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NRL: What our referees can learn from the NBA

It’s time we put the power back in the hands of the referees as opposed to a referees option to use technology as a frequent decision making tool.


They’re the men with arguably the hardest job in the National Rugby League. 

Each week, they take to the field with high expectations, where they need to exercise measured amounts of control, consistency and competence. But even if these expectations are met, they are still scrutinised by rugby league’s most fanatical, and even more so when poor decisions are made that may have impacted the outcome of the game. If you haven’t figured it out yet, they are the referees of the NRL. 

A lack of confidence

It could be argued that some NRL fans hate the officials simply because they are officials, or because they have made mistakes in previous games. But after thinking about it, these don’t really seem like legitimate, sensible reasons to be unsatisfied with some referees’ performances in certain games. For me, it’s not about the missed calls or mistakes, it’s the lack of confidence in their ability to make live decisions. This is especially evident when tries are scored. 

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Somewhere along the lines, our referees have lost a fair bit of courage to make these decisions. Whenever there is an inkling of doubt, we’ll see the game stopped by the referee calling for video assistance, better known as ‘the bunker’. Not only is the game stopped, with the crowd becoming increasingly agitated, but we also see the game slowed down. It’s impossible to see everything as it unfolds. Rugby league is played on a 120 by 68 metre field and, as much as some fans claim otherwise, no human being will spot every infringement. 

The technology in our game has expanded to an increasingly important role. By having it as an essential tool in the decision making process, it undermines the value, competence and skills of our referees. Rugby league has turned into a sport where our referees don’t have to be focused 100% of the time as they know the bunker can always be called for big decisions.

As a trained basketball referee, I have seen first hand how other sports are officiated differently. Basketball is one of the few sports that require the referees to manage not only the game play and the players’ conduct, but also the coaches. Basketball officials are forced to make live decisions with no luxury of referring to a video or assistant referee to overturn the call. The officials must take full responsibility of the call: right or wrong. This type of accountability is missing from rugby league. Whenever situations become difficult, our referee’s often refrain from making that bold call and resort to the bunker; a safer and seemingly easier option. 

How do we move forward?

So how do we resolve this problem? Rugby league should adopt the way other sports at the elite level use technology. It should try and put the responsibility back into the hands of the official rather than the technology. 

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A great example is the NBA and it’s replay centre. In basketball, there is an amazing sense of teamwork and knowing which official is looking at what part of the court at what time. This teamwork and communication is sustained throughout the whole game and they display the confidence a referee should possess when officiating. The replay centre and the officials at the stadium both have specific roles and their services are used at certain times of the game to ensure fairness. The three basketball officials referee the majority of the game and make live decisions as infringements occur. They only consult the replay centre when there is deemed to be foul play during the game and in the last two minutes of the final quarter, when correct decision-making is crucial. Having this shared responsibility is fantastic. It allows the referees to control the game and it also understands the importance of consistency.

A hypothetical situation

Let’s say that the NRL adopts the NBA in their style of refereeing and use of technology. We would have our two officials and two touch judges on the field refereeing the way they see it and independent from technology. The bunker would only be available for use if foul play were evident to decide whether further action should be taken against a player. And in the last 10 minutes of the game, a call can be reviewed by the bunker, ensuring that all calls in this vital time period are correct.  

If the NRL adopted this paradigm, it would allow the referees to officiate the game smoothly. It would give referees more control once again. It also prevents wastage of time, as there is no need to refer to the bunker for any calls made inside the first 70 minutes. And finally, in the last 10 minutes of tight games, the officials have the opportunity to review rulings that have high elements of doubt. We are now presented with a situation where the bunker is warranted, has purpose and serves as a fantastic tool to ensure games are decided correctly.

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Somewhere through time, the referees have lost the art of authentic officiating. This doesn’t mean that they can’t referee or don’t have the knowledge to execute correct decisions. Instead, they have forfeited the amazing confidence, knowledge and intuitive sense of knowing how a call at a certain time will impact the outcome and landscape of the game. Seeing our referees’ refer to the bunker has become normalised in the modern game and it’s time we put the power back in the hands of those with the whistle.

Do you think borrowing ideas and the approach of NBA referees would benefit the NRL? Let us know in the comments below.

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Marc Roppolo

I'm an avid sports fan who has been writing about sports, particularly Rugby League for several years. I follow the NRL, NBA, T20 Big Bash League, NFL and A-League and will watch almost any other sport put in front of me.

NRL: What our referees can learn from the NBA

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