Will NRL refereeing improve this year?
Photo: Getty Images
Mark Twain observed that everyone complains about the weather but no-one does anything about it. If Twain visited contemporary Australia he would find that whinging about the weather is nothing compared to complaining about NRL refereeing. The only good news is that someone is trying to do something about it.
The man charged with fixing the refereeing mess is avuncular former coach Daniel Anderson. He replaces the duumvirate of Bill Harrigan and Stuart Raper, who paid the price for the widespread loss of confidence in both onfield and video refereeing in 2012. Anderson will be assisted by international refs Tony Archer and Russell Smith, who will be technical advisers and handle direct coaching of the whistleblowers.
Decisions that caused widespread dismay last season included the try awarded to Greg Inglis in Origin I, the try awarded to Justin Hodges in Origin III, and the try awarded to Kieran Foran in a semi-final – all big calls in big matches that strongly affected the outcome, and all widely perceived as wrong.
Harrigan liked to centralise power, making definitive pronouncements as to whether decisions were right or wrong and assuming the role of final arbiter. There was a strong sense that he was developing interpretations on the run rather than sticking within the parameters of the rule book. The plus in this was that Harrigan backed himself. The negative was that he did not carry enough people along with him.
Rugby league at the top level is tough to adjudicate. Although it is a fast game based on fierce collisions, refs are required to make judgements on finger-tip knock-ons. The fate of a 70-metre kick downfield can rest on whether the ball finishes a centimetre either side of the line. Expansive action is pulled up because of an infringement that takes place at the bottom of a pile of bodies. Still, the game is what it is and it deserves the best officiating possible.
The two areas causing greatest angst are the obstruction rule and the benefit of the doubt interpretation. Obstruction is always a difficult area, but it often seemed in 2012 that defensive players who made bad reads were grabbing at decoy runners to try to milk an obstruction call. At other times there appeared to be clear shepherds by attacking teams which went unpunished.
The notion of giving benefit of the doubt to the attacking team during video review looks certain to be modified. It was heartening to hear Anderson say, in his first media conference in the new role, "The howlers, the clangers, came from the video refs and the adjudication of tries. Maybe that was a result of the (benefit of the doubt) policy. It skewed so far that people who watched the game, commonsense-wise, would say, 'I don't know how they got to that decision'. Maybe that wasn't a result of the person, but the rules." He went further and said that some tries that were awarded would have been disallowed by 99 per cent of impartial observers. Anderson thinks that if a try looks like a try it should be awarded, and if it doesn't look like a try then it shouldn't be. It's not a bad idea.
Of course, there are myriad other controversial areas. The stripping rule is a pet peeve of many, and it would be nice to see greater onus placed on the attacking player to maintain ball security.
Grounding is always contentious, but hopefully that will be remedied by improved video reffing. Anderson has foreshadowed getting more current refs doing shifts in the box. Not discussed is the double-movement rule, which is unnecessary in our opinion and creates a further grey area. The ball carrier should be permitted to reach for the line until the referee calls held. Simple as that.
The unpopular two-referee system remains in place. Archer and Smith will be working hard to develop the capacity of their officiating team, because teamwork in this area needs to be improved, and the loss of Archer and Steve Lyons leaves the reffing ranks thin on experience.
There is one more area of adjudication which every fan talks about, but the men in power consistently ignore: ruck speed. The blight on the game that is gang tackling and wrestling, the inordinate amount of time provided for defenders to leave the tackled player, the paucity of penalties blown for holding down in the ruck – all of these issues could be remedied by a no-tolerance approach.
How great would it be if, once a player is called held, tacklers have to get off him immediately or they are penalised – just as it says in the rule book. All refs need to do is blow a few penalties, sin-bin a couple of transgressors, and in an instant coaches will be telling their men to clear the ruck fast rather than practising their arm-locks and step-over toe holds and writhing in the mud. That would be a momentous day for the sport.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
Follow BigPond Sport on Twitter: @bigpondsport