Malcolm Knox August 12, 2012
If there's one thing more annoying than rugby league referees, it's people talking about rugby league referees. Some officials warn that over-focusing on decisions can wreck the game. Fair enough, but try telling that to the coach or passionate supporter who arrives at the ground to see football's four most dispiriting words: video referee: Steve Clark (or substitute your own personal choice here). Talk about wrecking the game.
Censorship by fining coaches doesn't work. The more involved rugby league fans are, the more they spend the game watching the ref. Listen to the TV commentators. After yet another botched video referee decision, they're shouting at their TVs, and they're on the TV. It stands to reason that the most involved rugby league observer of all, the coach, is going to be obsessed beyond reason with match officials.
Do you think Des Hasler cares about being fined $10,000 for criticising referees? For a start, 10,000 Bulldogs fans who share his outrage will be happy to chip in a dollar apiece. Second, as any addiction treatment professional knows, the addict will gladly pay for his fix. Hasler has already shown he's prepared to spend money on his hobby, investing in a pair of Sports Ears for that really intimate insight.
Nor is it fair for Wayne Bennett to suggest that Hasler whinges about referees to take the focus off his players. He is not choosing to whinge. At a post-match press conference, when he's asked about the game, he can only talk about what he's been watching. No doubt he watches the footballers on video later. In fact, I suspect the Skinny Coach is playing mind games by suggesting Hasler is talking about refs to deflect attention from his team as a means to deflect attention from his own team. We're onto you, Bennett.
The fundamental problem is a mathematical one: refereeing decisions defy the laws of arithmetic. For-and-against points, by contrast, must come out evenly. With bad refereeing decisions, every club ends up every season in deficit. How does that happen? Survey the coaches on the most-penalised teams, and the same voodoo maths applies: every team concedes more penalties than it is awarded. No team in history - except perhaps the Manly premiership winners of 1978 - has ever stood up at the end of the season and said, 'We had a good run with referees, we were lucky, we owe our success partly to the match officials.' No team.
So until this Bermuda Triangle is solved, and the good refereeing decisions and favourable penalty counts are discovered, it can be expected that coaches will continue to complain. Their obsessions will go far beyond Hasler's Sports Ears. At the solarium, Shayne Hayne will have to watch out for the tracksuited bloke at the peephole. Tony Archer won't be able to buy a bottle of Bardsley's Brilliantine without noticing a suspicious fellow with a clipboard in the barbershop mirror. Forget Footballers' Wives; the reality TV hit of the future will be Whistleblowers' Lives.
Some sports have helped officials' credibility by training ex-players into the job. The problem in league is, who would want to be a ref? The NRL announced its Academic Team of the Year this week. It's an impressive list, backed by two very heartening statistics: 84 per cent of NRL players are engaged in education or training, and 60 per cent of the NRL and Toyota Cup players at university are the first in their families to go. Needless to say, these players are too smart to be aiming at careers in refereeing. Having spent their playing days bedevilled by coaches, why would they ask for more of the same in retirement?
The situation may improve, of course, if referees stop making mistakes. The on-field officials are not doing too badly. Their error rate per match lies somewhere between the Storm's and the Roosters'. They're only human. The unforgiven are the video referees, who have had a shocking season and should all be dropped to NSW Cup to do their own filming with their phones. It's debatable whether the introduction of video officiating has led to more accurate decision-making. What is beyond doubt is that the league fan has zero tolerance for mistakes by video officials, who are not perceived as ''only human'', but as cyborgs, part-man, part-machine, and therefore held to higher standards. They don't have to make split-second decisions while huffing and puffing behind the play. They have all the time in the world. Indeed, as their weekly bungles suggest, they have too much time. It's too late to put the toothpaste back into the tube, but perhaps an American football/cricket-type of solution would be best, where video referrals are made not by the refs but by the coaches, who are allowed three unsuccessful referrals per game. That at least might salve their misery at being frustrated referees themselves, and give them an illusion of control, which is all the obsessive personality craves to make him happy.