Another day, another drama in the NRL.
While the jersey situation in Manly has been unique, it helps make the case that rugby league is only as bad as its last bad day.
Come the next horrible refereeing call, bad judiciary decision or ideological debate we’ll forget all about what has outraged us this week.
Largely, that’s a good thing. Most of the things we get worked up about never really deserved that much attention in the first place.
But sometimes, it’s a bad thing. We shouldn’t forget what the Manly jersey situation has taught us, but we will. Because that’s what happens when you get too scared of upsetting either side of a divisive issue – you hope that time will help people forget, and you remind yourself to never take a risk in reminding them again.
But long before the Manly jersey, back in the long-forgotten era of… Monday… there was another divisive issue dominating the discourse – the scourge and ineptitude of those villainous referees.
The theory of relativity
You could argue that appalling calls are made each and every week – but few of them relate so heavily to the outcome of a game as they did on Sunday.
Alexander Pope once said ‘to err is human, to forgive is divine’. It’s clear that Pope never watched the NRL or anticipated the Bunker – and how could he? He’s been dead a couple of hundred years.
But divine forgiveness? There’s a chance many Tigers fans are questioning the existence of a supreme being after Sunday, if not every week.
Remember in 2018 when Canberra were beaten by the Sharks, thanks in part to an incorrect call by the touch judge? Remember the infamous seven-tackle set that ended the Cowboys’ season in 2013? Dean Whare scoring a try that was reviewed and paid despite his other hand being out of play? Even the overturned six again call in the 2019 grand final. Every club has their own examples.
I’m sure you remember, and you may have been angry – but are you still? Probably not.
You’ve accepted that the past cannot be changed without a DeLorean or a time-travelling microwave, and even then you’d probably prefer to look at dinosaurs or play the lottery than try and impact one decision in a game of rugby league.
What about on Saturday, when Matt Moylan was awarded a try despite a lack of clear evidence the ball had touched the line? Most, including myself, were happy for it to be paid – but had it been the match-winning play at the end of the game it would have been scrutinised to death, and people still would have come to their own conclusions.
But because it took place in the first half and the Sharks ultimately lost it’s barely even a footnote.
There is a long list of similar incidents every week, in every game, every season, against every team (though not according to some). Even Sunday’s call, as terrible as it was, is likely to be forgotten. Thanks to a terrible week for rugby league news, it largely already has.
Are you smarter than an NRL referee?
The fact that stands out to me from the game and the Monday media conference led by Graham Annesley is that not enough of us know the rules. Not as well as we think we do, anyway.
And it’s not just the regular spectators who were left befuddled by the final moments of Round 19.
Commentators, coaches and captains have all offered opinions on the events that closed the game and the biggest finding from that analysis is that even they’re not sure.
Tigers assistant coach Ben Gardiner wasn’t aware, even the players on the field didn’t seem to know what was going on – evidenced by James Tamou’s insane attempt to challenge the outcome of the challenge.
Annesley talked about the whistles referees use to close the game, and that one of them is different to the other. While we can listen back and go ‘oh I hear it now’, how many of us ever truly listen for two distinct parts? In the atmosphere of an intensely-finished NRL game, can the captains even hear them?
What clearly needs to be improved is the communication of these rules with context, not just to the regular joes who probably won’t read them and fire up anyway, but to the clubs and the media – so at the very least we all have a frame of reference and the frantic hyperbole can end.
The repeated phrase from Annesley’s conference was ‘you won’t find a specific rule in black and white’.
If these incidents aren’t dealt with in the plainest terms, situations are only going to get worse. If the rule is not there ‘in black and white’ and you then have to spend 50-minutes trying to unconvincingly explain it, that’s a bad rule.
The most impactful rules, the ones that affect the most high-stakes moments, should be a priority when it comes to spelling things out in no uncertain terms. This shouldn’t be reactionary, waiting until things go wrong – it should be proactive, seeking to ensure that those who need to know the rules truly do, and anticipating the issues a limited public understanding can create.
If nothing is black and white, we’re just left with a lot of grey area, and that doesn’t make for good sport. I’ve never read 50 Shades of Grey, but it seems like a tale where a lot of people get screwed, much like Tigers fans this week.
Annesley correctly claimed that no two instances are the same – but solid, clearly explained rules can ensure that the processes and aftermath are starting on the right foot consistently.
The great NRL conspiracy
The post-match press conferences were remarkably sedate on Sunday given the way the game ended. There was no slander against the referees and a refusal to get angry by either side.
While we haven’t seen anything recently that gets to the levels of Geoff Toovey’s calls for an investigation, there’s still a big belief in corners of the game that certain clubs get favours from certain referees and that the game is skewed.
“If anyone feels there’s a conspiracy going on – how could there be in this environment?” Annesley asked incredulously on Monday.
If there is in fact a conspiracy, Annesley gives the impression of someone who wouldn’t know about it. This is no slight on the man. He has the charisma of an 80’s high-school principal and the soft features of a beloved grandparent – at least he’s big enough to go out there and face up to everyone else’s mistakes.
Who'd want to be an NRL official?
Is that part of the solution? Should we bring refs out to explain themselves when all is said and done?
It doesn’t have to be after the game, but hearing the people with the whistles explain decisions based on context and the (clearly-stated) rules, or even admit to mistakes they’ve made and explain how they came to be, would significantly decrease our willingness to buy into rage while offering no solutions.
When a player has a bad game or makes a costly error, they’re rallied around by the group. Where does the support come from for referees? While Annesley broke down the Sunday situation well, he drew a line between Chris Butler and Ashley Klein, throwing the latter under the bus like an unwanted Christmas tree.
Accountability is important, but how far does it need to go when there are a number of failings that can’t be attributed to just one person? We can’t say he didn’t deserve the criticism, but in roles where you’re subject to that kind of scrutiny, one hopes they are adequately supported. Should everything he's done right as a long-serving custodian of the game go out the window on the back of one terrible decision?
Annesley spoke about the difficulties of trying to recruit refs from juniors all the way through the grades – I wonder why?
We’re regularly reading stories about the horrors junior refs are encountering on the sidelines, and it’s not hard to understand why many of them don’t go through. To look at the thankless life of an NRL ref these days would be just as big a deterrent for anyone considering taking the first steps, which means we become even more reliant on the ones we have, who we push further away from empowerment with every rule change and subsequent outrage.
Raising the referee’s pay packet might see more people aspire, but it’s no guarantee that the quality will improve. Balancing these interests in the future is a huge challenge for the game but it’s vitally important.
Parochialism and disappointment are the life-blood of any sports fan, and we’re always going to feel wronged by calls of a magnitude we perceive as incorrect (read: against our team).
But as this week has demonstrated, even the worst issues, like the massive ones that arose on Sunday, can vanish from the face of the earth within 24 hours, provided the next outrage comes along.
Sadly, this quick focus from one outrage to the next means that no issue is really given the proper time it needs for a response to be thoughtfully formulated, in a consultative manner, and then implemented, and as we’ve seen in multiple instances this week, it runs a real risk of damaging the game.
Ultimately, we could just set up lasers in the sideline and tryline paint, we could put sensors in the balls and on shoes and even let robots officiate.
But as we saw this week in Russia, robots have a lot less patience for us in high-stakes circumstances than their fallible human counterparts.