enact long term change? The jury is out on that one.

It’s odd in a way to see him return to an organisation that treated him so appallingly (though not many of us were there ‘behind the scenes’ to make studied comment). Then again, like Mediterranean eyebrows, they just can’t seem to be kept apart. It must be fate.

The decision to take charge of the NRL’s collection of enfants terrible, otherwise known as referees, was clearly his version of a gap year, because if there is one thing we can all agree on, no objectives were achieved in a positive sense in 2013. As a matter of fact, it was a bit like watching Parramatta all year, where there was no sign either of a collection of objectives or an overarching strategy to achieve them. Most teams have a well-defined characteristic, or set of them. But Parramatta? Oh well, good luck Brad …

Good luck is also a sentiment to offer the new head of NRL referees. The NRL initially made a huge mistake appointing Daniel Anderson, a career football coach, to head the referees instead of someone with their roots more firmly planted on the official side of the NRL. What he had to offer this role was unclear in the first place, but there can be no doubt now. 

He talked to referees, and about them, as if he were still a coach, and the weekly decisions on the field were a scattergun gun melee of surprises, reactive banality and dumbfounding moments (as were the post-match explanations). The referees’ grasp of the core rules and consistency were found sadly lacking, they communicated poorly, and there was no sign of improvement throughout the year on the field and in the video box. To say the year for referees was an unmitigated failure is an understatement. 

The biggest error was picking a candidate who was high profile and talented as a coach, having taken two NRL clubs to Grand Finals, but who was not well suited to this role, wasn’t passionate about it, and wasn’t invested in it. Just like Ricky at Parramatta. 

The NRL referees are now searching for their own saviour, and they have a poisoned chalice to present the successful candidate, who will need to take care bringing it to the lip while standing on the rubble left behind. 

In the interim, Tony Archer has been appointed Elite Performance Manager – because, well, nothing says physical prowess like Tony Archer, the Sonny Bill Williams of referees. And nothing screams elite performance like the average NRL referee. As highlighted many times before, these clowns need to be sorted out, pronto, because they are the game’s clear soft underbelly. The fact that Todd Greenberg has acknowledged their importance to the fabric of the game in recent days is refreshing. All we need is a bit of action …

The most exciting part of the referees side of the equation is that, like Anderson returning to the Eels, Bill Harrigan, the former referee’s boss, appears keen to return to the same organisation that (also unceremoniously) booted him out. Given the NRL rescinded his name on the annual referee’s trophy, perhaps they are sending a message of thanks, but no thanks.

The lesson the NRL needs to learn, just Parramatta, is that appointing someone to the referee’s post isn’t a formality. The role requires certain characteristics, which include, but are not limited to a passion for the job, and a desire to make it their primary career.

In any case, one can only hope the similarities between Parramatta and NRL referees in 2014 and beyond include success. Ah heck, I’ll settle for improvement.


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