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It’s not the technology, it’s the humans!

I hate seeing a team score a try, the elation or exasperation on the faces of both sets of fans and then seeing a man in an unusually bright shirt make the shape of a box with his hands. The sense of anti-climax is overwhelming.


I’m sure the NRL referees are decent people, work hard on their craft and in no way attempt to pervert the sporting course of justice. Yet these little miked-up rule enforcers have the ability to turn normally reasonable people into aggressive lunatics within the few seconds it takes for them to become the central focus in a game.


It appears the officials in most of our major codes stick to a process of set procedures that have been designed to, hopefully, allow them to eliminate all possible anomalies, make a ruling on the evidence at hand and arrive at a correct result that removes controversy and debate.


Unfortunately, despite the increased use of technology and extra pairs of eyes all over the place, this doesn’t appear to happen often enough in the NRL these days.


“How could they have missed that?” “Are they blind?” And my personal favourite: “What are they looking at?”


It’s funny how people react. Origin one was a case in point – well certainly in aisle 133 it was. All night long the four jokers behind me bombarded Gerard Sutton and Ben Cummins endlessly with polite requests to have the Queensland team retire a full ten metres. Actually, they swore like troopers, spat beer all over the three rows in front of them and suggested awful things about both referees’ family members.


I was more concerned with the New South Wales lack of punch through the forwards and inability or lack of desire to spread the ball to the flanks and attack Queensland with something other than exactly what they were expecting.


The reversal of the knock-on call on the bomb reception of Justin O’Neill in the second half sent them spare. A man in a red hat three seats along threw his wife’s wine glass that he was holding for her while she ‘popped off to the loo.’ It bounced off Ken, a charming Chinese-Australian who was at his first Origin match with his two kids. Ken was eating a huge bucket of popcorn which made my mate and I curious. Popcorn at the footy? Were they expecting Russell Crowe?


Media coverage has led to unprecedented scrutiny of decisions. Those decisions are supposedly arrived at through a carefully thought out process to ensure accuracy, consistency and transparency.


Unfortunately, fans are increasingly feeling that these three things are often absent and vent when given the chance.


Accuracy is the ultimate goal of the technology yet is it really achievable in all situations? In years gone by Michael Jennings may well not have been picked up for the little touch he got on James Maloney’s kick in Origin two. Fans saw it clearly and while many were disappointed, moved on. Technology worked well for one clear reason – no interpretation required.


Alternatively, grounding decisions and block/decoy runners have driven us to despair due to the interpretation of the officials. It often appears clear to viewers that control and downward pressure has either been or not been placed on the ball. Fifteen replays later after all the tension and energy has been sapped from the game a confusing decision ignites the masses and the poor little fluro-clad officials cop it again.


Fans are happy with the first and furious with the second. Therein lies the problem. Whenever interpretation is required the human element returns to the game and the gentlemen behind me in seats 17 to twenty start spitting on me again.

The on-field part of the process is completely transparent. The motioning with the hands, the crossing of the arms or the construction of a perfect T (depending upon the opinion of the referee) and the clearly audible request to “check, grounding, sideline or decoy runners,” are all easy to understand for the viewer.


Sadly, this is where the transparency ends. The NRL referees boss generally backs his workers and using language akin to a court of law, refers back to the process and the steps used to make the decision. Less focus is placed on whether the decision was in fact correct or otherwise.


The Brad Takairangi no-try decision on April 14 was mysterious to say the least. With Parramatta and Manly locked at eight all early in the second half a Corey Norman kick was grounded. The ‘bunker’ couldn’t overturn the on-field decision of offside and no try it stayed.


It appeared obvious to most that Takairangi was behind the kicker yet Archer defended his refs with this: “The touch judge was positioned very well to identify live whether the player was offside and he did so.”


It was interesting to note that he didn’t say, ‘to identify that the player was offside’. The word ‘whether’ was the key one in his sentence. The avoidance in his response is common place and where the transparency ends. The League seems to think that microphones and big screens equal transparency. I lean more towards accountability.


Archer seems to have a view of officialdom with very few shades of grey. Some coaches, Wayne Bennett being the most significant, are on the record with their frustration at the referees paint-by-numbers approach. The decision makers seem to lack the feel for the game required.


We need to hear more from the powers in the game in regards to the way the referees are coached to adjudicate. Catching balls outside block runner’s shoulders has made things a little simpler for decoy decisions yet the adjudications around the decoy that stops in the line or brushes up against an opponent are still confusing and incomprehensible at times.


Whether the decision is made on-field or by the bunker appears to make no difference, disallowed tries where the infringement has absolutely no impact on the play whatsoever occur via both versions of officialdom.


Some people tell me that an infringement should be acted on no matter what – even if it doesn’t affect the outcome. I usually respond by asking them if they would like to see penalties given for an offside open side winger who doesn’t come within fifty metres of the ball.


The inconsistency to which all of the above leads is the fuel that forces fans to leave games lost and bewildered at times. Consistency – it is the broad aim of the officials, the source of frustration for the fans and the most elusive ingredient that all sporting codes seek.


Thankfully the best team wins more often than not. Although the two close encounters the Cowboys had with grand final appearances before they finally won their premiership in 2015 were both due to very dubious decisions. It’s the big games where it will really matter.


The League knows we will still turn up, we love the game too much. Maybe they like the game that way, enjoy driving us completely crazy, take pleasure in inciting adults to spit and curse and find humour in a sensible man in a tweed jacket hurling a plastic cup.


For Origin three my seats are in a slightly different spot. I am definitely taking a few extra tissues in the pockets to protect against Macca, Davo, Stubbsie and the other clown whose name escapes me, in case our paths cross again.


Oh… and I hope the refs do a good job!

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