Are you picking the best people for the finals, Mr Archer?

Tim Gore Columnist

By , Tim Gore is a Roar Expert

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    While Todd Greenberg is right that we need to grow up in relation to our treatment of referees, the NRL CEO should also be asking serious questions of whistleblowers’ boss Tony Archer in regards to his big last-minute rethink of his officials’ line-ups going into the most crucial matches of the year.

    Who drops their proven first team players on the eve of the finals and replaces them with junior members of the squad?

    Tony Archer, that’s who.

    Archer needs to explain why a number of highly experienced first-grade officials who featured prominently throughout the season all of a sudden didn’t get a gig.

    If we – the passionate fans, players and coaches – have an obligation to treat the officials with respect, does Archer not also have a duty to select the best people to officiate the games?

    You’re damn right he does. That is his key duty.

    There is a distinct pecking order for match-day officials. The lead ref is clearly the boss; they are the ones who do the coin toss with the captains and take a lead role on the field during the game. Then comes the pocket referee; they make a lot of calls during the game but are subjugated by the lead referee.

    Then comes the touch judges. More and more in recent years we’ve seen referees being parachuted onto the sidelines at the expense of full-time touch judges, which no longer seems to be respected as a job with specific skills.

    However, a good touchie is vital. Good speed, great positioning and top-notch live decision making are a must. Apart from speed, the other skills are developed over time, through hard-earned experience.

    So what the hell did Archer do last week and why did he do it?

    Some of his selections for touchies last weekend were consistent. Chris Butler has been pocket ref 16 times in 2017 and a frequent flag waver. Similarly, one-time-referee-but-demoted-to-touchie Brett Suttor clearly seems to have Archer’s favour as he not only gets a flag every week, he also gets one for the State of Origin games, internationals and all the big finals.

    However, they were some noteworthy exclusions from the flag-waving ranks.

    The likes of Jeff Younis, Rickey MacFarlane and Russell Turner have 986 first grade games – including many finals – between them and yet were overlooked for likes of Clayton Sharpe, Michael Wise, Belinda Sleeman, Kasey Badger and Tim Roby, the latter five of whom combined don’t have half the experience of the former trio.

    This isn’t to say that new blood can’t be brought through in the finals – of course it must. But all at once? At what point can that be argued to be good management? Especially at a time of year when the spotlight is squarely on the officials’ performance.

    However, these are not the most baffling cuts that Archer made. That award goes to him leaving out referee Grant Atkins.

    Here are the eight referees that were picked for last weekend:

    Name Age Lead ref 2017 Pocket ref 2017 FTA Games 2017 lead ref Finals Origins/Internationals Overall games
    Matt Cecchin 43 21 0 18 (inc SOO, Test) 19 4/7 294
    Ben Cummins 43 25 1 12 27 14/12 349
    Gerard Sutton 39 21 1 17 (inc SOO) 15 10/9 246
    Ashley Klein 38 25 0 13 7 0/18 437
    Gavin Badger 45 21 5 6 12 0/0 324
    Adam Gee 35 14 10 2 1 0/0 90
    Chris Sutton 32 2 25 0 1 0/0 74
    Alan Shortall 34 0 27 0 5 0/0 222
    Grant Atkins (not selected) 35 25 1 14 1 0/0 109

    One of the key things to consider here is the age of the referees. Officials are lucky to get past 40. Right now we have three in their 40s – Cecchin, Cummins and Badger – with Klein at 38. The clock must be ticking on Gavin Badger at 45, so the younger refs getting finals experience is a necessity.

    Cecchin and Gerard Sutton are the anointed top referees of 2017, with Ben Cummins just behind them. Not only did these two do the coveted Origin games, they did more free-to-air games as the lead referee than any others.

    Free-to-air games are where the exposure is the greatest and the pressure to get the calls right the biggest. Archer puts who he considers his best men into these spots.

    Klein was at the centre of the storm during the Sharks-Cowboys game. However, these stats show that, while he has never done internationals or Origin, he is rated highly by Archer, as this year he was always a lead referee and also controlled 13 free-to-air games.

    Atkins – with 14 free-to-air games as lead ref in 2017 – was another of Archer’s best men.

    But ‘was’ is the optimal word.

    The product of the Penrith referees was graded by the NSWRA in 2007, along with Adam Gee and Chris Sutton. While both of the latter got pocket refereeing appointments last weekend, Atkins missed out completely.

    That is in spite of him doing the third most free-to-air games, after Sutton and Cecchin, and one more than Cummins.

    Combined with him being wheeled out in the Youi commercial as the face of the referees, he appeared to be Archer’s anointed leading candidate when it came to the next generation.

    Then, all of a sudden, Archer has dropped him like a stone. There were no big mistakes, no warnings whatsoever. Welcome to Dumpsville, Grant. Population: you.

    To rub generous amounts of salt into what must be a very raw wound, Archer then picked the bloke that was pocket ref to Atkins 11 times this season (that’s the equal biggest partnership in 2017): Chris Sutton. The same bloke who Atkins was graded with, and the younger brother of Bernard and Gerard Sutton.

    Archer has an interesting history when it comes to appointing Suttons. In spite of not being a full-time whistle blower since 2010, in seasons 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, now video ref Bernard Sutton was parachuted into on-field roles out of the blue. That included the 2016 semi-final between the Raiders and Panthers. Why is anyone’s guess.

    This weekend, all three of the Sutton boys from Coonabarabran have been selected by Archer for the Broncos-Panthers game; Gerard as lead ref, Chris as touchie – a role he has not performed in 2017 – and Bernard as senior review official. Ben Cummins is pocket ref for the other match.

    Given Atkins’ great record in 2017, Archer leaving him out makes a huge statement.

    And for what reason exactly did Archer do it? What did Atkins do wrong? Why wasn’t this clearly talented referee appointed to one of last weekend’s games, when all season he has been plainly ranked as one of Archer’s top four officials? What is the point of prioritising Atkins all season only to cast him aside brutally at finals time? Why were all three of Younis, Macfarlane and Turner, with all their experience, also left out?

    And why, after last week’s fanfare about female officials doing finals matches for the first time, have both Badger and Sleeman have been overlooked for the four touch judge and two reserve touch judge spots this round, two of the three of last week’s eight starting touchies to miss out – with Chris Sutton parachuted in over them.

    Touch Judge Belinda Sleeman

    AAP Image/David Rowland

    Please explain your decisions, Tony.

    If we are going to get all worked up about the coaches attacking the referees, it is only fair we also hold up for examination Archer’s reasoning for selecting the officials.

    If the furore over the weekend has shown us nothing else, it is that we need the best officials controlling the games.

    Tim Gore
    Tim Gore

    Tim has been an NRL statistician for ABC Radio Grandstand since 1999, primarily as part of their Canberra coverage. Tim has loved rugby league since Sterlo was a kid with lots of hair but was cursed with having no personal sporting ability whatsoever. He couldn't take a hit in footy, was a third division soccer player making up numbers, plays off 41 in golf and is possibly the world's worst cricketer ever. He has always been good at arguing the point though and he has a great memory of what happened. Follow Tim on Twitter.

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