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|
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|
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.