An NRL conspiracy? No, just ineptitude
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Kane Linnett is tackled into touch during the NRL finals series between the Cronulla Sharks and the North Queensland Cowboys at Allianz Stadium in Sydney, Saturday, Sep. 14, 2013. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Renee McKay) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
In the aftermath of the North Queensland Cowboys defeat on Saturday night by the Cronulla Sharks, it’s been popular to believe that there is a conspiracy against the boys from Townsville.
Certainly the Cowboys feel that way. Departing coach Neil Henry, gun halfback Johnathan Thurston and star centre Brent Tate all stated after the game that they feel the NRL want two Sydney teams in the grand final, and the Cowboys were victims of this evil plot.
In fairness, this wasn’t your standard post-game emotional whinge from individuals bitter at being eliminated from the finals.
It was a legitimate gripe against a howler of a decision, with the Sharks scoring their opening try off the seventh tackle in the set.
That’s right, the seventh tackle.
Of all the duties a rugby league referee has to perform, the most basic is counting to six.
Yet despite having two referees on the field, Sharks winger Beau Ryan was awarded a try when the ball should have been handed over to the Cowboys at the completion of the previous tackle.
Referees are human. They make mistakes. But to make one of this magnitude, in a game of this amount of importance, was unfathomable.
And because the error was so mind-bogglingly bad, it raised the question of whether it was done on purpose.
The Cowboys certainly hinted that they knew what the answer to that question was.
Their anger was compounded by the fact North Queensland were on the end of another crucial referee blunder in last year’s finals, when Manly’s Kieran Foran was ruled to have not knocked-on, despite clearly doing so.
The Sea Eagles were subsequently awarded a try, much to the Cowboys shock and dismay.
In a case of déjà vu, it means the Cowboys have now been sent home under dubious circumstances for two seasons in a row, fueling the conspiracy theories.
Though I can certainly understand how the Cowboys and their fans feel, I really struggle to believe that there is a conspiracy against the team, along with any notion that the NRL is orchestrating to have two Sydney teams in the grand final.
Is the Sydney media biased, and would dearly love an all-Sydney grand final? Absolutely. Without a doubt.
However, there is absolutely no way a referee is thinking about the Sydney media when he’s out in the middle of a finals match, and I doubt the influence of the media played a role in the referees’ inability to count to six.
Let’s not forget that we’re talking about an individual’s career. A referee is not going to make a mistake intentionally, in this day and age, when they’re fully aware that there is no way they’ll get away with it.
In fact, the exact same media would be all over them in the press the next day, so a referee is not going to be doing them any favours.
Furthermore, a referee is not going to do something that puts their career, and salary, in jeopardy.
And if you want to believe a bribe may make it worth it, I’m fairly certain a dodgy penalty or two would be more inconspicuous than not counting to six.
Does the thought of a Sydney Roosters versus South Sydney Rabbitohs decider excite NRL officials? I have no doubt it does.
Yet there is no way the NRL instructed the referees to cheat on Saturday afternoon, and ensure the Cowboys did not win the game.
Firstly, it would be the biggest scandal in the history of Australian sport. Bigger than the assassination of Phar Lap. Bigger than the ASADA investigations. Bigger than any salary cap rort.
Yet it’s not the size of the scandal that convinces me that it would be beyond reason.
It’s more that the NRL wouldn’t risk a scandal of this size on the Cronulla Sharks and the North Queensland Cowboys.
In terms of risk versus reward, what does the NRL gain from ensuring that the Cowboys go home, and the Sharks stay alive?
In all likelihood, the winning team will be eliminated organically next week anyway.
More importantly, of all the teams that the NRL wouldn’t help, the Sharks would be at the top of the list.
Every week they remain in the competition increases the chances of the NRL being embarrassed when ASADA finally hands down its report on the club, and the punishments that will follow.
The Sharks are already competing in the NRL finals with an asterisk next to their name, and the dream scenario for the NRL would have been Cronulla bowing out in week one of the finals, removing the dark cloud that hangs over the club, and consequently, over the NRL finals series.
In fact, I was actually ready to write a conspiracy article about the Sharks, and how they were punted from the first week of the finals, because the NRL didn’t want them advancing any further!
I can assure you, the Cowboys recent winning streak and underdog status would be a lot more compelling and appealing subplot for the NRL, than the thought of the peptide story rolling on for yet another week.
Conspiracy theories can be fun. They can also help soften the bitter blow of defeat for teams and their fans.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, there are no legs in this year’s theory, because it simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.
A conspiracy? No, it’s just ineptitude.
Yet it’s fair question to ask what’s actually worse.
Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.