If refereeing is broken, how do we fix it?

This article was first written for and published for The Roar.

Rugby league, we have a problem.

On Friday night at Southern Cross Group Stadium there was a costly error made by the officials in the game between the Cronulla Sharks and the Canberra Raiders. The error has left many members of the rugby league community feeling very angry.

The Raiders ended up losing the game 28-24 and Raiders fans must accept that their teams season is over.

At the point in the game when the error was made, the Raiders were trailing by four points.

They had been down by 10 points but had started to mount a comeback and were beginning to dominate despite trailing on the scoreboard.

Then, everything changed when there was a mix up between the touch judge and the main referee which led to a try being scored by the Sharks.

During a Sharks set, touch judge Ricky McFalane raised his flag. Play should have stopped right there. But instead, referee, Gerard Sutton put the whistle to his lips, but did not blow it.

Seeing this take place, many of the Raiders players stopped, despite Sutton then deciding to allow play to continue and this left space for Sione Katoa to score a try.

When the sequence was sent up to the video referee to look at an earlier knock on, the bunker ‘failed’ to see the touch judge raise his flag and sent it back as a try.

Since then, referees boss Bernard Sutton has said there was an unfortunate miscommunication between the match officials and the wrong decision was made.

But where does this acknowledgement leave the Raiders? It leaves them without the two points and their hopes of finals in tatters.

Three refs in the NRL's video bunker

The Bunker has come under fire for some bad decisions. (The Roar)

It also gives credence to every fan and media personality that has criticised the referees throughout the year for poor decision making.

Some people have defended the decision, suggesting that the Raiders should have played to the whistle. This I think is unfair.

For me, the touchie raising his flag is exactly the same as the referee blowing his whistle.

We teach kids to play the whistle, that is effectively what the Raiders were doing. Josh Hodgson said as much in the post-match press conference, as soon as players see the whistle at a referee’s lips, they instinctively stop play.

At this point, excuses are inappropriate. That moment needs to be acknowledged for what it was – an exceptionally disappointing and incorrect decision.

I found Ricky Stuart to be quite impressive in the press conference afterward. I had my popcorn ready for an almighty blow up, but very respectfully, he did not blame the referee or the touch judge for the loss.

He did question the decision though to institute a ‘crackdown’ at the start of the year and then the decision to change approach midway through the year.

Stuart is referring to Todd Greenberg coming out midway through the year and asking referees not to ‘nitpick’ as much seemingly in reaction to the number of penalties being awarded early in the year.

This is something I absolutely agree with.

At the start of the year, the crackdown was something I was absolutely behind. We saw an improvement in the ruck and teams finally beginning to play by the rules again.

The difference was highlighted to me when I was watching the Denver Test earlier this year and saw how scrappy the play the ball was.

It was disappointing for me to see Todd cave earlier this year and we’ve since seen teams begin to revert to their old, ill-disciplined ways. I noticed it yesterday in the game between the Melbourne Storm and the New Zealand Warriors.

Back to the Raiders game.

After the try had been awarded, I myself felt very disappointed. But I was and am still left wondering what should be done about it. There are several options.

1) Remove Bernard Sutton and Tony Archer immediately. Sutton was employed by Greenberg and Archer by Sutton. They have overseen the regime this year and are directly responsible for the way the game is being policed.

Interestingly, when these errors are made, Sutton apologises and then we move on. Is this appropriate anymore?

2) We get rid of the Bunker at the end of the year. This is an interesting one. People have complained that we use technology too much in our game now. But for me, if the technology is there, we should use it.

In the past, when we didn’t have the technology poor calls were also made. Without the bunker, there would need to be a shift in fan mindset and they would need to accept incorrect decisions if referee’s are being asked to make them on the spot.

In this scenario our referees also need to feel empowered to make decisions without experiencing tremendous backlash from the general public.

3) Do we allow the Bunker to begin making decisions on everything. It incenses me that the Bunker is unable to rule on forward passes.

Additionally, I am still unsure on how the Bunker missed the flag being raised the other night, despite the many camera angles on show.

4) Do we wait for the end of the year to make a decision to prevent further disruption to this season?

5) We accept that referees are human beings and that incorrect decisions are made.

Incorrect decisions are made throughout games, it’s just that some errors made by the referees are more costly than others. When our players have perfect games, then we can expect the same from our officials.

It’s exceptionally unfortunate what happened to the Raiders, but I also refuse to overdo it. The Raiders season is over because they failed to close out several close games earlier in this season.

They have had plenty of opportunities throughout the year and in some circumstances luck goes your way and in other circumstances it doesn’t.

But just because it wasn’t this game that cost the Raiders their season, it doesn’t make it an easier pill to swallow.

Most are in agreement that what happened on Friday night was unacceptable. But how on earth do we fix it?