One of my earliest memories of going to rugby league was sitting on the hill at the SCG with lots of grown men, some in ties, watching the Saturday match-of-the-day, when hundreds of them jumped up, started waving their fists at the playing field and yelling comments like “are you blind ref” or “you need a guide dog, touchie”.
Apart from being quite scary for a young fella, these comments stuck with me, mostly because I assumed these old fellas knew what they were talking about.
I spent many years trying to work out why so many hundreds or thousands people who go to rugby league games can all see things that refs can’t when it dawned on me – our refs are long sighted. That is, they can see incidents a very long way away, but struggle with plays that happen right under their noses.
I remember a game at North Sydney Oval where a Dragons player put in a kick that easily went 60 yards through the air, catching the touch judge on that side of the field by surprise.
The ball landed maybe an inch outside the sideline and the touch judge, from at least 50 yards away, signaled it had gone out on the full.
I was closer to the ball landing than he was, but I had to watch replays that night to be sure he got it right.
Fast forward to 2019 and refs and touch judges still seem to have problems with their eyesight from play that’s in their immediate vicinity.
Refs can see the slightest issue with a play-the-ball from a good 30 yards away, yet a touch judge, in the Thursday night game in Melbourne, standing right in line with the play, could not see a pass that went at least a yard forward when the Storm scored their first try.
This is only one example of many that happen every round and all refs and touch judges appear to be affected by this problem.
There are side effects that seem to compound this problem. Eyesight gets poorer where a spectacular try is about to be scored, or where a home side needs points to get back into a game.
It very often happens that this condition flares up in the attacking 22, where officials who are eagle-eyed everywhere else on the field suddenly seem to lose their sight.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard refs say they didn’t see an incident when it was right under their noses.
Compounding this issue about refs having poor eyesight is the NRL’s reluctance to do more about it. Try review officials, aka the Bunker, who I assume have very good eyesight, are not allowed to adjudicate on forward passes, not even ones that Tom Brady would have been proud to have thrown.
Rugby league has always been a tough game to adjudicate and I truly have great respect for the men in white, as they were, or the men in fluro, as they are now.
I hope the NRL will do more to help these officials see incidents in games that are right in front of them, just so the game can show it has progressed over 50 years.