SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 28: Sam Burgess of the Rabbitohs makes his point to referee Peter Gough during the round 20 NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Parramatta Eels at ANZ Stadium on July 28, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Officiating is undoubtedly a thankless task. Sadly, it has also become a dangerous one for some.

Stories of aggressive and intimidating behaviour towards officials at junior sporting venues is abhorrent and the perpetrators are best removed from the game permanently.

Listening to some of the vitriol that emanates from the mouths of fans at professional sporting events, it is no surprise that a few small minded buffoons mirror it and lose their cool on local sporting fields.

Rugby league generally presents an extremely safe environment for all involved, yet is never immune from a potential over-stepping of the mark when it comes to criticism of referees.

Despite the infrequency of incidents, we have seen NRL officials insulted, disrespected and abused by players. Occasionally, fans have become offensive in their expressions of dissatisfaction and social media allows people to launch tirades of insult from beneath a cloak of anonymity, one that builds the confidence of cowards behind keyboards.

Thankfully, there is still a general respect for NRL officials; held by those able to see beyond the inevitable errors and inconsistencies.

Yet are the frustrations of fans justified? Certainly, any poor behaviour at venues should be punished and never condoned or accepted, yet is the NRL doing enough to ensure an appropriate level of consistency and transparency in the relationship between the referees and the fans?

After a 2018 season where penalty goals began to irk supporters and teams used scoreboard management techniques to avoid conceding tries close to their own try line, the NRL wanted to see change.

The frequency of penalties would be reined in and, so the NRL claimed, a more fluid and aesthetically pleasing product would result. There has been some evidence of that in 2019 yet it appears the way the referees themselves have interpreted the intention may be variable.

With a decent sample size now evident after 10 rounds of play and with no agenda towards the officials as a group or individually, I crunched the numbers. The data suggests considerable variations in the way NRL referees officiate matches.

Collating the data proved difficult thanks to the complication of two referees in the modern game.

Thus, two sets of data were constructed. One featured the number of penalties awarded in a match for each referee when acting as the lead official.

The second, a collation of the number of penalties blown in matches with the referee as either the lead or pocket official.

In regards to head referees, there is a vast discrepancy between the nine men who have played that role in six or more matches this season.

The experienced Matt Cecchin and Ben Cummins appear somewhat in tune, with 10.1 and 10.8 penalties per game (PPG), awarded in matches under their control as the dominant official.

A second group, less lenient in their application of the rules, features Chris Sutton (12.2), Ashley Klein (12.7), John Stone (13.0), Grant Atkins (13.3) and Gerard Sutton (13.8).

The outliers were David Munro (14.5) and the ‘loose cannon’ Peter Gough (16.9). Gough has played the role of lead official in six NRL matches this season and never once administered less than 15 penalties.

In contrast, Ben Cummins has failed to award 15 infringement notices in any of the 10 matches he has controlled, with 14 his highest number for the season.

Official referee appointed to match Penalties Awarded Matches Penalties per game
Peter Gough 101 6 16.9
Dave Munro 87 6 14.5
Henry Perenara 85 6 14.1
Gerard Sutton 124 9 13.8
Adam Gee 68 5 13.6
Grant Atkins 120 9 13.3
John Stone 39 3 13.0
Ashley Klein 127 10 12.7
Chris Sutton 86 7 12.2
Ben Cummins 108 10 10.8
Matt Cecchin 81 7 10.1
Matt Noyen 10 1 10.0

In fairness to the referees and in full knowledge that the second official also plays a key role in administering penalties, the specific role of the official was removed in the collation of the second table.

The pattern was remarkably consistent. Cecchin (10.7) and Cummins (10.8) remained in sync, with Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski (11.2) and another experienced man Gavin Badger also closely aligned (11.3)

The same second tier emerged with Chris Butler (11.7), Tim Roby (12.2), Ashley Klein (12.7), Chris Sutton (12.7), Grant Atkins (13.2), Gerard Sutton (13.3) and Phil Henderson (13.4) all having seemingly received the same memo from the NRL.

Interestingly, regardless of their role as either pocket or lead referee Munro (14.6) and Gough (16.1) were once again top of the pops. This time they had company with John Stone (15.1) also blowing the pea out of the whistle through the first ten rounds.

Officials acting as either lead or assistant referee Penalties Awarded Matches Penalties per game
Peter Gough 161 10 16.1
Liam Kennedy 77 5 15.4
John Stone 151 10 15.1
Dave Munro 146 10 14.6
Adam Gee 86 6 14.3
Henry Perenara 85 6 14.2
Paul Henderson 134 10 13.4
Gerard Sutton 133 10 13.3
Grant Atkins 145 11 13.2
Chris Sutton 115 9 12.7
Ashley Klein 127 10 12.7
Tim Roby 110 9 12.2
Chris Butler 117 10 11.7
Adam Cassidy 46 4 11.5
Gavin Badger 91 8 11.4
Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski 112 10 11.2
Ben Cummins 108 10 10.8
Matt Checchin 97 9 10.7
Matt Noyen 31 3 10.3

It struck me that Cecchin and Cummins are making a genuine attempt to limit stoppages and unnecessary interruptions to NRL matches in 2019. Contrastingly, it appears Gough, Munro and Stone are applying a more militant and ruthless approach to their decision making.

In an overarching sense, the data suggests the men in the middle do indeed take vastly different philosophies and approaches into their workplace. Unfortunately, that is not what the fans want, nor the NRL.

Of course, and as with any data, discrepancy will occur. Yet, the chasm that exists between top and bottom confirms the existence of varied interpretations and a level of inconsistency that should sit uncomfortably with fans.

No wonder the frustration boils over, in spite of a fan dangled NRL explanation session that provides little clarity around controversial decisions.

We should always maintain perspective and respect the hard-working officials who do their best each and every weekend. Yet, with the numbers suggesting inconsistency, it is easy to see why some fans are pulling their hair out.


  1. Hey Zero tackle, I feel that your match centre and updated team list articles make it hard for banter between forum posters.

    It makes it very disjointed and I think fans are leaving your great site for another one.
    Just my thoughts. 👍

  2. Not sure these results can tell us much. An average difference of 6 penalties across 10 games is hardly earth shattering particularly considering the variables involved.

    The number of penalties concerns me a lot less than fairness and the lack of bias and it is this that the NRL needs to be most vigilant about. How each ref performs by team over say the last 3 years could be very revealing in this regard. Last week’s 10 consecutive penalties against Manly for instance should have been a giant red flag to the refs boss but has anyone reviewed that ?

    For the most part, I think the officials do a darn good job but I do wish that officialdom would be more open and attentive to possible concerns than they are. It seems we can hang a player out to dry for weeks for a bad decision but a referree ……

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