Despite all the wonderful images and matches from the Rugby League World Cup 2021 – of which there were many – the key take-home message (besides playing more international games in a structured schedule) remains that the IRL (International Rugby League) needs to get serious about neutral referees at World Cups, once and for all.
The almost complete absence of a discussion around this issue in rugby league and sports media since the tournament has also been disappointing to witness.
The World Cup Final was marred by the extremely controversial decision not to send off Angus Crichton for Australia with the game still in the balance at 14-0. Whether the decision was correct or not (and in my view it was incorrect because Crichton should have been sent-off, not sin-binned, thus depriving the Kangaroos of a key team member for the bulk of the second half), it was an extremely poor look for rugby league not to have a neutral referee making such a crucial decision.
No referee should be placed in the situation where they are making a key decision like this at international level about a player from their own country.
The curious choice of officials for the 2021 Men's World Cup Final was a case of being half pregnant – all but the central referee were neutral (touch judges, video referee) – but the key decision-maker on the field, the central referee, Ashley Klein, was Australian (born in Bathurst) and therefore non-neutral.
Jon Dutton, CEO of the 2021 World Cup, confirms that there was no neutral referee policy in place at the tournament, but rather a performance-based evaluation which therefore still permitted referees to take charge of games involving their own countries of birth/residency. It should be noted that the referee for the Women's World Cup Final, Australian Belinda Sharpe, was also non-neutral, officiating the match between Australia and New Zealand.
This immediately brings into question the issue of that non-neutrality and the influence this has on the integrity of major rugby league games at international level.
Rugby league remains seemingly a lone hold-out on the issue of neutral referees in World Cup Finals – it seems nearly every other international team sport of note has long ago made the (some would suggest rather obvious) decision that neutral referees are an absolute must in international competitions.
Nine major team sports (in no particular order and of considerably varying size) – soccer, cricket, rugby union, volleyball, ice hockey, (field) hockey, handball, basketball and netball – all utilised neutral referees for their last World Cup/Championship Final (all played within the last four years). Rugby league did not – and barely anyone mentioned it (bar Samoan coach Matt Parish, who was immediately accused of sour grapes).
The need for neutrality of referees is derived from one of the central tenets of the world's legal systems – justice must not only be done, but it must be seen to be done.
Judges, key neutral “referees” in our interactions with the justice system, can be required to recuse themselves in cases of apprehended or actual bias.
It remains something of a mystery why one of the key characteristics of the society in which they live has not occurred to certain figures based in Sydney, for these professional contrarians in the rugby league industry dismiss such talk by restating the naïve argument that “all referees are meant to be neutral”, when almost every serious analysis of the subject shows that referees are in fact heavily affected by their subconscious biases and, particularly, the knowledge (and foul-play records) of specific players. Big teams also tend to be favoured in decision making over small teams. (Both Carlsson, B. (2016) “Blowing the Whistle? A Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis of…Powers of Referees…)
That the majority of such “analysts” are also based in New South Wales appears to be no coincidence when the extraordinary statistics around referees in State of Origin since 1998 are examined.
There have been 75 State of Origin matches since the beginning of the 1998 series up to and including the end of the 2022 series (all under the aegis of the NRL, which also began in 1998).
Of those 75 matches, all 75 have been officiated by NSW referees. 100%! No - that is not a typo. All 75 Origin matches since 1998 have been refereed by New South Welshmen.
The closest Queensland came to a State of Origin referee in that entire period was Ben Cummins – who while born in Cairns, moved to the ACT at the age of four.
Even so, Cummins appears to have still been considered suspect by the NSW hierarchy having been indoctrinated by Queensland for the first four years of his life! Of 14 Origin games he was involved in during the two-referee system period, Cummins was the lead referee on two occasions only, and 12 times acted as the (less involved) pocket referee.
The effect of this “policy” (NSW may claim it was merely an extended series of happenstances and not an actively pursued policy - but 100%?) was essentially to exclude Queensland referees from decision making in State of Origin football for the last quarter of a century. The last Queensland referee to officiate as central referee in an Origin game was Eddie Ward in the third match of 1997. (Exactly why Queensland rugby league administrators have countenanced this charade from NSW remains a separate question for another time.)
The argument that no Queensland referee of sufficient quality was available in this period (1998-2022) is also easily discounted.
For example, the Queensland referee, Tim Mander, won the Col Pearce Medal for best referee in the NRL in 2004. However, Mander never refereed a single State of Origin match, even in the years 2004 and 2005 when he was considered at the pinnacle of NRL refereeing. Exactly why Mander wasn't given an Origin game has never been discussed publicly by either the Queensland or New South Wales rugby leagues.
The same people who it seems see nothing wrong with the State of Origin refereeing statistics quoted above, extend their distaste for neutral referees and the concept of being seen to be fair by objective observers to the arena of international rugby league.
This has resulted in an overall piecemeal approach to the choice of neutral referees at Rugby League World Cups since 1988, particularly in finals.
Both World Cup Finals in 1988 and 1992 featured neutral referees - 1988 Australia v New Zealand in New Zealand (referee Graham Ainui, PNG) and 1992 Australia v Great Britain in England (referee Dennis Hale, NZ). This was clearly a time when fairness and objectivity still counted for something in international rugby league (coincidentally (?), State of Origin referees rotated between Queensland and New South Wales based referees in this same pre-NRL period).
The IRL took the opportunity to ditch neutral referees in the hosting of World Cup Finals in 1995 and 2008 respectively. 2000 and 2013 both featured neutral referees for the World Cup Final (blessed are we for small mercies), whereas the IRL again dispensed with it in 2017, with Australian Ashley Klein again being appointed to that final in which Australia was a participant. The lack of neutrality continued into this tournament, with Klein's appointment to the 2021 World Cup Final between Australia and Samoa.
Perhaps fortunately, the French have an appreciation for the concepts of objectivity and fairness surpassed by few other countries on the planet; it remains a cornerstone of their philosophy and history. It is hoped they extend this record to an insistence on neutral referees for the Rugby League World Cup tournament (and Final) when played in France in 2025.
It goes without saying that the IRL needs to step up here and ensure sufficient referees are in place for that and subsequent World Cup tournaments, and that the concept of neutrality is enshrined at international level once and for all. The very first rule in the appointment of referees in international rugby league matches from this point forward should be neutrality.
Only then should the quality of the referee be factored in to determine the best candidate for the role. The current system is effectively backwards. The best candidate is chosen, and then the issue of neutrality is either applied or disregarded entirely depending on the circumstances.
FIFA has been described (rightly or wrongly) by many commentators as an extremely corrupt organisation. Nevertheless, FIFA is certainly not foolish or corrupt enough to permit non-neutral referees in FIFA World Cup tournaments or finals. The perfect example of this was during the 2002 FIFA World Cup Final. The referee for the final was the brilliant Italian Pierluigi Collina, winner of FIFA best referee six times (and current boss of FIFA referees).
The final itself was contested by Brazil and Germany, so the neutrality of the referee was preserved. Had Italy made the World Cup Final, Collina would have been automatically disqualified from officiating the match, despite being the obvious choice as the best referee in the world at the time. Such is life and the need to preserve the integrity of international competitions.
The fact that rugby league at international level remains so isolated on this point speaks absolute volumes. Neutral referees must be the first stated rule of officiating in international matches, including World Cup tournaments and finals, moving forward. This remains one of the key insights provided by the 2021 tournament.
There is also a strong argument that the same rules regarding neutrality should be extended to refereeing in domestic State of Origin competition.
The ridiculous state of affairs in which NSW has seemingly been permitted to infect international rugby league refereeing appointments needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs.