“People watch with their ears, rather than their eyes,” former NRL referees boss Tony Archer often said about the game’s endless dialogue on match officials.
In many respects, he was right: no other sport has an unhealthy obsession with how its rules are administered quite like rugby league.
It starts on the field, with players getting in the face of referees who don’t rule in their favour. Or, in more recent times, if the referee hasn’t fallen for a blatant dive after a crusher tackle that isn’t a crusher tackle, or a head-high shot that is really just a forearm brushing the bum fluff on a ball-carrier’s chin.
That’s when those in the commentary box spring to life.
The experts will slam the ref, the touch judge and, of course, the bunker. Even the play-by-play caller gets in on the act, declaring, “That’s not a penalty!” or “That’s not a knock-on!” when, quite frankly, most of us would rather he kept his opinion to himself and just called the game.
Replay after replay will be shown and the criticism will shift from the on-field officials to the people who run the game.
Meanwhile, in the press box, the reporters will be so outraged they’ll put down their party pies, pick up their phones and fire off angry missives via social media.
The fans will have beaten them to the virtual punch, spitting out highly defamatory tweets to an audience of 12 followers.
The bitching and moaning won’t stop at full-time. The party’s just getting started, baby.
The losing coach will front a media conference and unload on everyone and everything except his team, which has blown countless opportunities to ice the result. He will conveniently forget the times when the referee ruled in his team’s favour; when the 50-50 calls fell its way.
The clickbait monkeys will grab the juiciest parts of the media conference, slap an inflammatory headline on the story, and send it around the interweb, looking for as many page views as possible to justify their existence.
Eels captain Clint Gutherson argues with referee Ashley Klein for the 2334th time on Saturday night.Credit:NRL Photos
On Monday morning, talkback radio will mostly focus on how 80 minutes of football swung on a call in the 22nd minute.
Just after lunch, ashen-faced NRL head of football Graham Annesley will front his weekly media briefing and tell us how we’re all drama queens, dissecting each controversial incident from the weekend’s round of matches like a re-enactment of the JFK assassination, trying to convince flyblown reporters how the refs got it right.
Then someone will write a column about it. Then they’ll get accused of running someone’s agenda. And on it will go all week until the coach says at his pre-match media conference that he’s moved on, so you should too …
Rugby league has become so predictable you can set your clock to it. At the very least, you can write the stories before they happen.
Who’s to blame? Everyone.
The NRL can change the conversation by getting serious about how the game is officiated. It can start by replacing Annesley with a gun operator who understands the game through every lens, who can simplify the laws of the game, while standing up to ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys when he wants to change the rules based on a fan’s email.
But that discourse will change only when coaches, players and the media — this columnist included — stop whinging like petulant schoolkids about EVERY decision.
Can we change? Can we? I’m not so sure.
Most of the fallout from the Panthers’ gripping 8-6 victory over the Eels has been around their trainer stopping play and how referee Ashley Klein missed some important calls. But there was a five-minute period in Saturday night’s controversial semi-final that was peak rugby league.
In the 44th minute, Eels winger Blake Ferguson clutched at the back of his neck, writhing in agony, after Penrith replacement Mitch Kenny tackled him.
Standing at dummy half, halfback Mitchell Moses howled at Klein for a penalty. Klein, who has been a professional whistleblower since 2002, took the bait and blew the penalty for an apparent crusher.
It’s unclear what Kenny then said, but it was obvious he was having a crack at Ferguson for taking a dive.
Fergy Ferg sprung to life — a semi-final miracle! — and charged at Kenny for daring to call bullshit, which it was.
He was pulled away by a teammate who rubbed the back of his neck — the same area Kenny had heinously attacked, although replays showed his body had merely brushed it.
The Eels kicked downfield, found touch, but the restart was delayed as Penrith forward Viliame Kikau on the 30m line had the strapping on his leg attended to by a trainer.
Over the next few minutes, the play swept from one end to the other, with courageous defence from both sides preventing tries, before the Eels found themselves on the attack, metres from the try line.
Isaiah Papali’i charged at the line, a Penrith defender’s arm slipped up ever so slightly, and the Eels players bellowed at Klein for a penalty. This time, the referee kept his whistle in his pocket.
This is what rugby league has become: enthralling play that threatens to be interrupted at any moment by players appealing for penalties like they’re standing in the slips cordon in a Test match.
The NRL needs to wear much of the blame because it has strangled itself with rule changes and crackdowns to the point where the game has become unrecognisable to rusted-on fans.
We haven’t got the column inches nor the brain cells to discuss the head-high crackdown introduced during Magic Round, but it has been overtaken by the madness around the crusher.
The crusher is a filthy practice that should never have been allowed to creep into the game in the first place. Various officials, including Archer, didn’t do enough to stop it, and there were years of inadequate sanctions from the Match Review Committee.
Now it has gone too far, with the slightest of contact earning a penalty and often a suspension. Just thinking about Souths’ Keaon Koloamatangi’s two-match ban for a crusher on Brent Naden in round 23 gives me a migraine.
But not all of this should be on the officials. It’s on the players who milk the penalties and the coaches who coach them to do it, as much as they deny it.
Just last year, Canberra coach Ricky Stuart told the Herald after his side’s win over the Roosters: “Our game is in danger of becoming soccer. We need to fix this immediately”.
Instead of it being fixed, diving/milking/staging has become an accepted part of the game.
Eels coach Brad Arthur claimed after his side’s loss that Penrith counterpart Ivan Cleary manipulated the refs. It’s hard to stomach because every team is guilty of the same tactics, the same rhetoric, the same mind games every week — including his own.
People can watch rugby league with whichever body part they want, but let’s get real: we only ever see what we want to see.
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