Well I suppose it had to come to this. The furore over refereeing standards that have not so much steadily deteriorated as BASE jumped off the International Space Station has finally reached boiling point. We had better hope the NRL has some form of parachute to break the fall and avoid a hard landing.
The importance of this cannot be overstated – it is seriously undermining fans’ enjoyment of the great game, and as I’ve said before, refereeing brings the game into disrepute more regularly and effectively than any coach’s tirade or a player’s off field incident. Des Hasler was quite correct when intoning last year that the game is professional, but the referees are not.
The controversy is now not only affecting the rusted-on, lifelong, easy-dollar fan, but the marginal spectator. Losing the latter is a missed opportunity to expand the game. Losing the former is a tragedy.
Without putting too fine a point on it or (hopefully) being too dramatic, it’s an emergency for the game.
The topic of referees and rules such as obstruction have been a staple of this blog since inception last year, and a small selection of examples can be seen below:
The problem now for the NRL, as I see it, is that while they are making great strides in areas such as reducing violence, beginning to address concussion more seriously, and appear to have a new found love of tinkering with statistics in order to make better-informed decisions (which I’m pumped about), they are being suffocated by refereeing blunders of apocalyptic proportions. This needs to be addressed with single-mindedness so that the good (and more interesting) news is the focus of discussion.
Years of neglect have led to the position the code now finds itself in – that is, on the wrong side of the 8th wonder of the world, compound interest. Standards have dropped without correction, and then failed to meet that lower bar the next. Fans, players, coaches and commentators are confused, and just a tad concerned too as to where we’re headed.
In the space of a week alone, two teams have missed out on the 2pts they deserved for a win (the Dragons vs Storm, and Cowboys vs Manly), which may well jeopardise their chances of squeaking into the Top 8 when the tallies are counted after Round 26. Instead, the points were given to two teams who will almost surely figure in the Top 8 anyway.
Think about that for a moment. Finals football is worth more than just a sense of achievement these days. It’s about money – visibility, marketability, sponsorships and memberships. It’s about attracting marquee players who see an opportunity to win a Premiership (and yes, make money), and further increase the value and brand of the club. Missing out because of something avoidable and extraneous to on-field performance is not the direction in which a professional organisation should desire to move.
Are there any solutions?
Given the low point to which refereeing has sunk (and a solid proportion of it applies to the video referee), it’s probably now a good idea for Tony Archer to heed the Dr’s advice and agree to a Tuesday night presser where he can discuss the weekend’s decisions, explain away contentious calls, and even offer a mea culpa in the case of a glaring error. Nobody doubts that refereeing is a tough job, and I’m probably not alone in suggesting that mistakes can be acceptable as long as consistency is applied. However, less sympathy is given to the video referee who has time and technology on his side.
What the game requires now is some transparency into how rigorously the referees are trained, drilled and prepared. We want to know what their process is. We (I) want to re-humanise them. This sounds like a job for the Sterlo show on Thursday, quite frankly.
We (at least, ‘I’) want to know:
a) What is the NRL referees’ Mission Statement? Ie. What do they regard as their objectives?
b) Are there comprehensive post-match/post-weekend meetings designed to review and critique performance? How many?
c) I would expect that to be the case, so … what is the typical agenda and points of focus?
d) How are differing decisions for similar circumstances debated and resolved, then enacted?
e) Is there a specific game plan established for each upcoming weekend based on observed trends and/or previous shortcomings?
f) How do they ensure that all referees understand, and then deliver, any specific interpretation reached during the meeting?
g) What ongoing training and testing to the referees undertake each season – off season and intra-season?
h) What types of game-style simulation do they use, if any, to improve performance and fine tune decision-making under pressure?
i) What do the referees regard as acceptable input from (or limitations of) the video referee? Why?
j) What are the video referees’ explicit instructions when adjudicating referrals, particularly relating to obstruction
k) What specific additional training is required and provided to video referees, what group testing and simulations are undertaken, and what variance in interpretation/decision is deemed acceptable?
Fans, players and coaches are passionate enough to want to know the answers to questions like these, and more. And if they can’t be answered, or if some of the points above aren’t currently part of the program as I suspect, then we would respectfully like to know why.
One solution to inconsistency is to go back to the single on-field referee, and I have a lot of sympathy with that. Quite often we experience different interpretations between the main and pocket referees, with added input then from the video referee. At least this way, interpretation error will be reduced.
The new solution according to the media (which I’m less excited about) is spending huge wads of money on US-centric technology like the ‘bunker‘. The idea is simple enough – if the same group of video referees operate for each match rather than different teams being allocated, interpretation risk will also be minimised.
I can imagine the 3rd game on Super Saturday being subject to some fatigue and possible error (or howler of a decision), and what happens with concurrent games wanting quick decisions at the same time? The bunker concept has the potential to prolong the decision-making process, possibly with even more people than now having input into a decision, while delivering very little additional benefit. And God help us all if, under such circumstances, an incorrect decision is made.
The reality is that all the system needs is a set of professional, well-trained, and therefore, similarly-minded video referees that are not only well schooled in the rules, but who have a real sense of the game and the motivations of attackers and defenders. That’s what the ‘former player’ was supposed to achieve, though it hasn’t worked out that way.
In this respect, Gus Gould’s pessimistic article yesterday was disappointing (IMO):
“Trying to ascertain what a player might be thinking, or how he might have acted, or whether or not an opportunity was denied, or whether or not this opportunity was real, perceived or imagined, should not be the job of a video referee sitting high in the grandstands inspecting flat screen television.”
As a former player and commentator of some note, he should understand quite clearly that defenders make decisions on whether to tackle decoy ball-runners all the time. In fact, he points it out on every obstruction sent for referral. They do so because they are fooled into making the wrong choice by the quality of the subterfuge of the play-maker (and decoy). This is what we, and he, refer to as being committed. With particular reference to the ultimate hole-runner, the defender who misread the play is therefore often off-balance or moving on a different plane. Watch any hole runner straighten the angle of attack and brush past defenders still moving ever so slightly laterally and you get the same effect without decoys complicating the issue.
No, obstruction is not an overly difficult concept to grasp – we just need video referees who understand what is actually going on. You can’t make a mistake such as the Jamie Buhrer try against the Cowboys if you did. The current officials clearly need more intensive training. It is a business, after all, not park footy.
When we go back to the highly topical obstruction ruling, the simple question that needs to be asked is: Was anyone obstructed by a decoy runner? After all, that is what the rule exists for.