Remember the knock-back? It was a rule in rugby league once.
Actually it’s still a rule in rugby league. It’s just that it seems it’s adjudicated more like the touch footy rule – drop the ball, give it to the other mob.
And now one NRL referee – who spoke with the journo on condition of anonymity – confirms the view that the defensive side most often receives benefit of the doubt on 50/50 calls.
“There is definitely a shift to call knock-on quicker than knock-back,” says our whistle-man.
“But what your decision is can also depend of game factors: field position; time; score; even penalty count.”
Seems whether the referee believes the ball has travelled forward or not is not the only factor.
In 50-50 calls, how a decision might affect the result is also given weight. And not just for knock-ons.
“Say it’s 10-all inside the last five minutes and a team is attacking the line, and there’s a 50/50 call on a dropped ball,” says our ref. “The ref will err on the side of knock-on so that the attacking team doesn’t perhaps score after benefiting from a 50/50 call.
“The ref knows that the other team have to go a hundred metres which means there’s less risk of the call affecting the game.”
So there you go.
The same, according to our ref, applies to strip penalties or knock-ons in the tackle.
“Say there’s a 5-nil penalty count in favour of Team A and they’re leading by 20. And Team B is attacking but drops the ball in a tackle. Might be a knock-on, might be a strip.
“The ref will more than likely blow a penalty for a strip because consequences for the match are less. It also balances the penalties up a bit.”
So knock us all down with an XL Tontine but the square-up penalty is really a thing?
“Of course it is! Media pressure would dictate that a 5-nil penalty count is not an ‘acceptable’ penalty count. ‘How can one team be five times as bad?’ Coaches say the same thing.
“So the referee, faced with a 50-50 call on a dropped ball in a tackle, will rule a strip and make the count 4-1. Sounds a lot better.
“And there’s less potential consequence to the result given Team A is so far ahead of Team B.”
Ask NRL refs boss Tony Archer if he acknowledged that referees err on the side of knock-ons over knock-backs, and he says that “referees simply determine the direction the dropped ball travels.”
Does he acknowledge that referees garner less critique for defaulting to knock-on when there’s a dropped ball in dispute?
“There are judgement calls that, regardless of the outcome, people have an opinion on. So I don’t think it increases or decreases the level of critique.”
In their post-match post-mortem, referees are marked on every one of the approximately four hundred decisions they make in a match.
From blowing time-on to pointing to the spot, to getting ‘em bloody onside, every decision is reviewed and scored.
And with all the angles from bunker vision, even 50-50 calls can be ruled one way or the other.
And pressure’s on to get the “big” ones right.
So where does an incorrect knock-on call rank in the schema? What’s the demerit points for calling knock-on when it wasn’t?
“It depends on what happens after you make the call,” says the ref. “Say Penrith knock-on but bunker vision proves that it should’ve been a knock-back or a penalty for a strip.
“If next set Parramatta scores a try, then that decision becomes a major mark-down in your review.
“If Parra don’t score and nothing comes out of that set, the decision will still be marked wrong – but it won’t have major focus put on it.”
Major focus? Doesn’t come much bigger than the grand final.
And if you tune into talkback, tool about on Twitter, delve into the dungeons of those internet fan forums, there’s a consistent theme – what if a bad decision happens in a grand final?
Well, the answer’s with us. One happened in 2015.
It was Ben Hunt’s “knock-on” in extra time in the grand final. It wasn’t one.
And one day Zapruder film will surface from Channel Nine’s archives that will show it.
‘Ben Hunt knocked-back in the grand final? What? Are you on dangerous drugs?’
Hear us out. And do two things.
Firstly, read the rule in “Rugby League Laws of the Game 2013 Edition” which states that a knock-on “means to knock the ball towards the opponents’ dead ball line with hand or arm, while playing at the ball”.
Hold in mind the word “towards”.
Secondly, marry what you’ve just read with what you see on YouTube of Hunt’s fumble. Examine the footage as minutely as you can.
Press play-pause really quickly. Freeze frame it. Get it down to single, pixellated frames.
And you’ll note that Hunt’s feet are not parallel to his try-line. His left foot is closer to the try-line than his right. That means his chest is not parallel with the try-line but open, skewed perhaps ten degrees.
Then freeze it each time the ball: hits his chest, shoots through his arms, bounces out sideways, lands next to his back foot, the one that was behind his front foot.
And you will have seen this: a knock-back.
For it to be a knock-on Hunt would have to propel the ball towards the Cowboys’ dead ball line.
That didn’t happen.
It was a knock-back.
“It was a knock-on,” says Archer.
Not according to the rules, Arch.
Yet according to every referee in the game – and every player, fan, commentator, journo, administrator, and dear sweet Ben Hunt – it was a knock-on.
“Any referee in any grade would have called that a knock-on,” says our ref. “Hunt is facing his opponents’ goal-line. The ball goes straight to ground in front of him.
“Yes, the ball may even have travelled slightly backwards.
But that decision, and any similar ones, you would call knock-on. You would be brave to say knock-back for it to probably be proved wrong.”
Even though technically it probably was, letter of the law, a knock-back?
“I know you can be facing forward and the ball goes backwards, which should mean play on.
“And I do agree we need to look at getting back to erring on the side of advantage to the attacking team. That’s written in the rule book.”
“But as I said, it would be a very brave call. You’d be greatly scrutinised and criticised over it.”