The Roar
The Roar


In 2024, we need to leave the NRL’s favourite topic alone - it’s time to shut up about referees

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27th February, 2024

The 2024 NRL season hasn’t even started, and yet the major topic of conversation, already, is refereeing.

Last weekend’s World Club Challenge was a great game, the proper hard-fought, high-stakes football that we all want to see, and yet we leave it discussing the officiating.

Yes, it was poor, and there’s no doubt about it. It was cruel on the Panthers and generous to Wigan, but the hyperbole that has continued since has overshadowed what was one of the best World Club Challenge fixtures ever.

On the radio, Greg Alexander called it “the worst video referee decision I’ve ever seen” and on social media, Jamie Soward said it was “absolutely rubbish” and the “worst call of 2024”.

They might be right. It was a horrendous call and it might end up being the worst of 2024, though given the constant discourse over officiating standards, it won’t be the last time we hear something describing as the blunder of the year.  

Graham Annesley, the NRL’s reffing boss, said that the process was perhaps wrong, though a better way of putting it might be that the process is different, as the game was played under the Super League interpretations.

The truth is that it wasn’t even the worst video referee call of the weekend – go look up Fa’amanu Brown’s send off for Hull FC against Warrington – and we see bad calls in rugby league all the time as we do in all sports all the time.


It’s cliché to mention that refs are human and that their task is hard, but it’s so well-trodden because it’s true.

Reffing is incredibly hard, every inch of it is scrutinised all the time and it is the lowest hanging fruit of discourse for all concerned.

The reason it sells so well is that decisions, largely, are polarising, and polarising subjects are great for TV, media and pub discussions.

Everyone is a fan, everyone has an opinion and a significant portion of people have money on one outcome or the other, meaning we can all wallow in the rights, wrongs and wherefores of it.

Officiating eliminates nuance like no other subject. For a transfer, for example, we can discuss speculatively whether it is good, bad or indifferent, and we can have lengthy debates about rep selections, tactics, performances and anything else you might consider.

Not refs. They’re right or they’re wrong. It’s treated as black and white. Yet, like most things in rugby league, it isn’t.


Refs are also the most noticed when they make mistakes. We have another cliché here – the best ref is the one you don’t notice – and again, it’s largely correct.

Speaking recently on the excellent House of League podcast, former Super League ref Rob Hicks, who now heads up the Rugby Football League’s legal department, explained this issue through the prism of how many tackles took place in the opening round of the UK comp, which was in the region of 3,600, to result in three high tackle send-offs.

His point was that the vast majority of successful, well-policed actions garnered no interest but were essential to the running of the game.

One might suggest that first tackle hit-ups aren’t as interesting as last minute winners, or cite the old journalistic adage that man bites dog is a lot more newsworthy than dog bites man, but it’s a fair point rarely made nonetheless, because while refereeing is fair game for discussion, it probably isn’t fair game for the level of discussion it gets proportionately to how much influence it has in results.

Less covered, especially in Australia, was that Penrith could have twice taken the lead in the second half but bombed superb opportunities, for example, or that Wigan managed to ice their limited visits to Panthers territory with both daring and execution.

WIGAN, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 24: Jake Wardle of Wigan Warriors goes down before going over to score his team’s third try during the Betfred World Club Challenge match between Wigan Warriors and Penrith Panthers at DW Stadium on February 24, 2024 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images)

Full disclosure: this journalist was a referee in the juniors for several years in the UK, partly because of a love of the game but mostly because it paid better than stacking supermarket shelves. It’s likely that there is a slight bias there.


But also, in many years of covering this sport and others, it’s difficult to think of too many games in which the officiating concretely changed a result.

Joel Wilson’s shocking decision might have shifted that famous Ashes Test at Headingley in 2019, but so could Nathan Lyon taking the bails when given the chance, or Australia not burning all their reviews.

Diego Maradona’s handball in 1986 is possibly the most egregious clanger in the history of soccer, but the game finished 2-1 and still required the Argentine genius to score one of the greatest goals in history to win.

Certainly, players and coaches very seldomly choose to blame officiating.

“It wasn’t what lost us the game” is uttered far more often in press conferences than any fire up at the Bunker or on-field officials.

They do so because they know it’s not worth the hassle to do so publicly and have other ways of making their point in less obvious ways, but also because those responsible for results tend to take that responsibility. They know the hundred other factors at play.

That’s why a major wish for this year is that we try to put more nuance into the coverage of rugby league and less into the nuts and bolts of decisions. Yes, bad calls happen, but so do good ones, all the time, and we instantly forget them.


And, as a second wish, we can stop discussing any idea of consistency. It doesn’t exist in life, let alone in sports and less still in officiating.

We don’t expect kickers to boot every goal, or coaches to ace every interchange plan or recruitment departments to make every signing work – but every Tuesday night, we approach a legal process at the judiciary with the idea that it should be 12 Angry Men.

There’s a famous quote from boxing promoter Mickey Duff that, if you wanted a friend in the fight game, the best thing to do would be to get a dog.

If you’re looking for consistency in your life and you love rugby league, go get a kelpie. Everything else is a lot more nuanced – especially the refs. And that’s fine.