We have to talk about referees. By which I don’t mean that I want to talk about referees, or that we haven’t already talked too much about referees, or even that talking about referees is likely to prove of any particular use.
I just mean, we literally have to talk about referees: there seems to be no way to avoid it, especially now the different sports are tag-teaming us. As soon as we start to get over a howler in rugby league, rugby union throws one in our faces, and vice versa.
If Ben Cummins had not suffered a crippling attack of indecision as Canberra attacked the Roosters’ line on Sunday night, it is possible that the Raiders still might not have won. There are no certainties. But any reasonable person would have to admit that – with scores level and less than ten minutes remaining – having a full set of six ten metres out from the opposition’s line provides the sort of prime opportunity that teams pray falls their way.
Still, plenty of people will try to write off the blunder as inconsequential, either through a laudable desire to take the heat off beleaguered officials, or a less-laudable desire to deny that the Roosters’ victory was in any way aided by erroneous officiating. There are a number of stock phrases that will get a workout in coming days.
“The Raiders had their chances”
This is the kind of cliche that is both trivially true and obviously irrelevant. Yes, the Raiders had their chances. And so did the Roosters.
If a team “has its chances” during a game, does this mean any further chances can be taken from them for any reason whatsoever, without the right to complain about it?
If Latrell Mitchell had thrown a gridiron spiral fifty metres forward to James Tedesco, who was waiting in the in-goal to score the winning try, should we accept the referees’ decision to allow that because the Raiders had their chances?
Every team has its chances in every game: the referees are there to ensure they get the chances they should get and don’t get the chances they shouldn’t get.
“Referees don’t decide games”
Well, this one is just untrue, isn’t it? To believe that referees lack the power to decide games would be to believe either that they are infallible – there’s a non-starter – or that somehow the intervention of a referee does not alter the course of a game in any way.
It’s probably true that referees don’t decide most games: probably most games would’ve ended up with the same result even if the refs were perfect. But if a try being scored or not scored, or a penalty being awarded or not awarded, can mean the difference between a side winning or losing, and if it is in within the bounds of possibility that a referee can sometimes make a decision that results in a try or penalty being given or not given wrongly, then it’s obvious that referees can decide games, and that occasionally, they do.
We can never be sure of when a referee has or hasn’t decided a game, of course.
As with the 2019 grand final, the crucial decision going the other way rarely means certainty as to what would otherwise have happened. But that there are teams who have lost games they would’ve won if it weren’t for a refereeing error: of that we can be sure.
“Players make mistakes too: why should we focus on the referees?”
This is one of the most common modern defences of erring refs, and it’s one of the most irritating, because it ignores some fundamental truths about sport.
First of all, yes, players do make mistakes. And contrary to the belief that while referees are pilloried for errors, players are sweetly indulged, the latter frequently cop the harshest of treatment for their stumbles. Sometimes they get dropped.
Sometimes they get savaged by their own fans. Sometimes they get haunted for life: ask Neville Glover or Phil Duke how forgiving the world is of players who make mistakes.
Not every mistake has drastic consequences for a player, but that’s true for referees too. The numerous missed high tackles and forward passes in Sunday night’s decider will never hang over the officials’ heads, any more than their decision to allow Jared Waerea-Hargreaves to charge into every tackle with his forearm raised like a man covering his face to enter a burning building.
It’s also true that, while a referee’s job is extremely difficult, it’s still easier than a player’s. Catching a bomb remains harder than watching a player try to catch a bomb and saying who touched the ball first. Stopping a 110kg forward at full speed is harder than saying whether the guy stopping him hit him in the head or not.
But the most frustrating part of the “players make mistakes too” argument is this: players’ mistakes are supposed to be a part of the game. A sporting contest is an exercise in seeing what two sides do right, and what they do wrong, and how the rights and wrongs stack up against each other.
At its most basic, a game answers the question, “which of these two teams will play this game better today?” Any errors made by either team form an inherent part of that equation.
A referee’s errors, on the other hand, distort the equation. A game tests the abilities of the players, not of the referees. An ideal game is one which is decided by the accumulated good and bad plays of the two sides, and the job of the refs is to observe those good and bad plays, and ensure they are appropriately rewarded and/or punished.
As soon as a referee makes a mistake, the course of the game has been altered from what it should have been.
Which is inevitable: referees will make mistakes, and we have to accept that reality. But it’s no good pretending that a referee’s mistake is just like a player’s mistake: they are fundamentally different elements in the dynamic of a game.
Fans know this – they know that a player’s mistake is part of the game’s equation, and a ref’s is a distortion of it – and that’s why they react differently.
It’s also why, as inevitable as mistakes are, we should always be able to point them out when they happen, in the hope that as time goes on they get progressively just a little less frequent. Not to mention the basic virtue that lies in describing reality accurately.
Let’s be very, very, painfully clear: as prone as I am, like most people, to emitting a heated expletive regarding match officials during the course of a game, personal abuse and harassment of referees is reprehensible.
Actual threats, such as have been reported of late, are disgusting. I don’t even care for fans booing refs during games, which I find as classless as it is pointless.
I beg of the great Australian public: don’t be cruel, don’t be vicious, have regard to the humanity of officialdom.
For referees are human, and will always make mistakes, and believing mistakes can be eradicated is delusional.
But it’d be just as delusional to believe that a sport can be conducted without anyone saying anything when refs stuff up. And there has to be some comfortable middle ground somewhere between, on the one hand sending death threats to a touch judge and on the other, declaring that nobody has any right to critique a referee’s job performance.
Indeed, insisting on going to one extreme simply makes it more likely that people will end up kicking back and going to the other.
The fact is, Canberra might have won that grand final if the refs had got it right. We don’t have to get hysterical about it, but we have to be honest about it.
It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. Fans must accept that referees will make mistakes. Refs must accept that fans aren’t going to like it when they do.
And worst of all, everyone must accept that the Roosters are premiers again.