The breakdown in communication between officials during the Round 19 match up between Canberra and Cronulla meant that the standard of refereeing was the subject of the week between Rounds 19 & 20. That a try was awarded despite a touch judge flag, which should have seen the play called back, and another try scoring opportunity thwarted by a phantom forward pass, had most Rugby League fans up in arms.
While many were drawn into hyperbolic suggestions that officiating was as bad as it had ever been, Shane Flanagan, renowned referee basher and the main beneficiary of the blunders, refused to bite. Despite being the kind of A-Grade Level Whinger that would bring a pre-prepared list of ‘referee errors’ to a press conference in defeat, in victory he chose smug condescension when asked about the controversy.
“You’re always taught as young kids to play to the whistle … you get a bit of luck in some games and we might have got a little bit then,” the 2016 Premiership coach said, unaware of how soon his hypocrisy would again be revealed.
His Captain Paul Gallen, another man with a strong history for blaming others for defeat, joined Flanagan’s new found respect for the referee’s decision. “That’s for you guys (the media) to talk about, we’re just out there to play,” Gallen said.
While Flanagan and Gallen attempted to fit in their new found philosophical acceptance of taking the good with bad when it comes to referee decisions, the rest of the NRL world went into meltdown. “This is why people are turning off rugby league. It’s sad. I don’t blame the referees, they’ve got a tough job, but too many voices around them are making it too hard for them,” was Canberra coach Ricky Stuart’s surprisingly calm response.
A pair of fellow champion halfbacks joined Stuart in questioning how the game was officiated. “Unfortunately for the referees, they have no feel for the game at the moment because of the directions they’re given. They’ve lost all confidence,” was the opinion of Andrew Johns, and Peter Sterling was of a similar view. “It’s paralysis by analysis our game at the moment,” he said. “We will send something upstairs for a particular concern in the lead-up but then we will look at eight other things; we’ll look at the play-the-ball, we’ll look at a knock-on here, possible knock-on here, but we have go back and have a look at every bit of play.”
It looked as though the NRL had taken a big step towards diffusing the issue when we learned that after the match Referee’s Boss Bernard Sutton had attempted to reach out to Ricky Stuart and acknowledge the error. That Sutton would go on the front foot to admit his team had erred, both privately and publicly, suggested that a quantum leap forward had been taken by the referee’s department. Rather than their ‘deny all knowledge’ approach to a series of blunders during the 2017 Final between Melbourne and Parramatta, which among many ridiculous claims saw them suggest a pass had made contact with a defender in front a passer but at the same time hadn’t travelled forward, it seemed like they would treat fans and clubs like adults and take the heat our of the issue. It was a feeling that would not last long.
The flames of discontent began to flicker once more, and with it the smell of scapegoat, when Sutton decided to lay the blame for the whole fiasco at the feet of touch judge Ricky MacFarlane. The Referee’s Chief deciding that it was the responsibility of MacFarlane to ensure that all other officials knew that he had raised his flag and that, as a result, play should have stopped. Despite 13 Canberra players stopping and pointing at the linesman’s raised flag and replays showing the same if the observer has their eyes open, it was Sutton’s view that nobody else was to blame for the fiasco. A position that many suggested was a smidge convenient for him given the lead referee in question is his own brother.
The spectre of nepotism hasn’t been far away from the Referee’s Department since Bernard became big brother Gerard’s boss this season. Despite Gerard being awarded the World Cup Final last year, his position as the game’s number one whistle blower is questioned by some. This was never more evident that the response to his appointment as lead referee for State of Origin by his younger sibling. Led by former Referee’s Boss Bill Harrigan, it was suggested that Matt Cecchin was more deserving than Sutton. While this correspondent remains neutral on the subject of who is the best referee, except to suggest it isn’t Henry Perenara, even he knows the next move was going to do little to quieten talk of favouritism.
