Over my many years of watching rugby league, I have always thought that there is no other sport on the planet where referees are treated with the derision and lack of respect that we see on display each week.
That suspicion has been confirmed over the last week with the reaction from the media and some fans in response to the referees threatening industrial action in response to the quick-fire decision by Peter V’landys and the ARLC to move from two on-field referees to just one.
Why was this decision made so quickly? Particularly when players and coaches were vocal and asked the ARLC to wait until the end of the year.
It depends who you ask.
Justifications have included that it is a cost-saving measure. Reports of the savings have differed from $2 million to $500,000, but that doesn’t add up to me, because no one can give an actual number. The argument also falls away because my understanding is that the referees have offered to take a 20 per cent pay cut in order to keep the current system in place. It’s incredible how the referees are still being painted as the bad guys, despite a dramatic change to their working conditions overnight without consultation.
Another suggestion is that it leads to more free-flowing rugby league… whatever that means. This reason comes from a special kind of dinosaur that pines for rugby league of old.
No doubt similar people that think that one less referee would result in more free-flowing rugby league are people that demand that all three grades of rugby league be played on one day at the same ground… but then don’t bother showing up.
It’s also a pretty easy myth to debunk – take a look at the average play the ball speed for players like Josh Papalii or compare the play of the ball speeds in the 2019 grand final to the Australia versus Tonga match held later in the year. The impact of moving from two referees to one is quite obvious.
But my favourite one of all is that the fans wanted it. How do we know that? We know that from the results of a Daily Telegraph poll from last year. I look forward to the rest of the findings of that poll being put into place, particularly findings from the official NRL poll last year, which said that most fans wanted the Women’s State of Origin to move from a standalone match to a three-game series.
On Channel Seven’s nightly news earlier this week, a Brisbane Broncos player spoke about how referees are replaceable, just like players are. To an extent, I understand his point. No one is irreplaceable.
However, there is a big difference between those players pushing to take the spot of a first-grade rugby league player and those referees pushing to make first grade.
Think about it – one group is treated with admiration and respect. The second is harassed, questioned and hung out to dry at every opportunity, and that isn’t just at NRL level.
It is laughable that some from the media and even greats of the game have spoken about how the referees have too much power. I don’t see it from where I am standing. Instead I have watched as their authority has been questioned time and time again.
Additionally, this replaceable point simply assumes that there is a horde of referees waiting to referee first-grade matches, when my understanding is that it is a significant step up, particularly when it comes to fitness.
This saga has also demonstrated how few fans understand the system in place. If the move to one referee happens, then it will mean full-time referees are demoted to the touch line. This will mean the death of the specialist touch judge. Their role and experience is being painted as expendable.
It fails to recognise that being a specialist touch judge requires special skill and the quality of the work on the touch line may not be the same if we simply replace touchies with on-field referees.
Last week I wrote about the danger threatening rugby league through the media and in particular from Channel Nine and Fox League.
It didn’t take too long for this danger and agenda to rear its ugly head again. Earlier this week an article was published by James Hooper – at least he had the courage to put his name to the article – attempting to discredit the chairman of the Rugby League Match Officials Association, Silvio del Vecchio, for having a day job managing a beauty salon.
Gutter journalism is a kind summation of that article and an agenda is blatantly obvious.
Additionally, yesterday, James Willis – who is a senior producer at 2GB – tweeted that “the referees have zero supporters in this fight with the NRL”.
I’m putting my hand up as a supporter of the referees. Who else is with me?