Bernard Sutton to replace Tony Archer as refs boss: What?!?

Tim Gore Columnist

By , Tim Gore is a Roar Expert

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    Todd Greenberg should be wary about appointing Bernard Sutton as referees boss, as there are a number of questions over his suitability for the role.

    Recently, a story appeared in the press that put voice to a rumour many of us had heard, but still didn’t quite believe: Tony Archer is going to a higher office at NRL HQ and his replacement is to be Sutton.

    If Archer is to vacate the position, then an open and transparent process must be held to ensure that we get the best possible person for this vital role.

    Sutton can apply, the same as anyone else.

    If Greenberg actually goes with the rumoured plan to automatically replace Archer with Sutton, the CEO will be doing a disservice to the NRL clubs and the fans, not to mention the officials themselves.

    There are a number of reasons for this.

    Experience
    Sutton does not even vaguely have the whistleblowing experience to match the last two referee bosses. Just look at this comparison:

    Bill Harrigan Tony Archer Bernard Sutton
    Seasons as referee 18 13 3*
    First grade games 392 294 42
    Finals games 45 25 1
    Grand finals 10 6 0
    State of Origins 21 13 0
    Internationals 26 9 1

    *Sutton’s last five games were one-off matches in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017. He also refereed a single match in the 2008 season.

    Harrigan and Archer were the top referees of their eras and had huge experience. Sutton can’t make any such claim.

    The Rugby League Project shows there have been 235 top-tier whistleblowers in Australia since 1908. 116 of those have only controlled 20 matches or fewer.

    Of the remaining 119, Harrigan and Archer rank first and seventh respectively for the number of first-grade games controlled. Sutton ranks 87th.

    Of course, this experience and ranking is not the be all and end all of qualifications to become the head of the NRL officials. Previous people in the role have included long-term administrator Robert Finch and former coaches Stuart Raper and Peter Louis.

    But, to the best of my knowledge, Sutton does not have either of these types of experience.

    However, extensive refereeing experience is clearly a desirable attribute and there are a great number of other candidates that far exceed Sutton.

    Just look at these options:

    Shayne Hayne Steve Clark Tim Mander Sean Hampstead Paul Simpkins Eddie Ward
    Seasons as referee 14 16 14 13 12 11
    First grade games 328 313 292 288 283 217
    Finals games 28 17 18 6 16 8
    Grand finals 4 0 2 0 1 1
    State of Origins 14 5 1 3 4 5
    Internationals 11 8 14 2 5 10

    A number of these people are still working in and around rugby league. Shayne Hayne is the National Pathways Referees Coach at the NRL. Eddie Ward is the QRL Referees High Performance Manager. Steve Clark is the Referee Development Manager at the NRL.

    There are probably a number of ex-NRL coaches who’d love to do the job and may excel at it. We should ask the likes of Tim Sheens, Matthew Elliot, Michael McGuire and Neil Henry if they are interested.

    Odd appointments
    As shown above, Bernard Sutton had a relatively short on-field refereeing career. He ceased full-time on-field officiating after the 2010 season.

    Bernard Sutton sends off Luke O'Dwyer

    (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

    However, in the past seven seasons, he has officiated five games: one in each of the 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons. These included the 2016 semi-final between the Sharks and Raiders. Finals spots are highly coveted and the accepted logic is that they are a reward for strong performances throughout the year.

    The word I hear is that the parachute appointment of Bernard Sutton for that game – at the expense of other referees – went down like a lead balloon with many in the squad.

    I’ve examined lots of the referee records and I personally haven’t seen any other instance of a referee getting one-off appointments like those Bernard Sutton has received (though, there may be one). The question has to be asked why it was necessary for Bernard Sutton to be used in those instances.

    Further, why was Sutton’s younger brother Chris, who was assistant referee to Grant Atkins 11 times in 2017, picked in a number of finals games while Atkins was not selected for a single finals game, in spite of clearly being one of the best and top officials all season?

    These are questions that need answering.

    Appointing Bernard Sutton to be the referees boss with these questions remaining unanswered would be inadvisable.

    The Bunker
    Since the NRL Bunker came into being, Sutton has been front and centre as the “Manager of Command Centre Officiating.” He has also been the review official who does the big games: the grand finals, the State of Origin games.

    This role is probably the main string in his bow for his claim to become referees boss should Tony Archer move on. The question I want you to ask yourself is this: do you think the implementation of the Bunker has been successful?

    There are few that do. If it has been implemented poorly, then why should Sutton get a promotion on the back of that?

    Let’s also not forget that one of the biggest controversies of this season was the non-sending-off of Sia Soliola for the late and high hit on Billy Slater. As former first-grade touch judge Daniel Eastwood said, “On-field refs have zero say in send-offs. It’s all down to video these days. God help a ref who goes against the advice of the Bunker.”

    sia-soliola-billy-slater-tackle-tall

    AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

    Two people wore the blame for the non-send-off: pocket referee Chris Butler and video referee Bernard Sutton.

    Sutton was the senior review official for the game and – while every single person I’ve talked with thought it was a clear send-off – he went with a report instead.

    It’s hard to make a case for Sutton learning from this perceived error as, on his return from suspension, he was one of the review officials who believed Paul Gallen had no case to answer for his reckless coat hanger on Shannon Boyd.

    Given these three factors, there are question marks over Sutton’s suitability to step into Archer’s role.

    For a number of seasons, I have heard about rumblings of discontent from in and around the whistleblowers and flag wavers’ ranks.

    Of course, the great majority of clubs and their fans care little for fortunes and tribulations of the referees and touch judges. They are only considered in the isolation of individual games, and then usually only when they are being abused.

    No thought is given to how hard each and every match official has had to work to get there, how good they have to be at their role, what they have sacrificed. They must be quick runners and even quicker thinkers. They’ve had to bear the slings and arrows of abuse and threats, and rise above them.

    Given the above-raised issues regarding Bernard Sutton’s suitability to become the referees boss, his automatic appointment could well cause significant upset among the squad of officials.

    We, the fans, should care about the environment the referees have to work in. Theoretically, if they are unhappy and feel unsupported, how can we expect them to do their jobs well?

    And let’s take this right back to personal interest: if the referees do their jobs badly, it could affect the fortunes of your team.

    Should Tony Archer leave the role, Todd Greenberg needs to hold an open and transparent process to find his replacement. A process that opens applications to all who wish to put their case forward, run by a panel of suitably qualified people.

    The NRL needs the best person in the role. You need to get us that person, Mr Greenberg. It’s your job.

    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.