In the NBA they call them ‘superstar calls’.
Michael Jordan benefited from them. Kobe Bryant benefited from them. Many say LeBron James was still getting the rub of the green as recent as this week.
The ‘superstar call’ is when the big name player gets the big decision in their favour when the game hangs in the balance.
You hear about them in football when a guy like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi is in the box. Ask English fans if Diego Maradona’s aura might have influenced officials.
While there have been accusations of ‘superstar calls’ in the NRL before (Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston anybody?), it’s hard to ever remember a player having a run like Anthony Milford did against the Rabbitohs last night.
I’ll start this argument with two caveats. One is that I’ve supported the Broncos since I was a kid. The second is that I’ve spent personal time with both on-field referees from last night’s game and believe they are men of integrity.
So when I state the following facts, it doesn’t come from the vantage point of a guy with an axe to grind.
But for a matter of historical record, let’s consider these instances all occurred in one match:
• Just shy of 20 minutes into the game Milford gets a penalty for Kyle Turner dislodging the ball in a tackle. Milford’s grip looks tenuous at best. The commentator says Turner “feathered” the ball, so slight was his touch. Broncos score within seconds of the penalty.
• In the shade of halftime Milford runs at Sam Burgess before passing on the turn. The considerably taller Burgess’s arm comes over the shoulder and makes contact with Milford’s head, but first point of contact seems to be torso-on-torso. Peter Sterling, a fellow playmaker who has previously spoken out in defence of cheap shots on Thurston, says it’s not worth a penalty. It’s given a penalty.
• After slotting the conversion to put Brisbane ahead 18-8 at halftime, Milford is then given a free substitute for head injury assessment – on account of the Burgess tackle. Souths fans are livid he potted the goal before being taken off.
• When the second half resumes and the Rabbitohs begin to fight back Milford is this time taken out by a late George Burgess shoulder charge. It’s a pretty foolish move from the big Bunny and another penalty ensues. Right call, but we’ve seen worse let go in the past.
• In the game’s most decisive moment, with ten minutes to go Milford carries a handful of defenders over the tryline before the ball somehow pops free and Tautau Moga scoops it up and dives over for a second serve. Endless replays ascertain Milford was at first held up in the tackle, but despite it looking like all momentum had stopped, the video referee then decides Moga’s second effort counts for a four-pointer.
When Sam Burgess blows up deluxe and asks who scored the try, referee Ashley Klein hesitates before saying “Ah, I think it was Tautau Moga”. Commentating on the match, Andrew Johns labels the decision “rotten”. Milford then converts to bring the scores back level 24-all.
• To top off arguably the most controversial NRL game of the season thus far, with two minutes to go Milford gets a dud pass from Andrew McCullough and has to collect the ball, switch to his bad foot and kick a drop-goal off balance. It’s a remarkable feat of skill and wins the match 25-24, but replays show he knocked the ball on ever so slightly when gathering it. Again, boos echo around the stadium.
When listed like that, it’s a body of evidence that’s hard to dismiss.
We haven’t even started discussing the two tries the Rabbitohs had disallowed by the video referee or a lucky Korbin Sims four-pointer that defied all but an auditor’s application of the rulebook.
Not one singular official controlled the outcome of each instance. It was a collective effort and, certainly, some of them were hellish decisions that needed to be made at breakneck speed.
But the fact remains that in each of the decisive moments, the call fell in favour of Milford.
He did get pinged for a high tackle of his own on Angus Crichton in the first half, yet it was an indiscretion which failed to directly impact the scoreboard.
There’s a counter theory in the NBA that ‘superstar calls’ don’t necessarily happen because of any ingrained bias by referees.
Rather, the argument is that superstar players are usually touching the ball most when the game is on the line, they make fast, jolting decisions, catch balls that others can’t catch, and by their very nature these supreme athletes are skilled in the art of deception.
Superstars can disguise their mistakes better than most, they attract more fouls than most, and the expectation of them exceeding other’s skill level is only natural.
But geez, I simply cannot remember another rugby league match where one player has emerged from a down-and-dirty scrap looking as squeaky clean as Milford did.
Let’s hope this was a one-off anomaly – a freak sequence of events – and that the ‘superstar call’ never becomes part of NRL parlance.
Because, while Milford should be heading to his local newsagent for a lottery ticket this morning, fans of a fitting and just result can be excused for feeling more than a little hollow.