This article was first written for and published by The Roar.
That was the best opening weekend of an NRL finals series I can ever remember.
Three out of the four games were decided by two points or less, and each game had controversy.
There were some spectacular tries, like Latrell Mitchell single-handedly scoring in the 75th minute to seal a win for the Sydney Roosters against the Brisbane Broncos, or Melbourne’s try featuring at least eight pairs of Storm hands before Billy Slater finally put the ball down.
History was created when Belinda Sleeman and Kasey Badger became the first women to officiate during a finals series. And we had the opportunity to celebrate one of the greatest players of all time, Cameron Smith, as he broke the record for appearances, playing his 356th game in the NRL.
Finals football is special and something to be savoured. The game changes in September. It is a new competition and anything can happen. The Cowboys proved that when they beat the reigning premiers by a point, despite no one giving them a chance before the game had started.
For fans, finals football means a great deal. Tempers flare. Joy is infectious. Even if your team isn’t playing, it’s hard not to get caught up in the emotion of it.
With the stakes so high, it’s unsurprising that there were some moments which generated controversy and, of course, officiating was the centre of attention.
In the post-match press conferences, three out of four losing coaches referred to either the referee or the Bunker in their assessment. It’s something we have been seeing all season.
When asked what the difference between the Melbourne Storm and the Parramatta Eels was on Saturday afternoon, Brad Arthur said “the Bunker”.
Then there was Trent Barrett, who blamed two refereeing decisions for the end of Manly’s season.
“What I would like is the Bunker and Tony Archer and the referees to go into my shed and explain to my players that their season is now finished on the back of those two calls,” a clearly agitated Barrett told the media.
But neither came close to the performance of Shane Flanagan, who had the nerve to come to his press conference with a list of seven decisions that he said cost his team a semi-finals berth.
Interestingly, I didn’t hear Flanagan refer to the Sharks getting the benefit of a 50-50 call early on, when Antonio Winterstein lost the ball but then appeared to ground it on his goal-line before Chad Townsend grounded it for a try. He also failed to mention Cronulla’s 17 errors, a completion rate of 26 out of 43 sets, and a whopping 38 missed tackles.
Even more astounding is that back in 2013 when the Sharks beat the Cowboys 20-18 after Beau Ryan scored in a seven-tackle set, Flanagan made a point of insisting that there had been nothing ‘sinister’ in the decision and recognised that referees are human and make mistakes.
If you listen to the media and the fans, rugby league has several problems. Crowds. Ticket prices. Scheduling.
None of these come close to what is one of the most significant problems our game has: a culture of players, coaches, commentators and fans having the audacity to blame a referee when their team loses.
It’s embarrassing and it’s petulant. It makes our game look childish, and gives the impression our coaches and players are unable to take responsibility for their own actions. It suggests there’s always someone else to blame.
Todd Greenberg should be applauded for coming out today and saying that the game needs to grow up. And the $20,000 fines which reportedly will be issued to both Barrett and Flanagan are more than just. Hopefully the NRL take swift action on any other coach who thinks it is appropriate to criticise our officials in a similar manner.
I don’t have a problem with coaches making suggestions about how the game should be administered. Open dialogue is important. A game that does not take ideas and suggestions from key stakeholders is one that will not move forward. But there is a big problem with the way these coaches conduct themselves.
We all have a role to play in this. If you are in the media, particularly as a commentator, you have a responsibility to understand the rules of the game so that when you make a comment on a decision it is accurate. It’s not what you think or what you would like to see – you have a responsibility to help educate the fans on the rules and what the correct decision is.
Where it is a 50-50 decision, you should make that clear and set out your reasons for leaning the way you do, and then not blow up if the referees interpret it a different way.
If you are a fan who is solely blaming the refs for your team’s loss, you are also part of the problem. I encourage you to go back and watch your team again. Make sure you note down all the errors made, the penalties conceded and the poor options in attack and defence. It’s all those moments put together that contribute to a loss – not a bad call here or there.
If you are someone who goes on and on about one-sided penalty counts, understand that penalty counts are not there to be even. Just because one side gets a penalty doesn’t mean the other should as well. It is a reflection on discipline and playing in accordance with the rules. Just because one team is better at doing that on the day than another, does not suggest the referees have done a bad job.
In the end, North Queensland Cowboys coached Paul Green summed it up beautifully, “We didn’t deserve to win that game, but we found a way.”
Instead of finding a way, the Sharks decided to blow their opportunity and then blame someone else for it.
Blaming the referees is a scourge on our game – don’t be part of a culture that blames others. As a game, aren’t we better than that?