Despite being apportioned full blame for the incident at Shark Park, MacFarlane wasn’t alone when it was time for punishments to be assigned. Pocket Referee Gavin Reynolds joined the touchie in the NSW Cup and Luke Patten, the eyes closed Senior Review Official, was demoted to bunker sidekick for Round 20. The only official to walk away unscathed was video referee Henry Perenara, which isn’t to be surprised given the fact he still has an NRL refereeing career in the first place. While technically only one official remained unsanctioned, the nominal ‘penalty’ afforded Gerard Sutton was the kind that divided opinion between bewilderment and outrage. Rather than reinstate confidence in the direction of the Referees Boss, demoting the ‘Number One Ref’ to a ‘lower profile match’ did nothing more than reignite talk of nepotism and create a new battlefront of discord.
While MacFarlane ran the touch line in Cessnock, Reynolds ran proceedings at Henson Park and Patten slept in the Bunker Co-Pilots chair in Townsville, much to the displeasure of Issac Luke, Sutton was in charge of the Warriors and Titans match on the Gold Coast. That’s right, for his sins Sutton was sent to the holiday strip to officiate a match between the eighth place Warriors, for whom victory could help secure a finals berth, and the Titans, for whom defeat could have seen them descend into the wooden spoon dogfight. Pretty high stakes for a game deemed ‘low-profile’. No wonder Luke and our friends across the ditch were slighted at the suggestions, even if the Warriors couldn’t channel the emotion for a much needed victory.
Warriors Assistant Coach Andrew McFadden shared Luke’s objection at the slight inferred in the NRL’s announcement of the Sutton’s lower profile match. He was a little more circumspect when asked to expand on his thoughts about the referee at the centre of the ongoing controversy. “From what I saw on the weekend, there wasn’t a lot wrong with what he did, and I think it has gotten out of control,” McFadden told New Zealand’s Trackside Radio. “It all points to the leadership of the NRL. The way they have positioned this game as a ‘demotion’ that comes from leadership. I feel sorry for them, we all make mistakes and I think we just have to get on with it.”
Which brings us back to the one week smug/one week ranting ravings of Shane Flanagan. A week after his self-satisfied post-Canberra match press conference and a day after suggesting it was his team’s responsibility to be “good enough to get the win considering the decisions and take the referees out of it”, he was a changed man after his teams narrow loss to the Broncos.
In the place of the zen play to the referee’s whistle coach was the petulant and moanful bore we saw after the Sharks Elimination Final defeat last year. Undeterred by the $30k fine he received for that performance, in which he rattled off a long list of decisions he felt highlighted perceived errors against his side, but instead displayed his own misunderstanding of the rules, he again trained his sights on the officials.
Irate at a series of 50-50 calls, Flanagan declared the refereeing not up to scratch and to blame for his teams two point loss. That he was able to begin, let alone complete, the tirade straight faced is worthy of praise given the elementary mistakes his team made to surrender the match.
The referees were to blame apparently despite his star playmaker Matt Moylan deserving try-assist status on a Corey Oates try. His team weren’t at fault for the loss even though Matt Lodge was able to break meek try line defending tackles from not one but two International Cronulla front-rowers. His team were powerless in the face of the refereeing against them in spite of the fact that Chad Townsend missed a conversion attempt from directly in front of the posts. Surprisingly given his appraisal of the officials, none of these efforts were considered a reason for the defeat or not up to scratch by Flanagan.
It is in these polar opposite responses that you see the self servinfg nature of the never ending referee bashing. Much like Des Hasler, if you listened to his post loss press conferences, you get the impression that Flanagan believes he’d be undefeated as a coach if not for the pesky referees. Like the boy who cried wolf, he should no longer be listened to when he offers an opinion on referees.
It’s not just the Sharks mentor who should no longer be entertained on the subject of referees and their decisions, none of his brethren should be allowed a platform to speak on the matter either. A long time supporter of allowing coaches this opportunity, The Pinch Hitters now feels that they cannot be trusted to offer mature or insightful opinions on the matter. As a result we should return to the dark old days of “no comment” or fines for opinions like Flanagan’s last week. It’s time for the heat in the conversation about officials to be removed and it became a more considered debate. Sadly this cannot happen if the coaches continue to have their say.
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