Referee paranoia in the NRL

Paranoia is running wild in the Rugby League community following the Manly v North Queensland game on the weekend, with many people fearing the Premiership will be decided on controversial terms.

For the second week in a row Referee’s boss Bill Harrigan has come out and admitted that the officials got it wrong, and, with no time to make any drastic policy changes, there is nothing to suggest these critical errors won’t continue. 

I think a lot of the exasperation that Johnathan Thurston and his teammates felt on Friday night comes about because of the technology. It’s easier to explain away bad decisions on heat-of-the-moment human-error, but when an official sitting in a quiet room, removed from the on-field emotion, with unlimited time and replays at their disposal, still fails to get the call right, it is incredibly frustrating.

The problem lies in the way the rules are written. It’s fair to say that the replays of the Manly try, where it’s suggested that Kieran Foran knocked the ball on, were inconclusive. It looked definitive to some, but I think there was a certain degree of doubt. So, without being convinced either way, the Video Ref is forced to refer back to their protocols, which instruct them to give the benefit of the doubt to the attacking team.

I’ve always liked what that rule represented. It’s looking to be positive, rather than conservative. It’s looking to reward enterprising play, rather than take a pessimistic view of everything. But , while the principles behind the benefit-of-the-doubt rule might be admirable, the last few weeks have outlined the flaw in it. 

In cricket, the benefit of the doubt always goes to the batsmen. And it makes sense. If a bowler appeals and has a tight decision turned down, they simply return to their mark and have another crack. But if a batsmen is unfairly dismissed, his side suffers a significant blow – it may even signal the end of that innings. Sure, this is a simplistic view of things, but I think, as a general rule, Cricket have got this right. 

Rugby Union have taken the opposite stance from their cousins in the 13-man game, opting for a policy which gives the benefit of the doubt to the defending team. And I think the last few weeks in the NRL have proved that this needs to happen in Rugby League too. 

Again, I’m simplifying things here, but I think the damages done to a defending team when a try is wrongly awarded far out-weigh those the attacking team would face if the benefit of the doubt went against them. If the attacking team has a try disallowed, they haven’t lost anything that they previously had. Sure, they’ve been denied some points, but at worst they’re in the same position they were a minute ago. 

When the decisions go the other way, the effects of incorrect judgements can be devastating to the defending side. They really do lose something. As a direct result of a decision they are now four or six points further behind than they were, or have had their lead cut by that amount of points. 

I don’t think it would be a bad thing for players to know that they need to be more convincing when they score to ensure the decisions go in their favour. We could do with some more emphasis on definitive groundings of the ball, and there would surely be less controversy if teams were simply missing out on adding to their tally, rather than potentially having the game taken completely out of their grasp, when the poor decisions inevitably happen. 

As for the rest of this season though, all we can do is hope that the match officials are as vigilant as possible, and that a key decision doesn’t decide the NRL Premiership.

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