NRL Referee Criticism – What it ‘Shouldn’t’ Be

We are now a quarter of the way into the season, and commentary on the standard of refereeing has moved from appropriately appalled to unhinged. (Mostly biased) Fans are rebelling against any decision that costs their team a penalty or a game, without any apparent consideration of whether it was actually correct, or a decision that a reasonable man (neutral fan) would deem to be, on balance, correct.

Now, you know that I love getting on the referees’ back as much as anyone about poor decision-making, knowledge of the rules, and inconsistency. Probably more! Generally speaking, the former is reserved for the video referee, the latter for the on-field referee, and the middle one for both. It’s great sport, but comes from a desire to eliminate headwinds to the progress of rugby league. And yes, the standard of refereeing counts as one of those. But I fear we are now seeing a serious bubble being formed in referee bashing, where random outrage is increasingly taking the place of cold, hard reason. Granted, rugby league fans aren’t known for their neutrality (forward, Sirrrr!), but there is a point where we collectively need to step back from howling at every decision and reconnect not only with the game and teams we love, but with the spirit of fair play and competition.

We need to (collectively) return to the roots of accepting the result, come what may, rather than wallow in the trough of recrimination (though some may argue “why change?”). The debate needs to land more squarely at the foot of League Headquarters when it comes to refereeing standards. The needle on what is acceptable, reasonable or contributory criticism has moved so far to an extreme that what would once have been regarded as rambling, unsubstantiated (even embarrassing) nonsense is now being served up as reasoned and acceptable analysis. Controversial decisions have been so ubiquitous this year that now all matches apparently need to have their own controversial officially-generated game-changing moments. The headlines demand it! And surely our teams could not possibly lose a game unless through the incompetence of the match officials! What drivel. The Broncos-Rabbitohs match last night is regrettably being described as being remembered not for Greg Inglis’ mesmerising performance in beating six defenders to score a near length of the field try, all of whom seemed to have him well in their sights. Nor is it being celebrated for the pulsating, lead-swapping examination of rugby league that it was. Instead, the focus is on events that aggrieved fans want to be controversial, but which are nothing of the sort. The strip on Sam Burgess came at a very sensitive point in the match, granted (allowing the Bunnies to win it), but the reality is that the penalty would have been given in the second minute of the match or the second last. Penalties should not discriminate for clock time (which is what happens in Golden Point, and hence my disdain for that concept). The merits of the stripping law can be debated separately and by people who are unbiased, well-informed, and who have regard for the ramifications any change can make. Some will say we’re still waiting! But we have the rule we have, and last’s night’s strip call was correct in that context. The try that only moments earlier had allowed the Bunnies to draw level with the Broncos was similarly uncontroversial to my mind, despite being sent for review for obstruction. It was gratifying to see one of the Dr’s core principles adhered to

– ie. Was anyone actually obstructed?

In this case, the answer was no because Ben Hunt made a poor defensive read and ran the wrong line (unless he has Matrix-like capabilities), even though an almost identical play last week saw Parramatta denied a try.

Both were tries under the principle that asks if the spirit of the law was upheld. That’s the way it should be with this rule, and with any luck, this is a step in the right direction. The inside/outside shoulder malarkey only serves to muddy the waters, as I’ve outlined repeatedly. It should be pretty easy – determine who the defender was targeting, and therefore the line they were were running. If it’s not on the same plane as the ball, then its goodnight Irene. The sort of extrapolating criticism is actually the same dynamic that causes financial bubbles crises by the way, where demand curves slope the ‘wrong’ way, and where common sense generally leaves the building. I get it that it’s human nature to be swept up in the wide arc that swings from euphoria to crisis and back again.

As if passionate, blinkered rugby league fans ever stood a chance of avoiding the traps of human emotion and behaviour that affect us all! Well, we’re not immune, so it’s far better to reboot the direction and voracity of the criticism (at the door of NRL headquarters), while remaining true to the idea of constructively criticising when applicable. We’ll all live longer!

Last night was not an occasion to go over the top with referee criticism, and the (losing) Broncos’ coach Anthony Griffin said as much.

General themes regarding referee (and laws of the game) criticism that should be adhere to principles that include: – Offering solutions, as this blog makes a lifestyle of doing – Determining what the rule is trying to achieve (the spirit of the law) – Then asking what would a neutral fan say? Bursting a bubble in the financial world is usually a calamitous event. Popping a referee-bashing bubble, on the other hand, strikes me as being quite virtuous.


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