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Opinion

Ricky Stuart was entirely within his rights to tee off at the NRL's officiating

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Expert
22nd September, 2020
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They couldn’t find a way to fine Ricky Stuart for his comments at the after-match press conference – although they did issue him a warning – so they fined him $10,000 for throwing a bottle out a window.

At least Andrew Abdo had the integrity to announce the Stuart fine himself rather than wheeling out Graham Annesley to do it.

“We expect our coaches to set the standard for behaviour within our clubs and Ricky’s conduct on Sunday is not the image we want to portray to our fans,” NRL CEO Abdo said via a statement.

But what do we, the fans, expect of you and your organisation, Andrew?

Yes, we know that the NRL is for all intents and purposes a private company that produces an entertainment product.

We understand that we fans are really just punters and have no real say in the way the game is run or who runs it. Saying that your fine for Stuart is in our name is pretty odd in the circumstances.

Ricky Stuart

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Let me remind you what ARLC chairman Peter V’landys said on 31 October 2019 after being appointed.

“To be frank, we need to improve our refereeing. That’s the biggest single problem at the moment,” V’landys said.

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“Being from the racing industry there’s one thing that I’ve learnt: it’s that punters or fans don’t like to be ripped off. You can’t have them walk away thinking that they’ve been ripped off.

“We need to fix our systems and do whatever we can so that the fan walks away happy and content that he’s had a fair crack and not walk away thinking that he’s been ripped off.”

Well, I still feel ripped off, Andrew. So many of us do. Really ripped off.

Every single week there are appalling calls and decisions made. One match a ruling will be made one way and then made completely differently in the next. I now have no idea what the obstruction rule is, so different have the rulings been from game to game.

Acting NRL Chief Executive Officer Andrew Abdo

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Each week the NRL wheels out Graham Annesley to try and defend or condemn the latest missteps. He keeps fronting up and talking rubbish again and again and again.

This week is no different. And it is just becoming sad.

When Ricky alluded to the officiating not being wonderful, it should be noted that after going in at halftime with a 7-1 count, the Raiders-Warriors match finished with eight penalties a side. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so predictable.

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Annesley defended referee Chris Sutton’s decision to penalise Jack Wighton for being offside as being right – by all of a quarter of a second: “He’s either onside or he’s off – they’re the only two options,” Annesley said. Wighton was sent to the bin for ten for repeated Canberra infringements.

When a player is sin-binned on the basis of a fraction of a second in regard to offside by a referee who a) wasn’t looking at Wighton’s side of the field, and b) did not have the benefit of extreme slow-motion replay, Annesley’s response is glib at best and insulting at worst.

Because the reality was this was a marginal call at best:

jack wighton offside

When that type of line-ball decision leads to a game-altering moment like a sin-bin, surely the referees should be backing themselves up with some additional help from the bunker to make sure it’s spot-on.

And here is the real issue with this ruling, something Annesley didn’t bother to cover at all when reviewing the Wighton incident. In the aftermath of Sutton awarding the penalty and sending Wighton to the sin bin, the Raiders captain at that point – Elliott Whitehead – asked to challenge the decision. Sutton replied that “It’s a ten-metre penalty, so it can’t be challenged”.

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Here are the NRL’s own stated rules for the use of the captain’s challenge:

  • Only a captain or nominated co-captain can challenge a decision. Should the captain or co-captain be off the field, another player can be nominated to take his place.
  • Each team is allowed one unsuccessful challenge per game.
  • The only decisions that can be challenged are ones which involve a structured restart of play (for example, a penalty, scrum, drop-out et cetera).
  • Challenges will not be permitted where the referee allows play to proceed.

This was clearly an incident that involved a structured restart of play, Whitehead clearly challenged the decision and Sutton – totally incorrectly – did not allow the challenge to happen.

Later in the match, Sutton did allow a decision to be challenged by the Raiders. The problem was that Jordan Rapana challenged it and wasn’t the captain.

Shortly afterwards the Raiders’ actual captain – Jarrod Croker for those also not in the know – came across, introduced himself to the referee as skipper and enquired as to what was going on.

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Sutton waved him away.

The only logical conclusion from these incidents is that Chris Sutton forgot the rules he is paid so well to officiate.

Raiders

(Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Will Annesley sack him like he punted touchie Phil Henderson, mid-round, for his one error on Thursday night’s Bulldogs-Rabbitohs match? I’m betting not.

Sutton’s failures in the match weren’t limited to his ignorance of the rules either.

While Sutton was happy to send a player to the sin bin for a side conceding repeated penalties, he apparently wasn’t really that concerned when it came to protecting players from dangerous illegal actions.

While Sutton clearly saw and penalised Josh Papalii’s grab of a Warriors player’s hair, for some reason it didn’t warrant ten on the pine.

As well, while Jaydn Su’A was sin-binned for illegal contact on Bulldog Lachlan Lewis during the first match of the round, Chris Sutton did not sin-bin Isaiah Papali’i for a blatant shoulder charge on Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, although he did penalise it while CNK was lying in pain on the GIO Stadium turf.

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The question is: why not? Surely if dangerous illegal contact warrants a sin-bin when it is Su’A hitting Lewis, then when Papalii hits Nicoll-Klokstad it is the same.

And if not, why not, Graham?

Because I and lots of other fans – the same ones Andrew Abdo is so concerned about witnessing a water bottle being thrown – feel ripped off.

Hopefully Peter V’Landys is paying attention and takes action.