NRL's referee changes could affect spectacle

Clint Gutherson of the Eels fist pumps Referee Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski after the round 2 NRL match between the Titans and Parramatta. Photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images
Clint Gutherson of the Eels fist pumps Referee Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski after the round 2 NRL match between the Titans and Parramatta. Photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

WHO would be an NRL referee? Suddenly the toughest job in rugby league became a whole lot tougher, or at least that's my view after two crucial decisions from the powers-that-be this week.

The first move, which had been widely anticipated for several weeks, is to revert from the two-referee system back to a lone whistle-blower when the competition resumes on May 28.

The main reason appears to be cost-cutting. By halving the number of refs, the NRL reckon they can reportedly reduce their outgoings by $2 million -$3 million and ease a bit of financial pressure.

The second major change announced by NRL management is the new rule whereby referees will be empowered to award six more tackles, rather than a straight-out penalty.

This rule has apparently been brought in to counter teams deliberately trying to slow down the ruck.

Both changes would have a significant impact if they were implemented individually.

Combine them and launch them both at the same time, and I worry about how they will affect the game as a spectacle.

For 100 years, rugby league was controlled by one referee.

Then in 2009, the second ref was introduced specifically because many people felt wrestling tactics were starting to dominate the game.

It had become too big a job for one man. If he policed the 10 metres, defenders would take advantage with spoiling tactics to slow down the play-the-ball.

If he policed the play-the-ball, teams would sneak up off-side and make sure the opposition had no room to move the ball.

Two referees meant there was a chance to control both areas, at least in theory.

Now one of them will be gone, and you can guarantee teams and coaches will start pushing the envelope.

If teams are able to slow the ruck down more than they currently do, and give their defensive line every chance to re-set, you'll get some dour games with not many tries scored.

I can't imagine fans will enjoy that brand of footy. But that brings me to the other change - the new six-again rule. Apparently refs will still have the option of awarding a penalty or sending a player to the sin-bin. But it has just introduced another grey area. If the six-again rule becomes the new norm, teams will soon figure out how to take advantage of it.

My guess is there will be a lot more running from dummy-half. If teams are getting 10 or 12 tackles in a row (or even more), they'll just keep lining up to scoot out of dummy-half while their opposition are on the backpedal.

Once again, that's not the sort of free-flowing footy people want to watch.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that's why rugby league officials originally got rid of the old unlimited tackle rule, because teams had become so focused on dummy-half running that fans were complaining. Also, at what point does a referee decide whether he should award six again or a penalty? It seems to me a recipe for inconsistency.

That's not the sort of free-flowing footy people want to watch.

The other obvious dilemma is that the referee will not only now be on his own, he'll have to be enforcing a new rule basically from scratch.

There will be no trial games before the season resumes, so there will be no chance for teams and referees to take the new rule for a test drive, so to speak. They're just being thrown straight in at the deep end.

As we all know, in rugby league what sounds good in theory might cause dramas when put into practice.

Whenever the rules get tinkered with, it seems as if another trend emerges that creates new issues for the referees.

More than most sports, rugby league players are prone to bending the rules every minute of every game, because they know that the refs won't penalise every single indiscretion.

And then, at the end of the game, the losing coach will complain about a decision the ref made that he reckons influenced the result, and make no mention of the crucial tackles his players missed or the silly passes they threw.

Of course, the media then run with that and the alleged "howler" receives saturation coverage on the back pages of newspapers and in the TV and radio news bulletins.

Pretty much the best a referee can hope for is to finish a game and nobody says a word about his performance.

When was the last time you heard someone praise a ref, or congratulate him on how he handled a high-pressure decision or situation?

As far as I'm aware, nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes. Yet for some reason people expect the men with the whistles - and their mates in the video bunker - to get everything 100 per cent right.

And for the small percentage of errors they make, they get crucified.

They're a special breed, the refs, and we should never forget that we wouldn't have a game without them.

But now their job appears to have become infinitely more difficult, and you can guarantee the first one to make a mistake will be shown little sympathy.

I take my hat off to them and wish them luck. Something tells me they're going to need it.

This story NRL's referee changes could affect spectacle first appeared on The Canberra Times.