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Correct decision or follow the process: What's a ref to do?

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4th November, 2019

Criticism of referees used to be about the inaccuracy of their decisions, but during the NRL grand final the referees came under spotlight because they arrived at the correct decision.

Critics took umbrage at the referees correctly ruling last tackle after Ben Cummins waved ‘six again’. Their crime? They breached process.

This call has been cited as the defining moment the Raiders were robbed of certain victory. Such has been its prominence in the analysis and dissection of the game, a few other contentious calls have escaped attention. More on that later.

First to the outcry over Cummins changing and ultimately correcting his decision.

NRL head of football Graham Annesley confirmed after the game that ruling last tackle was the correct call. His words don’t carry sway for those who insist James Tedesco touched the ball. Incidentally, supposing he did, can we say for certain there was no Canberra knock-on and with it a required handover to the tri-colours?

Joseph Leilua

(Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The crux of the criticism against the referees centres around law 16.9, which essentially states a referee cannot alter their decision unless foul play is involved. What is striking about the groans over injustice for the Raiders is the indifference shown to the prospect of the Roosters defending an unwarranted fresh set of six tackles commencing just a few metres from their goal line.

If Ben Cummins had not changed his decision and the Raiders proceeded to score matching winning points, would the result have drawn comparisons with, as one prominent tweeter stated, horse excrement?

When Cummins signalled six to go there was always going to be a rightfully aggrieved team regardless of whether he reneged his decision. But if justice is what is sought in this scenario, could it be argued that the Roosters receiving a handover ten metres from their goal line was the lesser of two evils compared with the Raiders possibly scoring?


By arguing the referees should have followed law 16.9 is an open-and-shut case ignores how NRL matches are officiated. Despite 16.9 referee decisions not involving foul play are overturned. These include reviewing decisions over which team was last to touch the ball before going dead, 40-20s, obstructions, field goals and stripping – yes, stripping is not foul play under Section 15 of the laws. Need I remind anyone of the belated penalty given to Canberra after Elliott Whitehead lost possession, leading directly to the set Cooper Cronk was sent to the sin bin.

Decisions on restarting tackle counts are also within the bounds of being overturned. Consider where a referee has ruled fifth and last only to then restart the tackle count courtesy of a notification from another official.

Critics counter that Cummins’s change of call in the grand final occurred during live play and not during a stoppage as most of the above scenarios involve. However, if we are to follow law 16.9 to the letter, there is no distinction made between decisions made during live play or stoppage.

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Criticising Cummins for correcting his decision is to support the means justifying the ends. Yet this philosophy is at odds with the direction the game has taken over the last 20-odd years. Once upon a time, prior to the bunker and second referees, the responsibility for decision-making rested clearly with a sole whistleblower. Say what you want about the decisions of referees back then, but what cannot be disputed was the process. There was no ambiguity over responsibility for who made the decisions.

However, the powers that be, much at the behest of fans and media, deemed the game could not sit by and watch incorrect decisions stand. To amend incorrect decisions required altering the decision-making process. Enter the introduction of the video referee with its ever-increasing tentacles along with the second referee, and the rest is history.

The main reservations for conservatives who resisted abandoning the centralising of power with one whistleblower were based not on the accuracy of decisions any new system would reach – although, admittedly, this from time to time is a problem – but rather on the process for how any new officiating system would be implemented and what effect it would have on the presentation of the game. Mainly, how would responsibility for decision-making be demarcated between the various officials and how would concerns about consistency be addressed if only certain decisions were subject to review and not others. Not to mention disruption to the continuity of the contest and the reluctance for referees to take responsibility for making decisions, leading to an over-reliance on technology.

These concerns were deflected by officials and, it must be said, many fans, with the mantra that the overriding priority of reaching the correct decision takes precedence over any concerns with process. In other words, the ends in reaching the right decision would justify whatever means used to reach it.

Commentators often pointed out that if you have the technology, use it. Sometimes while lamenting an incorrect decision someone would remark, “Everyone can see the error, it would only take a second to check and reverse the error”.

Cummins has been criticised for acting on the advice of his fellow officials, which prompted the decision to rule last tackle. Yet you only need to go back to the fallout from the Storm-Raiders clash during the first week of the finals to see the consequences referees face for not acting on the advice of fellow officials.

Viking Clap

Raiders fans during the Viking Clap. (Matt King/Getty Images)

After that thrilling victory to the Raiders referee Ashley Klein was dropped for the rest of the finals after twice failing to hear or heed advice from assistant referee Chris Sutton, including an off-the-ball tackle on Melbourne fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen by Elliott Whitehead and another illegal strip by the Englishman.


The Sydney Morning Herald reported Sutton could be heard on the referee’s audio yelling at Klein to penalise Whitehead’s tackle on support player Papenhuyzen, a mistake which was compounded on the same play when Klein didn’t sin bin Jarrod Croker for holding down Justin Olam in a tackle.

Annesley later said either offence should have warranted ten minutes in the sin bin.

Although Cummins did not rule on foul play, he was faced with a conundrum. On the one hand he knows even an experienced official like Klein can get sanctioned for not acting on the direction of a fellow official, while on the other law 16.9 directs him not to overturn what he has been told was an incorrect decision.

Upon ruling last tackle Cummins and his fellow referee, Gerard Sutton, clearly signalled their decision with voice and hand for several seconds.

These actions are dismissed as inadequate because it is claimed the players, presumably the Raiders, could not have heard or were not expected to be attentive to the referees after Cummins had waved his arm. If a referee’s repeated yells and continuous hand signalling are not considered enough for conveying decisions to players, what is to stop players from continuing to use this excuse for not following a referee’s direction? Why should referees bother with their incessant verbal directions during play if players can claim not to hear them?


Without trying to embarrass the referees, this decision was one of several that attracted the microscope. The Sun Herald reported the NRL has admitted the Roosters were on the rough end of three incorrect decisions.

Firstly, the decision to send Cooper Cronk to the sin bin.

Secondly, the decision to give Canberra six more tackles after a midair contest between James Tedesco and Elliot Whitehead. That tackle restart led directly to the set from which Jack Wighton scored Canberra’s lone try.

Thirdly, the Roosters should have received a penalty when Luke Keary was taken out by Sia Soliola when he was attempting a charge down – the same charge down that saw the ball hit the Roosters trainer in the head.

This third admission sweeps aside talk of the Roosters trainer having an improper influence over the result even though his appearance did prompt an overdue discussion about trainers appearing on the field.

Again, this is not to criticise the referees but to reflect why these incidents were for the most part neglected in the talk about where the game was won and who was wronged.

Why, among the relentless criticism of the referees’ supposed bias and their oversights, did this barely rate a mention?