Are the referees killing rugby league or saving it?

The referees are under attack this week
Referee James Child. Photo: Gerard Barrau, Wikimedia Commons

The main talking point from NRL round four has again been, unfortunately, the referees.  The much publicised refereeing crackdown resulted in a game between title heavyweights the Sharks and Storm which was largely ruined as a spectacle due to the 33 penalties in the match. But is this so surprising?

The NRL made no secret that they have instructed referees to actually enforce the rules this year. This has resulted in an extraordinary rise in the number of penalties given, and even in yellow cards being used. The sight of the referee’s former golden child, Cameron Smith, being sent off for backchat caused every non-Storm fan to smile and think that it’s about time.

The number of penalties being blown isn’t caused by the whistle-blowers in the middle – the cause is teams that continue to cheat. It’s no surprise that Melbourne and Cronulla, both of whom have made reputations for themselves as teams that push the rules, have suffered under the new regimen.

The changes in officiating have been made in order to encourage a more open, free flowing game. Teams that play to this philosophy and don’t try to push the line, such as the Dragons and Warriors, are flourishing. A defensive style of play can still be successful – just ask the Tigers – as long as the defending team is onside.

What we are seeing in the struggle of so many of last year’s top teams is how much their games were based on slowing down the play-the-ball, wrestling on the ground and committing deliberate offences when defending the goal line.

By now every team will know that the crackdown on playing the ball properly, staying onside and allowing the ball player to get up quickly will continue. Todd Greenberg, head of the NRL, has publically backed the referees, and called on them to stick to their guns.

Teams that haven’t yet got the message will start to see more and more sin-binnings. This will only give more of an advantage to teams who want to play an open, ball in hand game. The standard of play will get better from here-on in, and by finals time we should be seeing a fast, free-flowing game.

The change in officiating is designed to remove blights on the game like offside play and wrestling on the ground. Teams like the Storm and Sharks have pushed the line too far, so now the line is being reset. The end result will be a win for rugby league, and will likely shake up the competition considerably.