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Opinion

NRL refs are trading trust for correct calls

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2nd November, 2020
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It has been a week since the grand final and I have an opportunity to reflect on the game this season and how it has largely changed for the better.

Firstly, the six-again rule has truly invigorated the game and provided a unique way to provide a direct advantage to the non-offending team in a way that does not impede its momentum.

With that compliment to the rules committee, I am less convinced that allowing teams to choose to scrum from the middle of the field is the correct choice for an exciting game that lacks redundancy, especially during a time when coaching strategy encourages all set pieces – including the play-the-ball – to start from the centre of the field.

I would prefer that the scrum take place at the nearer of the ten-metre or 20-metre mark from touch or at the place of the infringement should it occur between the two 20-metre marks from touch as to avoid predictability and repetitive play.

However, after speaking with super coach and writer Roy Masters, I have noticed how there have been some very subtle but meaningful changes in how the referee and touch judges make on-field decisions and communicate with the Bunker.

Though Masters looked at this from a more quantitative perspective, which readers may want to look out for, I also discussed my qualitative interpretation of the same events. Both approaches were complementary to one another.

Ashley Klein

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Historically, the referee has had more determination over the result of a call in terms of the decision and verbiage used whereas the current verbiage and methodology used to get the call right has been uniquely different this season.

Referees are still required to give definitive words as to their decision (even when uncertain) when contacting the Bunker but now, they make a decision knowing that they are okay with the Bunker overturning what they had said.

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I am in no way disagreeing that this method is bringing fewer mistakes than previously but it is not without a major fault.

Most viewers do not realise that the referee and on-field team is okay with making a conservative call that can and many times likely will be overturned by the Bunker and this leads many to assume that the quality of refereeing is poor with the frequency of Bunker corrections.

As such, this is a form of blank, humour-free self-deprecation.

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Referees, based on their own knowledge and input from the touch judges, are okay with the Bunker overturning their call and this does provide a solid system for getting the call right. However, this is not what the majority of people experience.

They see a referee that couldn’t get the call right and relied on the Bunker, which thankfully got it right.

That is to say that this provides a prima facie case where the referee looks incompetent by constantly having calls overturned, which contributes to a lack of trust by viewers in terms of a referee’s competency.

Unlike rugby union where referees like Nigel Owens are talked up and respected, this is not the case in rugby league. As Masters brought up, this is even more of a feat “in a sport with a myriad of complicated rules.” Having played the game at a basic level, I agree and added how the rules are just the tip of the iceberg hiding all of the endless interpretations beneath the surface. Still, in both codes, getting the right answer is only half the goal.

We need to have a non-hostile, non-confrontational culture towards referees as it damages the game as their roles are to be both neutral and competent.

The current system does not provide this.

Kevin Proctor

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Barring an arduous, prolonged and expensive undertaking of viewer education, it would be better to do the following as it provides the same method of data/fact entry as the above but rephrases it in a way that bolsters confidence in the capabilities, competency and neutrality of the referee and touch judges.

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Rather, use the same system as above but allow referees to say: “I saw a try (X) but there is reason to believe there may have been separation from the ball (Y) and am therefore deferring to the Bunker to confirm or overrule.” In a case where there is no good angle for the Bunker to provide a ruling, a response explaining so would confirm the on-field ruling. Such a small change in wording may appear pedantic but words are important, especially when both specificity and clarity for all is required.

An alternative where the team that received the short end of the call could challenge as in the NFL is not acceptable since it requires that they have a challenge left in which to do so and it makes getting the correct call more of a gamble and less about getting it right.

The goal is for referees to have and demonstrate their competency to the benefit of both players and the audience alike but there is not shame in requesting confirmation where needed especially since as much as many want to believe that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are infallible, this is far from the truth as demonstrated in ESPN’s 30 for 30 short, Subject to Review.

For those that have not seen the episode, I highly recommend it as it clearly and succinctly talks about the numerous grey areas that largely go unnoticed even in a sport as seemingly clear-cut when umpiring as tennis. When there is a margin of error, as with all machine learning and all studies, saying that the ball has landed in or out is a fact in real life but that is not how the Hawk Eye sees it. There are times when the ball can be both.

Rugby league has more shades of grey and this is not limited to what conditions constitute obstruction in what context.

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Crowd education is important as is trust and respect for the adjudicators of the game and a small tweak in language to the Bunker can promote both a better educated fan-base and positive relations as seen in other codes. For those that were concerned about corporate partnerships and monetisation, it’s reasonable that the Bunker will at least be called on as much in try-scoring scenarios.

As such, a method in which referees have access to the Bunker but can address it in a way that provides for demonstration of their competency and fosters confidence in their experience while allowing technology to be addressed appropriately is a better outcome both on and off the field.

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