When Bill Harrigan talks about rugby league referees, everyone must listen

David Lord Columnist

By , David Lord is a Roar Expert


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    Bill Harrigan is to rugby league referees what Don Bradman was to cricket – peerless.

    In a stellar career from 1986 to 2003, Harigan controlled 392 first grade games, including ten grand finals, as well as 21 Origins, and 25 Tests – all records.

    So when the now 57-year-old talks about the standard of referees, everyone must listen, for the benefit of the 13-man code.

    Headlines blazed when Sharks coach Shane Flanagan teed off blaming the refereeing for an early exit from the NRL finals series, and was followed by Manly coach Trent Barrett with his massive spray for the same reasons.

    Enter NRL boss Todd Greenberg with a spray of his own, fining Flanagan $30,000 and Barrett $20,000, and telling them both to grow up.

    Greenberg went on to explain referees must be a protected species, and while they make mistakes because they are human, they mainly get it right.

    Cold comfort for those teams sawn off by those human failings.

    Every administrator, coach, player, spomsor and fan are fair game for media attention, but not the whistlers. There would be a fair argument if by protecting refs they keep improving, but that’s certainly not the case.

    Enter Harrigan, who went a whole lot further in condemning his peers, adding if referees boss Tony Archer can’t lift the standard, show him the door. That’s mighty heavy ammunition being fired from the greatest referee of all time.

    Sure, Harrigan made mistakes during his long time at the top, but they were few and a long way apart.

    Harrigan’s success story had a simple formula, he was respected by all 26 players on the paddock because 99 per cent of his decisions were spot on, and he was the only referee.

    That was included in Harrigan’s spray to return to a sole referee, because two refs get in each other’s way, and with two touchies as well, today’s games are over controlled, and they still get it wrong.

    And that includes the multi-million-dollar Bunker, which wasn’t around in Harrigan’s day.

    It’s not as if Tony Archer was some rank and file referee, far from it.

    Between 1999 and 2012, Archer was a standout referee, with 319 first grade games, including three grand finals, along with 13 Origins and nine Tests – an impressive career.

    But it doesn’t matter where you look in rugby league, the pivotal area are the referees.

    Human error is acceptable to a point, but there are no excuses for missing forward passes, offsides, poor play the balls, and defenders lying all over the ball carrier, choking play.

    I haven’t watched every second of every game on television, but I’ve seen a fair bit. Not once has every player been on-side from the kick-off – not once. Yet there’s never been one penalty.

    It’s those obvious misses that don’t give referees any credit points, and lead to not trusting decisions.

    The way rugby league is played today is a credit to the fitness, athleticism and talent of the players. It’s up to the referees to lift their game as well.

    David Lord
    David Lord

    David Lord was deeply involved in two of the biggest sporting stories - World Series Cricket in 1977 and professional rugby in 1983. After managing Jeff Thomson and Viv Richards during WSC, in 1983 David signed 208 of the best rugby players from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France to play an international pro circuit. The concept didn’t get off the ground, but it did force the IRB to get cracking and bring in the World Rugby Cup, now one of the world’s great sporting spectacles