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An Origin appearance is also a thrill for officials

Could we be seeing this in the AFL one day? (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Renee McKay)
Expert
26th May, 2015
15

There are only a handful of truly prestigious appointments available each year for an NRL match official. Tonight is one of those events.

Three State of Origin games, a Test match and a grand final are the most sought after matches for the NRL referees in 2015.

Follow live:
2015 State of Origin live scores – Game 1

Selection for one of these games means you are considered the best available at that time by the game’s hierarchy. It is a real buzz to be told you’ll be part of an event like Origin.

You know that you’ve earned the call up and it earns added respect among your peers.

More 2015 State of Origin:
» State of Origin news
» State of Origin fixtures
» State of Origin teams
» Why NSW will win Game 1
» Why Queensland will win Game 1
» State of Origin 2015: Game 1 preview
» PRICHARD: Maroons to win Origin 1

This means that your form has been good through the opening rounds of the season, you have given your best in training and game reviews, and most importantly, the Elite Performance Manager trusts you not to stuff up.

And there is always a chance of a stuff up. Every decision that is made by the officials will be scrutinised by more than a dozen camera angles, over 80,000 fans at the ground and millions around the country and the world who are tuned in to the broadcast.

If a 50-50 call goes one way or the other – and there will be a lot of them – you can guarantee the Queensland or New South Wales fans will be aggrieved.

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“Cheats!” they will cry out over Twitter and Facebook, not to mention the thousands of pubs and clubs where parochial fans will want to throw more than plastic bottles at the big screens.

But that’s all part of it. That’s rugby league at its most competitive. Any small error can turn a game, and in Origin, where the margins can be so narrow across a series let alone a game, it’s all the more important to have the best people in the job out in the middle.

My first State of Origin match was Game 2 of the 2011 series. Queensland had won the first match and we were at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium for the second game, with New South Wales needing to win to keep the series alive.

At that stage the Maroons had already strung together several series in a row. It was also the match where Paul Gallen played 80 minutes at prop forward in an Origin performance that went down in folklore.

In fact that performance was almost prophesied prior to the kick off. At the toss of the coin the winning captain can choose an end to defend, or choose to kick off.

Paul Gallen won the toss and elected to defend the southern end of the ground. Referee Tony Archer came into the change room and informed us of the result.

Fellow referee Shayne Hayne declared: “He wants the first hit-up”. It was at that point that the gravity of my role in the contest finally started to dawn on me. This is no ordinary game of football. This is Origin.

As it happened the Queenslanders kicked to the right of the posts where Paul Gallen was waiting to receive the ball from his halfback. He took it and charged into the line, the impact only ten metres from where I stood with my flag, in this surreal environment of colour and noise.

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When that stadium is full of passionate fans it is a fantastic atmosphere. A grand final has a large portion of neutrals. At a State of Origin game the fans are either Blue or Maroon – there is no middle ground.

After the first try my good mate Paul Holland walked around behind the posts at the southern end of the ground as I was looking towards the northern end of Blatchey’s Blues supporters in their wigs and t-shirts.

It was to date the biggest supporter group at a game and the sea of blue had no gaps to be seen – it was a sheet of colour.

Dutchy was already a veteran of many Origin games and said to me: “It’s good, isn’t it?” Damn right it’s good – it’s what you spend your life in refereeing dreaming of experiencing.

That game was William Hopoate’s debut and in the second half he scored an amazing try in the corner. At that time there was no ‘live decision’ prior to referral to the video referee so I never got the opportunity to say ‘that’s a try’ – it was just sent upstairs with a ‘check it’.

Many people don’t like the officials having to make a decision but it does prove your judgment is good when you can refer a close call as the right call.

New South Wales went on to win that match and send the series to a deciding game at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.

Those moments in that match are some memories that I will carry for the rest of my life. It’s a privilege to have been part of it.

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Origin is such a tight arm wrestle for most of the match, with the best players in their states often cancelling the other out in terms of strength and skill, where the metres up the middle are tough to earn and a good kick is essential to give your team a chance to apply some pressure.

The game moves back and forth in this way until one of two things occur: fumbles or penalties. A wayward pass, a knock on or a penalty conceded immediately enables a team to go on the attack. The officials don’t want to get any of that wrong.

They want the players to make the mistakes and for themselves not be the story of the game.

The referees are prepared. Tonight Gerard Sutton and Ben Cummins will control the game, assisted by Nick Beashel and Brett Suttor as their touch judges.

They will have gone through every aspect of the looming contest as they had the previous weekend free of NRL appointments to rest up.

This brings me to a controversial aspect of the match officials’ preparation that doesn’t wash well with people when I tell them about it. There are 17 players on each team and the officials know the games of every one of them.

Put simply, if a league journo has written it in a newspaper then the referees already know about it. There are positives and negatives and it helps the officials facilitate a fair and entertaining contest.

For example Robbie Farah and Cameron Smith are both capable of kick 40/20s from acting half. Many hookers in the game are not but these blokes are, so when a tackle is made close to the 40-metre line the officials will be prepared to rule on the kick attempt.

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Likewise a Cooper Cronk switch kick to the middle of the park. The officials will know where Billy Slater is before the ball is kicked so that they can judge whether his run has been impeded.

They know that Michael Jennings will take a pass turned back inside and head on an angled run back in field taking advantage of his forwards potentially obstructing tacklers.

On the other side of the ledger are the players likely to infringe in the ruck.

Aaron Woods can be a pest in the play the ball, trying to milk penalties by locking in the tackler or feign that the ball has been stripped. They know all about him because they are professionals and spend hours studying what to expect.

“That’s going into the game with pre-conceived ideas!” you might be screaming.

Well, sort of. I call it preparing themselves the best they possibly can. And who wouldn’t want to be prepared as well as possible for the cauldron that is State of Origin.

People have told me the refs shouldn’t penalise anyone and just let the game ‘flow’. Well I’ve got news for you – the players will never allow the game to flow.

The defenders don’t want a flowing attack. They will lie over a tackled player for as long as it takes before the whistle is blown and once it is they will say to themselves: “Ok, we know how long we can lie there now”.

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The referees will establish a standard and with any luck it will be better than the Tigers versus Cowboys on Saturday night.

A quicker play the ball means a better chance of attacking football and in Origin, on rugby league’s biggest stage in front of its biggest audience, entertainment is the name of the game.

The officials are there to play their part in making that happen. Just so long as the video referees bring their A-game as well!